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BALTIMORE — Jalen Carter needed only one play to introduce himself to the NFL.
It was, of course, just one play. But when the rookie defensive tackle used an inside move to pressure Josh Johnson into throwing the ball away on third down — and hit the Ravens quarterback to the ground in the process — it gave a glimpse of the power and speed that compelled the Eagles to draft the Georgia product with their top pick in April.
“First play of my NFL season, getting to the quarterback,” Carter said. “I thought that was pretty awesome. I plan on doing that more.”
He didn’t get another opportunity on Saturday in the Eagles’ 20-19 loss to the Ravens. Carter saw the field for only one more snap — a run play — and was hooked. Clearly, the Eagles saw all they needed and erred on the side of caution as they did with resting most of their starters in the preseason opener.
But Carter, despite his boundless ability, is still green and learning, as has been evident in the larger sample of training camp.
“Obviously, it’s early,” coach Nick Sirianni said. “He’s working hard every day and he’s had some really nice plays. He’s very talented. He’s just gotta keep working. He still has yet to make a play in the NFL.
“So he’s just gotta put his head down and keep working.”
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The same could be said for all the Eagles’ rookies, especially on the defensive side, where they expended four of their first five draft picks. All four had positive moments against the Ravens. But mistakes were made, as well.
Outside linebacker Nolan Smith had a couple of solid rushes and notched a quarterback hit, but he also whiffed on tackle attempts in kick coverage and as a run defender. Safety Sydney Brown flew around and led the Eagles with nine solo tackles, but he also missed a few. Cornerback Kelee Ringo registered a pass breakup, but he also surrendered a touchdown in coverage.
Carter’s limited playing time didn’t really afford him the chance to mess up. On his second play, Ravens running back Justice Hill reversed field and scooted for a 37-yard gain. But Carter didn’t appear to be at fault.
But questions for the rookie afterward focused almost exclusively on his first play, when he used his right paw to shed the 6-foot-6, 370-pound Ben Cleveland.
“I had an outside move in my mind,” Carter said, “but after just seeing him come off the ball the way he did, it translated to an inside move and I got inside.”
Carter needed no introduction for Cleveland, a reserve for the Ravens. The two were teammates for one season at Georgia and faced each other often in practice. That familiarity may have helped in Carter’s debut.
Perhaps that’s why he said he didn’t have a “Welcome to the NFL” moment in his first game.
“I’ve been playing football all my life. It’s just a moment I’ve always been ready for,” Carter said. “I got here and I’m ready to play.”
But the familiar Georgia faces on the Eagles — from second-year players Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean to Smith and Ringo — should assist Carter in his transition to the league. On his first play, Smith lined up to his left and arrived just after he dragged Johnson to the ground.
Smith played significantly more than Carter. He showed his athleticism with a bend-and-dip move off the edge but struggled to get off blocks with his power moves.
“I had some good rushes. I could have done a lot of things better,” Smith said. “A lot of people don’t know I’m coming off [pectoral muscle] surgery, so I was just happy to be out there hitting somebody.
“I just know my mama was in the stands yelling my name. ‘Get closer. Get closer.’ And that’s all I think about.”
Of the Eagles’ four defensive draft picks, Brown is the only non-Bulldog. The third-round safety out of Illinois has been buried on the depth chart in camp and didn’t play defense until the second half. But he looked shot out of cannon on an early kick cover.
“I told the guy next to me, ‘I’ll race you down there,’” Brown said. “I got down there. Missed. But I got down there.”
Brown’s aggressiveness was a significant trait in the Eagles’ predraft evaluation. He missed a fair number of tackles in college, but he more than compensated with splash plays. That mentality could be why the Eagles don’t yet have him taking first-team repetitions.
“I’m still improving. I haven’t done anything here,” Brown said. “I got to prove myself in these preseason games and just take it week by week. … The bar isn’t just making the 53-man. It’s being productive. It’s being a player that’s going to help this team win games.”
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The “Welcome to the NFL” cliché is of a slap-in-the-face moment for a rookie. Brown said the bus ride from the team hotel to M&T Bank Stadium was when he had his reckoning. Carter said his has yet to come. Smith’s arrived on one of his first plays.
“Running down on kickoff and coming free and thinking, ‘Man, I’m about to make a tackle,’ and their returner [makes running by him sound],” Smith said, “and I said, ‘Oh, man, I’m going to get my butt] cursed out for this.’”
Like Carter’s quarterback hit, Smith’s missed tackle was just one play. Eagles coaches will keep that in context, as should everyone else.