Alshon Jeffery and two other star players ready to make their return for Eagles
You'll have to excuse Eagles coach Doug Pederson if he's a bit excited over the health of his team heading into their game against the Giants on Sunday.
He'll have his star running back in Miles Sanders, his Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson, another game with first-round draft pick Jalen Reagor, and quite possibly the return of starting left guard Isaac Seumalo.
Oh, and Pederson will also have veteran wide receiver Alshon Jeffery available for the first time this season.
It'll be quite a change from the first half of the season, when Pederson was down to third-stringers on the offensive line, and even a fourth-stringer at right tackle; when he had to promote practice squadders at wide receiver because his top three were out in Jeffery, Reagor and DeSean Jackson; and when his top two tight ends in Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert were out.
Through it all, the Eagles managed to remain in first place in the NFC East at 3-4-1. Now, they're the healthiest they have been all season, although Jackson, Ertz and linebacker Nathan Gerry remain on injured reserve.
"The key word there is ‘almost everybody,’" Pederson said. "That’s the phrase that keeps going through my head is that we’re close. I wouldn’t say we’re there yet. But it’s also exciting as a team and for me as a head coach to know that we have some of these starters on the verge of making a return in the next couple of games.
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"We haven’t felt like this in a long time. That gives you hope. It gives you an excitement and enthusiasm around the team. I’m looking forward, whenever that day is, to be at full strength. If it’s for a short time, it’s a short time."
Of course, that presents a new problem for Pederson, one that he's happy to have – incorporating all of the returning players into a lineup that saw players like wide receiver Travis Fulgham emerge as a star, and offensive linemen like Jordan Mailata, Matt Pryor and Nate Herbig play well.
That balancing applies to Jeffery, who hasn't played since last Dec. 1 when he suffered a foot injury that required surgery. Jeffery then suffered a calf injury last month that delayed his return.
Jeffery is clearly not the go-to receiver that he was during his first two seasons with the Eagles, in 2017 and 2018. And the Eagles want to give the young receivers in Fulgham, Reagor and John Hightower as many chances as possible to prove themselves.
"We’ve got a plan, if he’s ready to go, to get him into the game," Pederson said about Jeffery. "Obviously, he’s a big receiver that can help, and he knows the offense and knows what we’re doing."
Pederson did reveal his thinking when asked about how much he can realistically expect from someone who hasn't played in just about a full calendar year.
"I’m hopeful that he can just plug and play, but realistically, it’s going to take some time," Pederson said. "It’s going to take a little bit of time for him to get comfortable in the game, to be up to game speed, to kind of get fully integrated into playing football.
"I don’t want to crush Alshon physically, and factor in fatigue and factor in more injury, or whatever. So we have to be smart with that."
That is not the case with Sanders, even though he has missed the last two games with a knee injury, as well as the season-opener with a hamstring injury. In the five games Sanders has played, he has rushed for 434 yards, including two runs of 74 yards each.
Sanders was injured on the second 74-yard run, on Oct. 18 against Baltimore, when he got tackled short of the goal line and his knee twisted.
Pederson said his plan is to give Sanders, who averages an NFL-best 6.1 yards per carry, as many touches as he can handle.
"I feel really good and doing a great job with my conditioning and rehabbing at the same time," Sanders said. "I feel like I haven’t missed a step or a beat. Practice has been going well the whole week."
The same is true with Johnson at right tackle.
He had surgery in August to correct an ankle sprain that had plagued him for two seasons. But the ankle has swelled up from time to time, forcing Johnson to get it drained twice, most recently during the Eagles' off week.
Johnson also suffered a knee injury against the Giants on Oct. 22. In all, Johnson has missed three games and has played just one full game this season.
Johnson said his knee is fine, but that he will wear a brace for the rest of the season, going off the advice from Tra Thomas, a Pro Bowl left tackle for the Eagles from 1998-2008.
But he expects to play, and play a full game, even though he knows the ankle pain might continue to linger.
"It feels good to see the familiar faces in the huddle, getting the boys back together," Johnson said. "Any time you can get the experience back on the line – a lot of guys have played a lot of ball around here throughout the years – the better we’ll be."
Defensive coach out with illness
The Eagles announced that senior defensive assistant Jeremiah Washburn won't coach Sunday because of an illness.
Earlier this week, the Eagles reported that a staffer tested positive for COVID-19. It was reported that the person was a coach. As a result, the staffer had to self-isolate, and the Eagles had to go through intense COVID-19 protocols, including conducting all meetings virtually.
As for injuries, CB Craig James is the only player listed on the injury report. He's out with a shoulder injury. Everyone else is expected to play.
Contact Martin Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.