5 things to watch in tonight’s Eagles-Bills NFL preseason extravaganza

All eyes will be on Alshon Jeffery, Ronald Darby and Jordan Matthews. But who and what else is worth watching.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles play their second preseason game tonight against the Buffalo Bills and there are a lot of storylines — more than most preseason games. So what was surely going to be yet another meaningless preseason game actually has a lot that makes it worth watching. Catch the game at 7 p.m. on NBC. Here are five things to keep an eye on tonight.

The debut of Ronald Darby vs. the return of Jordan Matthews

Ronald Darby went from playing for the Bills to playing against them.

Ronald Darby went from playing for the Bills to playing against them.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like it happens all the time that a player gets traded from one team to another then immediately those two teams play each other. Jordan Matthews is back this week to face the Eagles, while new cornerback Ronald Darby will get his first action in midnight green.

Who won the trade will absolutely be decided by the first quarter of this preseason game.

(Please tell me you didn’t believe that.)

The Bills made a bold move trading a young and talented cornerback, and a young and talented receiver in Sammy Watkins to bring in a different corner and Matthews. As we wrote when the trade was first reported, the picks are the key to the Bills winning or losing these trades, so we won’t know if the Eagles got the better end of this swap until we see who the Bills take with that third-round pick. But for now, after just a week with the team, Darby seems to have made a big impact.

The Eagles chose to deal Jordan Matthews rather than hold onto him longterm.

The Eagles chose to deal Jordan Matthews rather than hold on to him longterm.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Eagles GM Howie Roseman admitted this was a deal he was looking to make for a while. “We had these conversations with Buffalo throughout training camp and as we went into the first preseason game and we found a match,” Roseman told NFL Network’s Good Morning Football on Wednesday. “Hard trade to make. Jordan Matthews, extremely productive, historically productive as a Philadelphia Eagle wide receiver, and then you’re giving up a third-round pick, too. You go back to our scouting staff … they do a great job in the draft, so you’re sitting there and going, you’ve got two possible starting-caliber players. What are you getting back? Is it worthwhile for what you’re getting back?”

So far, Darby seems worthwhile. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told reporters this week that the defense has started to step up its game since he came on board. “I think it does elevate the level of competition,” Schwartz confirmed. “I think that obviously it adds talent to the defense. But how it all works out, it’s going to be our job over the next three weeks.”

We’ll get our first look tonight.

Update: Looks like JMatt’s not coming. At least Shady McCoy should be here.

Alshon Jeffery’s first game in green

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles-Training Camp
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Doug Pederson said after Tuesday’s practice that he was “leaning” toward Jeffery playing, but he also noted the first-team offense is only going to get a drive or two at most. Let’s hope Pederson draws up a couple of jump ball situations, just to show off Jeffery’s catch radius.

Wentz won’t play a lot this week — he should get more time in the third preseason game — but how he connects with Jeffery with Matthews gone will start to tell the story of how this revamped offense is going to work this season.

Who’s the slot receiver? Agholor vs. Trey Burton vs. Mack Hollins

With Matthews gone, the slot receiver position is Nelson Agholor’s to lose. With three preseason games to go, whether Agholor can hold onto the job (pun!) is the storyline of the summer. He had zero catches last week, getting one target on a two-point conversion attempt that went through his hands. He also had a rush for negative one yard. With only one or two drives this week, then probably a half next week, Agholor will have to show he can be as good in games as he has been in practice this summer. He’s earned the starting spot with his play in camp, but that means nothing if he starts dropping balls on game day.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Who else could fill the role now that Matthews is gone? Maybe not a receiver at all.

Trey Burton might be the more reliable option in the slot, though Pederson did talk this week about Agholor’s ability to block being a big plus from that spot on the field. Another name to watch is this year’s Paul Turner. No, it’s not actually Paul Turner, it’s Mack Hollins, the fan favorite who scored a stellar touchdown with the first unit last week. If he has another big game, expect him to get more and more time with Jeffery and Torrey Smith, the projected starters this season.

Doug Pederson’s aversion to the run game

This isn’t about LeGarrette Blount or any of the other backs, but it’s worth watching how much of a run-pass balance the offense has against Buffalo. Pederson flat-out abandoned the run in the first preseason game, and given how many times Wentz threw the ball last season, it’s in Pederson’s coaching DNA — blame Andy Reid for this — to rely on the pass far more than the run. Blount is supposed to help provide that balance, so seeing how Pederson handles that throughout the game, even with the backups in, will be telling after this week.

Will the backups be better?

Matt McGloin

Matt McGloin

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of the backups, they stunk against Green Bay. The backup cornerbacks got better this week by nature of Darby’s introduction into the secondary, as he pushes one of the starters to nickel or a backup on the outside. Jeffery playing will help the receiving corps too. But the quarterbacks were awful last week. Nick Foles is back but limited, so if the bulk of the game is anything like last week, Matt McGloin and Dane Evans are going to have to be a little less awful or they might not be around for much longer.

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