Jeff Risdon. 12th August, 2009 - 5:10 pm
2008 record: 9-6-1, lost NFC Championship game
Key Stats: Turnover Ratio: +3, Sack Differential: +25, Point Differential: +127
Coming In: T Jason Peters, S Sean Jones, CB Ellis Hobbs, T Stacy Andrews, S Rashad Baker, LB Matt Wilhelm
Going Out: S Brian Dawkins, RB Correll Buckhalter, CB Lito Sheppard, TE LJ Smith, WR Greg Lewis, T Jon Runyan, T William Tra Thomas
Key Rookies: RB LeSean McCoy, WR Jeremy Maclin
QB: Donovan McNabb enters his 11th season in Philadelphia still dogged by naysayers despite all the playoff success. It's performances like last year that give them fodder, however. McNabb had some masterpieces (ARI, STL, DAL) and some clunkers (BAL, NYG, CIN) with seemingly no rhyme or reason. Coach Andy Reid even dared to bench McNabb in the Baltimore game, only to have backup Kevin Kolb look even worse. That flop might have saved their season and McNabb's Philadelphia career, as he responded with his best play while the Eagles made their playoff surge. No longer a scrambler, but still agile and spry, McNabb remains a great weapon on the move. He can buy time to make his progressions, and the arm strength is still a plus. But he made more forced throws last year and seemed more affected by pressure. He has rabbit ears for criticism, both in the locker room and the media, though he tends to respond well when he feels threatened. McNabb is too old to expect any improvement in terms of consistency or handling pressure, so Philly will have to live with the ups and downs, hoping for more ups.
Kevin Kolb is the heir apparent, though it was readily apparent he isn't ready to take over just yet. Through no fault of his own, Kolb has been put in a tough spot before he is ready. Coaches insist he continues to improve at making quicker reads and delivering the ball faster and with more zip, but they are works in progress. A.J. Feeley isn't bad veteran insurance for a game or two. He knows the offense and his place on the org chart.
RB: Brian Westbrook continues to be one of the most versatile weapons in the league, but just cannot dodge the training table. Blessed with great vision, exceptional balance, and the ability to stop and start faster than anyone, Westbrook has been a very successful feature back for years. He is a perfect fit for Andy Reid's West Coast offense, as dangerous flaring out as a receiver as he is taking a toss sweep around right tackle or cutting back behind left tackle. Notice I mentioned nothing between the tackles, because Westbrook seldom ventures in that part of the field. He is seemingly always nursing some minor injuries, though this summer he's on the shelf recovering from offseason knee and ankle surgeries. These are cumulative injuries on an aging body, which means a full recovery isn't a given. If he's not at 95% of his former self, he will go from being a major weapon to a sad reminder of what he used to be, and the offense will go from being multi-faceted to a question mark.
Looking at that possibility, the Eagles drafted rookie LeSean McCoy from Pittsburgh. Though McCoy is not the power back that the Philly faithful have been screaming for, he does bring more toughness and isn't afraid to lower his shoulder. He was a touchdown machine in college with a great feel for when to break the run outside. McCoy is not as quick or fast as Westbrook and got little experience catching the ball at Pitt, so it's much better if he's a complement and not a replacement. Shifty Westbrook-esque Lorenzo Booker is the third back, though he might lose out to undrafted rookie Eldra Butler, who has really opened eyes in camp.
The Eagles have been near the bottom of the league in short yardage situations and yards between the tackles for years, and while McCoy offers some oomph, that trend appears likely to continue. Picking up fullback Leonard Weaver will help to some extent. He and holdover Kyle Eckel are having a spirited camp battle for designated battering ram that gets to run 15 balls for 25 yards.
