Philadelphia Eagles 2008 Preview Report

L.J. Smith

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 2nd

2007 Record: 8-8 (4th NFC East)

Head Coach: Andy Reid (10th year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: Donovan McNabb Many believe his days in Philly are numbered. A great (and healthy) season could change that.

RB: Brian Westbrook Led the league in yards from scrimmage in ’07. You could make the argument that he’s the most valuable running back in football.

FB: Jason Davis Second-year player who will compete with Luke Lawton for the mildly-important fullback duties.

WR: Kevin Curtis Excellent quickness and acceleration, but has some problems against physical defenders.

WR: Reggie Brown Commendable work ethic and attitude, and his tools aren’t bad either. That said, after three years, it’s apparent he’s a No. 2 at best.

TE: L.J. Smith Playing under a one-year franchise contract. Must stay healthy and avoid the mental lapses that have hindered his otherwise solid career.

LT: Tra Thomas Will turn 34 in November and is in the final year of his contract. Lucky for him, Winston Justice hasn’t developed.

LG: Todd Herremans Played poorly with a bum knee last season. Eagles want someone tougher here. Don’t be surprised if Max Jeans-Gilles captures this job.

C: Jamaal Jackson Not the most nimble player, but he’s smart and uses his 330-pound size well.

RG: Shawn Andrews The most powerful interior blocker in football. You can pencil him in for at least the next eight Pro Bowls.

RT: Jon Runyan Truck-driver like grit has defined his career. Performed well despite a cracked tailbone last season. In fact, was not flagged for a single penalty.

—————-

QB: Kevin Kolb The future? He’s moving up from No. 3 to No. 2 this year. And, thanks to McNabb’s shoulder tendonitis, he saw plenty of snaps in the minicamps.

RB: Correll Buckhalter At 6’0″, 217, he’s the closest thing this team has to a power runner. Generally gets the job done.

WR: Jason Avant Mediocre explosiveness, but that’s not to say he can’t develop into a solid intermediary target over the middle.

WR: Hank Baskett Former undrafted free agent who hasn’t been able to channel the skills that had coaches and management salivating a few years ago.

TE: Kris Wilson** Excellent No. 2 TE who can block and snag balls in the flats. Also upgrades the special teams.

Defense

LDE: Juqua Parker Formerly Juqua Thomas. Will changing his name make him fast enough to top his five sacks as a reserve last season?

DT: Mike Patterson Under the radar, but one of the upper-tier DT’s in football. When he goes hard, he shows great strength and all-around quickness. Very productive in run defense.

DT: Brodrick Bunkley Hasn’t lived up to first-round billing but is improving each season. Worthy of starting in a rotation.

RDE: Trent Cole His 25.5 sacks are the most ever by an Eagle in the first three years of their career. Still, he needs a better supporting cast.

SLB: Chris Gocong Very natural athlete who played DE in college and is still learning the nuances of the LB position.

MLB: Stewart Bradley Dazzled in his two starts late last season. Eagles think he can be the physical interior presence that’s been missing since Jeremiah Trotter.

WLB: Omar Gaither Good strength but struggles to get off blocks. A move from MLB back to his original WLB is a great idea.

CB: Asante Samuel** Don’t be surprised if he stumbles out of the gates. Great player but has never had to play as much press-coverage as he will here.

SS: Quintin Mikell Better suited as a multi-faceted backup, but Eagles were thrilled with his performance as a fill-in starter in ’07.

FS: Brian Dawkins If healthy, still has one good season left in him. The heart and soul of this defense.

CB: Lito Sheppard Unhappy about contract and demotion. Eagles are unhappy about his inability to play through injury. At his best, he’s a first-class defender.

—————-

DL: Trevor Laws* Second-round rookie who will see meaningful snaps in Jim Johnson’s four-man DT rotation. Scouts like his quickness but not his size (6’1″, 295).

LB: Rocky Boiman** You absolutely want him on the field:if someone is punting or kicking off.

NB: Sheldon Brown Good enough to start, and may wind up doing just that. If not, his skills are an excellent fit in the slot.

Key Players Acquired

LB Rocky Boiman (Ind)

RB Lorenzo Booker (Mia)

DE Chris Clemons (Oak)

DT Dan Klecko (Ind)

FB Luke Lawton (Ind)

CB Asante Samuel (NE)

TE Kris Wilson (KC)

Key Players Lost

CB William James (Buf)

DE Jevon Kearse (Ten)

DT LaJuan Ramsey

DT Ian Scott (Car)

LB Takeo Spikes

FB Thomas Tapeh (Min)

Philly broke the bank for Samuel. He may not be as dynamic as he was in New England simply because he doesn’t have the luxury of sitting back in zone. But the more you throw at him, the more chances he has to make a big play. Booker is a poor man’s Brian Westbrook. Klecko was brought in to play FB, but the team changed its mind and asked him to put weight back on and be a DT. That could end up costing him a roster spot. Clemons and Wilson provide great depth on their respective sides of the ball. Not one of the departed veterans is a significant loss.

