Photos of the Eagles' projected starters as listed on the team's depth chart.
For the last weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been starting four rookies on offense and employing a fifth one liberally. That doesn't seem like an obvious recipe for immediate success, but the Buccaneers have won two of those three games and averaged 333.3 yards per game in that stretch.
On Sunday, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin will be trying to get past two of those rookies to get to a third in the backfield. Given that he's a jack-of-all-trades in the Philly defense, sometimes asked to drop into coverage, he might occasionally find himself in coverage against the other two. A seventh-year pro in his third season in Philadelphia, Barwin has played nearly three times as many NFL games as the Bucs' five offensive rookies combined – 90 for him and 34 for quarterback Jameis Winston, tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet and wide receivers Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries.
Barwin will surely lean on that experience in trying to slow down the Bucs' young and rapidly-improving offense, but he knows Tampa Bay's rookies have been playing well. That starts up front, where last year's NFC sack leader will try to get past Smith, Marpet (if an ankle injury doesn't keep him out of the lineup) and a front five that has been Tampa Bay's most pleasant surprise in 2015.
"I think that they're a real solid group," said Barwin of the Bucs' O-Line. "They've looked good all year, from what I've seen. Obviously the rookies came in and played really well – played better than most rookies usually do. The left tackle is a big guy. He's done great in the run game and he's been pretty good in protection, too. They haven't, as a group, given up that many sacks this year."
Winston has been dropped 16 times in nine games and Tampa Bay's offensive line ranks right in the middle of the NFL pack in sacks allowed per pass play. There's little doubt that fine protection and a strong rushing attack (126.6 yards per game) have helped Winston tremendously as he has adjusted quickly to the NFL game.
"He's playing much better than a typical rookie," said Barwin of the Bucs' young passer. "He looks really kind of composed out there. He's not making a lot of mistakes. Obviously we all knew he had a big, strong arm and we're all seeing that, the more we watch film. You can see that he can make all kinds of throws. I've been really impressed watching him actually kind of avoid sacks, make guys miss when they get there, and also making those throws while he's got somebody hanging on him. He's been very impressive so far."
Barwin and his defensive teammates have begun watching tape on Winston this week, but Eagles Head Coach Chip Kelly has been studying the former Florida State star a bit longer. Getting a full scouting report on Winston and his own former quarterback at the University of Oregon, Marcus Mariota, was obviously part of the Eagles' preparations for the 2015 NFL Draft. Kelly spoke as glowingly about the Bucs' rookie – who went first overall in that draft before Mariota went second to Tennessee – as did Barwin.
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, November 18th, at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
"Really, really impressed with Jameis," said the coach. "The one thing I think when you meet Jameis [is] just how sharp he is in the game of football. We talked to Jameis when we were at the Combine and I came away really impressed with his football acumen and how dialed-in he was to everything about the quarterback position – not just routes, [but] protections, checking run plays, the whole deal about being a quarterback. He was very, very impressive. We knew based where we were – I think we had the 20th pick in the draft – that we weren't going to be involved with either of those quarterbacks coming out."
Not only did Kelly not get a chance to reunite with Mariota in Philadelphia – if indeed he wanted to, as most assumed – but Tennessee is not on the Eagles' schedule this year. But Barwin and company do get to face Winston, who has thrown just two interceptions in his last five games and has also rushed for four touchdowns this year. As much as Barwin has been impressed with what he's seen on tape, he doesn't expect the Eagles to alter their game plan to face the Bucs' rookie.
"We're going to do what we do on defense and they're going to do what they do on offense and we'll see who plays better," he said. "For us, it's just about execution, paying attention to details. And like I said, we're going to run our defense, they're going to run their offense, and whoever executes better is going to win the game."