WR/TE: Long a sore spot, the receiving corps is finally turning into a bright spot. DeSean Jackson electrified as a rookie, bringing a big-play dynamic to the outside that had been sorely missing. Setting Eagles rookie records with 62 catches for nearly 1000 yards, Jackson brings extreme self-confidence and swagger and often displays the talent to back it up. The complete picture reveals lots of room for improvement, particularly in routes over the middle and toughness with the ball, but Jackson appears to be the #1 wide receiver McNabb has rarely had in his long career. Jackson is undersized (he's built like a small slot receiver) and proved those pre-draft concerns about his maturity were valid, however. Knowing this, the Eagles wisely invested their first round pick this year in Missouri's Jeremy Maclin. Much bigger than Jackson at 6'0" and 200 pounds and probably faster as well, Maclin also offers big-play potential with his ability to run after the catch. Sure-handed and smart, Maclin does need polish on route running and getting off physical coverage. Much like Jackson, he must prove he can handle the more physical nature of the NFL. This should be a potent 1-2 punch for years, though it might take some time for it to come together.
Kevin Curtis struggled with a hernia in 2008, but was a real weapon in 2007, netting over 14 yards per catch and flashing the ability to get behind the defense. He returns to the slot role that he filled well during his Rams days, though he must prove he's over the hernia and calf injuries of last season. With Jackson's size and skill set, offensive coordinator Marty Morninwheg has flexibility to mix and match his top three receivers with the most suitable coverage matchups. Jason Avant had a decent season coming out of the slot as well, providing an obscene depth of smaller/quicker receivers.
Veteran Reggie Brown comes back, but a strong early summer is imperative for him to keep his role. Rookie Brandon Gibson is a little bigger, a little faster, and doesn't carry the weight of underachievement with the coaching staff. Hank Baskett is the biggest of the bunch but has never quite converted that into a functional asset. He did display more physicality last season and should improve as the big possession receiver in the offense. Danny Amendola should make an NFL team, but it almost certainly won't be the Eagles. He is overly redundant as an undersized, "soft" shifty slot receiver.
Brent Celek progressed nicely at tight end and moves up the depth chart with the departure of L.J. Smith. Blessed with great hands and a savvy ability to find openings in coverage, Celek is a great fit for the West Coast offense and should be a more featured contributor this season. He is not a physical blocker (notice another theme here?), but his pass protection is adequate. The Eagles suffered a real blow when rookie Cornelius Ingram was lost for the season with a torn ACL early in camp. That leaves middling vet Matt Schobel as the only other tight end on the roster.
OL: Two prominent new additions make this offensive line potentially one of the best in the league. Potentially. Jason Peters comes over from Buffalo with Pro Bowl-caliber talent at left tackle but major questions about his heart and attitude. An absolute wall in 2007, Peters struggled after holding out last year and sulked his way out of Buffalo, where by all accounts he is not missed one iota. He should improve the blindside pass protection over Tra Thomas, who no longer had the agility to handle the speedy edge rush, and if his head is on right Peters will provide a little more snarl in run blocking. On the other side, Stacy Andrews comes over from Cincinnati to take over at right guard. Like Peters, Andrews was very good in 2007 but on the wrong side of mediocre in 2008 thanks to a combination of injuries and being too easily disheveled by a losing environment. Philly is hoping that playing next to his brother Shawn will get Stacy back to top form. An exceptional, driving run blocker with huge, strong hands, Stacy Andrews can also play tackle. He is coming off major knee surgery and that is always a concern for a man of his girth.
Shawn Andrews is an enigma, and the Eagles have to pray the arrival of his brother brings him back to top form as well. Slated to start at right tackle, Shawn has yet to practice this summer with a wonky back. This comes after a season where depression and injuries limited him to just two largely ineffective games. There are lingering questions about his mental well being, his acceptance of the positional switch, and how dedicated he is after getting a nice extension a couple years ago. Winston Justice is taking his place with the first team this summer, and by all accounts has progressed a long way from the revolving door pass blocking that nearly got him cut two years ago. From the "may be relevant" development: stalwart Jon Runyan, the Eagles starting right tackle for the last decade, has been cleared for full contact and remains on the open market. Just saying...
The other two starters are quite good. Center Jamal Jackson regressed a little in 2008 (notice a theme here?) but played exceptionally well down the stretch and in the playoffs. Coaches would like him to bring the physicality in run blocking more consistently. Jackson moves well and tends to play better inside the NFC East, a big check mark in his favor. Left guard Todd Herremans was the team's best lineman last year and is poised to earn Pro Bowl honors as he matures into a top-flight guard. Light on his feet and quick to react, Herremans is noted for his pass protection, but he was also the best interior run blocker a year ago. He is out for at least the rest of preseason with a foot injury, which is the type of problem that could really limit his effectiveness.
