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BALTIMORE — Moments before quarterback Tanner McKee led the Eagles offense on to the field for his first drive of his NFL preseason career at M&T Bank Stadium against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday, wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland hit the brakes and checked in on the rookie.
Cleveland, a four-year NFL veteran, knew of the jitters that McKee was experiencing in anticipation of his debut. To “calm his spirit,” Cleveland gave McKee, the Eagles’ 2023 sixth-round pick out of Stanford, a brief pep talk.
“I told him, ‘Hey, welcome to the NFL,’” Cleveland said after the game. “‘You’re here. Take some deep breaths, take in the moment. Play your game.’”
On the first play of the drive, McKee took in the moment, ran with it, and brought Cleveland along for the ride.
Entering the game early in the second quarter on the Eagles’ 26-yard line, McKee read the Ravens’ coverage and instructed Cleveland to run a seam route. Ravens cornerback Jordan Swann played 5 yards off of Cleveland at the line of scrimmage, and Cleveland brushed by him, hauling in a 27-yard back-shoulder throw from McKee to put the Eagles in Ravens territory. The play kickstarted a scoring drive that ended with a 49-yard field goal from Jake Elliott as the Eagles trailed, 7-6.
“I feel like on a lot of those deep balls, they weren’t even necessarily perfect throws, but we have really good athletes and really good ball hawks,” McKee said. “So if you give them a chance, nine times out of 10, they’re going to come down with the ball. So that was what we did a lot of the time.”
On paper, the 6-foot-6, 231-pound McKee had a middle-of-the-road night, with 10 completions on 20 attempts and getting sacked once in the Eagles’ eventual 20-19 loss to the Ravens. But the 148 yards that McKee accumulated through the air popped off the stat sheet. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, the presumed backup to starter Jalen Hurts, posted just 58 passing yards on three fewer completions in comparison.
» READ MORE: Eagles-Ravens report card: Marcus Mariota struggled some while Tanner McKee stepped forward
Five of the Eagles’ six longest plays of the game ran through McKee’s fingertips. Each of those completions measured a minimum of 17 yards, with his longest pass (33 yards) caught by wide receiver Johnny King, the undrafted rookie whom the Eagles signed on Tuesday.
McKee has handled the bulk of the third-team reps in training camp over incumbent third-string quarterback Ian Book. But McKee hadn’t shown his ability to stretch the field and generate explosive plays in camp until he was thrust under the stadium lights.
“I feel like it depends on what we’re trying to do as an offense and what, obviously, Coach [Brian] Johnson calls,” McKee said. “But yeah, I would say we were pretty aggressive and I’m all for that. I’m pretty excited.”
Later in the second quarter, McKee went back to Cleveland on first-and-10 from the Ravens’ 20-yard line with another back-shoulder pass that resulted in an 18-yard gain. The play set up the Eagles’ lone touchdown of the night, a 2-yard punch-in from running back Trey Sermon.
Cleveland finished the night with a team-high five receptions for 68 yards. McKee said that one of the reasons that he had success when targeting Cleveland was because of his ability to react late, keeping the defensive backs from beating him to the ball in midair.
“We’ve been working on things like that after practice, during practice,” McKee said. “It’s great when you’re able to apply something that you’ve been working on for a while and I thought we were able to apply it today.”
For coach Nick Sirianni, McKee’s performance was indicative of what the team had seen in practice and throughout his three-year career at Stanford.
“He makes good, quick decisions, gets the ball, usually goes to the right place with the football and is an accurate passer and that’s what we saw in college,” Sirianni said. “We’re really excited to work with him.”
Meanwhile, the Stanford Tree loomed large over Book, who took over for the final three possessions of the game. Book completed one pass on four attempts for 11 yards and was sacked twice. He relied on his legs more frequently than McKee did to attempt to solve the defense, picking up 24 yards on five attempts.
While McKee won the night over Book, and perhaps even Mariota, the competition continues as joint practices against the Cleveland Browns begin on Monday in advance of Thursday’s preseason game. From receiving a pre-game pep talk to executing a plethora of explosive plays, McKee derived confidence from his first game in an Eagles uniform.
“I know for the first time in practice, it was surreal, but to actually strap up and being able to play against another team, it was a really surreal moment,” McKee said.