The first person to greet Nakobe Dean after his forced fumble at the goal line on Thursday night?
And the Eagles’ head coach didn’t even wait for Dean to make it all the way to the sideline before he enthusiastically celebrated with him on the field.
“Yeah, just excited for him,” Sirianni said. “He’s our guy, and excited for him that he was able to get out there and not being able to play last game and go out there and make a game-changing play.”
After Dean missed the Eagles’ first preseason game as he came back from a mild ankle injury, Thursday night was his first action of the preseason.
Dean played just 17 snaps but he did enough to ease some concern.
On the opening drive, after the Browns moved the ball all the way down to the Eagles’ 1-yard line — with some help from an unnecessary roughness call that went against Dean — the Eagles’ middle linebacker busted through the line and knocked the ball free from running back John Kelly Jr. K’Von Wallace recovered it.
“When I seen the guard block down, I kind of seen how he came off, I knew it was a run,” Dean said. “And I just shot the gap. Having the instincts, shot the gap and made the play.”
The Eagles hope that’s just the beginning for Dean in 2023.
Because after losing both T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White in free agency this spring, the Eagles simply handed over that middle linebacker job to Dean. The 2022 third-round pick has said he’s ready for this responsibility but he played a grand total of 34 defensive snaps as a rookie. Even though he was a great linebacker at Georgia, we simply haven’t seen it at the NFL level.
So there were and still are some natural questions about just how ready he is for the job.
Before Thursday night, it had even been a pretty quiet training camp without many splash plays for Dean. But he finally made a huge play in his first game action of the preseason.
“That’s why we drafted him,” Sirianni said. “That’s what we anticipate him being. We’re going to need him to do that to play like we want to play on defense.”
This was Dean’s first action on defense since the 2022 season and he didn’t play more than 15 snaps in any game of the regular season. The last time he played this many snaps was a year ago, in the second preseason game, also against the Browns.
So there was some rust to knock off.
“Yeah, the first couple snaps,” Dean said. “Feel like, alright, I gotta just slow down and just kind of get relaxed. After about the third, fourth, fifth snap it was like, alright, I’m more comfortable now. I’m back in the swing of things. It had been a while since I was out there full speed, able to hit somebody.”
An important reason why Dean needed to play in the preseason was to hear calls coming in from defensive coordinator Sean Desai and relay them. As the MIKE linebacker with the green dot, that’s an important part of Dean’s job.
While Dean receives calls from Desai during practice, games are a bit different. In practice, the microphone gets muffled by Desai’s shirt; in a game, Desai wears a headset. And during games, Desai will also give Dean extra information beyond just the play call.
Most of the starters did not play on Thursday night against the Browns, but it is possible both of the starting linebackers were out there. Dean began the game with Zach Cunningham and the pair looked solid together.
When the Eagles signed Cunningham and Myles Jack earlier this month, it was Jack who got early first-team reps. But Cunningham has clearly passed him.
“Starting to feel a lot more comfortable,” Cunningham said. “That kind of showed out there today, I feel like. I started with Nakobe out there so that definitely added to how comfortable I felt out that.”
After Dean and Cunningham were out of the game, Christian Elliss entered at linebacker and played well too. It seems like the other starting job might come down to Cunningham vs. Elliss.
No matter who wins that gig, they’ll be lining up next to Dean.
Oh yeah, what did Sirianni say when he emphatically greeted Dean after the forced fumble?
“Good job,” Dean recalled. “That’s it.”