One comfort that Eagles fans can rest upon while the Andrews Brothers sit out the summer (Stacy is back but limited) is the depth up front. Max Jean-Gilles played well last year at right guard and can also play tackle in a pinch. Justice is an internal reclamation project, but he was a first round-caliber talent just three years ago. Backup center Nick Cole could conceivably wrest the job away from Jackson if the incumbent struggles with consistency and run blocking once again. Youngsters King Dunlap and Mike McGlynn both have intriguing potential worth developing; one Eagles scout told me Dunlap could wind up being the best tackle on the team. That all comes with a caveat, however -- if the Eagles truly felt great about any of these guys, they wouldn't have brought in two high-priced players ahead of them.
The loss of longtime defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to cancer in early August dealt a major blow to the Eagles. While his successor Sean McDermott is well-versed in the system and will keep the same base scheme, Johnson was a master at in-game adjustments and tweaking. His leadership will be missed just as much.
DL: The defensive front is deep and laden with versatile talent. The inside men are Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson, both former first round picks who have proven worthy of that status. While neither is a dynamic playmaker, both do a great job of controlling the line between the tackles and keeping the blitzing lanes open. Patterson also does a nice job of stepping back off the line and closing out on runs outside the box. Stocky, plucky Trevor Laws has starting potential and can capably spell either man inside.
The ends are what really make this defense tick. Right end Trent Cole exploded into a Pro Bowler, getting consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback with a barrage of moves. His first step is great, but he stays under control and can adjust quickly to the blocker as well as anyone. No lineman in the league was involved in more plays than Cole, and he is a rising star. His versatility makes him perfect for the Johnson-based scheme. Juqua Parker is the nominal starter on the other side, but it's really a rotation, and Parker might have removed himself from it by getting busted (in Herreman's car) for marijuana recently. Darren Howard is a pass rush specialist and a pretty good one, as his 10 sacks led the team. He has fresh legs for a 33-year old, and he remains very good at blowing up screen passes. Chris Clemons nicely straddles the line between end and outside linebacker. His stellar performance in the finale against the Cowboys shows he could be much more than the situational, rotational player that he is. He appears to have finally found a home after bouncing around and even struggling at the start of last season. Young Victor Abiamiri has impressed the coaching staff with his limited work, though he has been troubled with injuries. Abiamiri can slide inside on passing downs, as will Howard on occasion. Last year's third round pick, Bryan Smith is also primed to fit in somehow. The Eagles love to bring pressure and they have the ability to do so in fresh waves.
LB: This unit suffered a major blow when middle linebacker Stewart Bradley was lost for the season early in camp. Far and away the best playmaker of the bunch, the physical Bradley was an emerging star and will not be easily replaced. Joe Mays gets first crack at it, but the team brought in underwhelming veteran Matt Wilhelm to compete -- which doesn't inspire much confidence in Mays. Bradley was very good at filling the hole and thumping the ballcarrier, and he seldom got caught out of position. Wilhelm fell out of favor in San Diego for lacking instincts and playing without gusto, while Mays is a small-school project with a steep learning curve.
This means the Eagles will rely more heavily on the outside backers, Akeem Jordan and Chris Gocong, to step up and be playmakers, particularly against the run. Much like the offensive line, "potentially" is the optimal word here. Both have shown solid potential at times, but the elevator has rarely reached the top floor. Jordan is a sure tackler but can be slow to react and late to the party. Gocong is more physical and instinctive but also more prone to overrun the play. Neither is very good at getting off blockers, and neither has shown much ability to rush the passer -- a requisite for outside linebackers in this defense. Gocong fared quite well in pass coverage and is supremely athletic, so the worry is more that Jordan has to step up. Omar Gaither lost his starting gig to Jordan and subsequently did little to challenge that notion. Bigger and stronger than Jordan, he simply plays hard too sporadically and fails to use his size well. With only late-round rookie Moise Fokou (a potential real find) offering any sort of depth behind them, the outside starters have to play better if this attacking style of defense is going to succeed.
DB: Perhaps the most underrated offseason loss by any team in the league is the departure of free safety Brian Dawkins from Philadelphia to Denver. While Dawkins was no longer his perennial Pro Bowl self and has clearly lost a step, his steadying presence and veteran savvy are irreplaceable. The Eagles signed former Brown Sean Jones to help fill the void as playmaker, and it's a decent fit. Very stout against the run, Jones showed some playmaking ability in Cleveland. But he is prone to blowing coverages and doesn't consistently recognize plays quickly, making him a better fit as the strong safety. That role belongs to Quintin Mikell, and he's a very good one. Mikell has great range for the position and possesses a very high football IQ, rarely out of position or sucked in by play fakes. Most strong safeties excel at either stuffing the run in the box or covering tight ends and bigger receivers, but Mikell has demonstrated he can do both at a pretty high level. Quintin Demps is the top reserve and is adequate as a deep roamer with some upside, though he has more value as a kick returner. The team brought in Rashad Baker to help with depth and special teams, a sound investment.
At corner the Eagles feature two big-time ballhawks in Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown. Samuel showed he was no mere product of the New England system. Though he netted just 4 interceptions, Samuel broke up a league-leading 24 passes and also rarely allowed any yards after the catch. Brown provides tighter coverage and almost never gets beat on double moves or fakes. He picked off just one pass but got his hands on several others, and few corners use their hands to disrupt route timing more effectively. It's one of, if not the best starting cornerback duos in the league.
Behind the starters the Eagles are in better shape than most. Malcontent Lito Sheppard played his way to the bench and then to the Jets, and he gets replaced by another former Patriot, Ellis Hobbs. The Patriot brass seldom gives away any useful pieces (Samuel being a major exception), and Hobbs struggled playing outside. The Eagles will slide him into the slot nickel (or dime) role, and he should fare better with the smaller, quickness-based receivers inside. Hobbs has a bad tendency to turn minor injuries into two weeks of ineffectiveness. Joselio Hanson stepped up last season and outplayed Sheppard, earning a nice extension in the process. He plays bigger than his size and doesn't back down, and he improved his route anticipation and fluidity out of breaks. Hanson is also solid in run support. Dimitri Patterson is game as the fifth corner, and Philadelphia drafted high risk/reward corner Macho Harris to bolster depth. Harris' lack of speed suits him more to be a safety, but he's always had an uncanny knack for being in the middle of the action and won't fail for lack of confidence.
Special Teams: Left-footed David Akers remains a sound kicker, though his range tops out about five yards less than a couple years ago. He is quite reliable in the clutch and is one of the most internally respected kickers by his teammates in the league. Punter Sav Rocca has a great leg but doesn't always make solid contact or get great hang time. That is part of the reason the kick cover units are above average but the punt cover units rank near the bottom. For as much as Jackson thrilled at wideout, he was surprisingly ordinary as a punt return man. Quintin Demps excelled as a kick returner. Jeremy Maclin offers potential as a return man as well. Tracy White is a very good cover man and the units rarely commit penalties, a real plus.
3 Keys To The Season:
1. How much will the defense miss the loss of Coordinator Jim Johnson and perennial leader Brian Dawkins?
2. Will they be able to run the ball effectively enough to not have to have McNabb be Superman every week to win?
3. Can they overcome all the early injuries and find combinations at linebacker and along the offensive line that gel quick enough to survive a brutal midseason schedule -- @WAS, NYG, DAL, @SD, @CHI, WAS, @ATL, @NYG?
Forecast: Everyone else seems to forget that this team backed into the playoffs only when Chicago and Tampa both choked, and they lost a significant amount of leadership both on the field and with the tragic death of Jim Johnson. This team barely survived a midseason quarterback controversy and some incredibly streaky play. The talent is certainly in place for another deep playoff run, no question. But for all the talent, there are more questions surrounding this Eagles team than in recent vintages. I just get a real negative sense from all the camp injuries, the loss of Johnson, and even little things like Parker and Herremans recreating Cheech & Chong on Wheels during camp. This strikes me as a team primed to disappoint. I know I'm in a very small minority, but I see the Eagles struggling to a 7-9 finish.
-- Jeff Risdon is RealGM's senior football writer. He may be reached at Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com.