2008 – Philadelphia Eagles

Rd

Sel #

Player

Position

School

2

47

Trevor Laws

DT

Notre Dame

2

49

DeSean Jackson

WR

California

3

80

Bryan Smith

OLB

McNeese State

4

109

Mike McGlynn

T

Pittsburgh

4

117

Quintin Demps

FS

Texas-El Paso

4

131

Jack Ikegwuonu

CB

Wisconsin

6

184

Mike Gibson

T

California

6

200

Joe Mays

LB

North Dakota State

6

203

Andy Studebaker

LB

Wheaton

7

230

King Dunlap

T

Auburn

Scouts question Laws’s stature, but the Eagles were impressed with him at the Senior Bowl and think his quickness can make him an immediate factor off the bench. Jackson is a future slot receiver but his contributions will come only in the return game in ’08. Smith has been converted to a pass-rushing DE. He only weighs 228. McGlynn can play all three O-line positions and is a candidate to start in ’09. Demps is a speedy interception machine (17 at UTEP). Ikegwuonu was an upper-tier prospect until he blew out his knee before the combine. He won’t play this season but could be a gem down the road.

Philadelphia Eagles 2008 Preview Report

Its energy is palpable. It’s coming from Lincoln Financial Field–The Linc, if you will–and trickling out all over the City of Brotherly Love. People feel it walking down Market Street. The row house occupants on the west side can sense it. It’s there on every step leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Funny thing is, no one knows its there, yet everyone is acknowledging it. Huh?

The guy in line at Geno’s Steaks is acknowledging it when he pontificates about Donovan McNabb’s future with the team. The broker walking down Broad Street relaying Brian Dawkins rumors into his cell phone is also acknowledging it. So are the construction workers debating whether Tra Thomas or Jon Runyan–both in their mid-30s–is most worthy of being re-signed once their contract expires at the end of this season. Even the students at Villanova who are following the career of soon-to-be-29-year-old alum Brian Westbrook are acknowledging it.

None of these people immediately recognize what it is they’re acknowledging. They don’t know that what they’re describing is not actually an issue but a symptom. When the buzz about different symptoms starts to overlap is when people see what’s really going on. The McNabb guy at Geno’s Steaks will soon encounter the Dawkins broker on Broad Street. Their conversations will converge and they’ll both ponder the thought of an Eagles team without its most prominent offensive and defensive player. That’s when they’ll understand it; that’s when they’ll recognize the sense of urgency.

When Geno’s Steak guy walks by the construction site and joins the conversation about the offensive tackles, his sense of urgency will intensify and rub off on the debating workers. Inevitably, one of those workers will cross paths with a Villanova student and continue the pattern. Before long, the sense of urgency that is circulating around town has a life of its own. And that’s what makes it real.

Head coach Andy Reid will deny it exists. He’ll tell you that there’s always a sense of urgency. That’s not true, but you understand what he’s saying.

Reid will say that a fully healthy McNabb is his quarterback. Indeed, the 10th-year veteran does not even turn 32 until November. But the second-round pick from a year ago, Kevin Kolb–the guy who doesn’t have a history of major injuries and has seen a drastic rise in his practice reps–does not turn 32 until August of 2016.

Reid will say that Dawkins remains a great player and leader. He does. And he turns 35 in October. And he’s coming off an injury-plagued season that has people in the organization whispering.

The offensive tackles, Reid will assert, are an integral part of the franchise. They are. And team president Joe Banner and the front office are renowned for their willingness to dismiss a veteran a year too soon, rather than a year too late. If Winston Justice, Philly’s second-round pick in ’06, weren’t so bad, either Thomas or Runyan (or both) would be gone by now.

Reid will profess his love for Westbrook and praise the diminutive star’s newfound durability. But whatever is said doesn’t change the fact that the frangible Westbrook is just a year way from the proverbial wall that supposedly all running backs hit at 30.

A sense of urgency does not evaporate–not when it’s spreading across a rabid sports town like the one in Eastern Pennsylvania. Fans that have seen this standup franchise win more games than any NFC club since 2000 can sense the core of their team slipping away. If McNabb, Dawkins, Thomas, Runyan and even Westbrook go, then the team that made more postseason noise than any conference foe during the first decade of the new millennium will fade into history without ever having a climax to their impressive crescendo.

History doesn’t remember good teams, only great ones. How often do people talk about the Indiana Pacers of the 90s? Or the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 70s? Heck, people barely bring up the Buffalo Bills clubs that lost four straight Super Bowls. Think they’ll recall the team that lost a Super Bowl and three straight NFC championships?

There would be a permanent pit in a lot of stomachs if this model Eagles group were forgotten. If the Philly fans weren’t such reprobates, it would be hard to tell them how steep the hill towering in front of their team is. Most of the fans already know. They saw the Eagles go 8-8 last year and still finish fourth in the cutthroat NFC East. They know that the Giants are the defending Super Bowl champions. And that the Cowboys are more loaded than a Japanese subway. And you know that the Eagle fans don’t care.

They don’t care that their team’s receiving corps is shaky. (Our receiving corps has been shaky the past 10 years! McNabb just needs to step up!) They don’t care about the inexperience at linebacker. (Chris Gocong, Stewart Bradley and Omar Gaither are all Herculean athletes–they should dominate!) They don’t care that the front four struggles to pressure the passer. (If the D-line ain’t doin’ crap then someone needs to get in Jim Johnson’s face and tell him to blitz!) They don’t care that the special teams have sputtered. (Give me a break! Special teams? Just get it done!) They don’t care that when any of these things go the least bit awry in ’08, booing will not help. (I boo because I’m passionate about my team!)

Maybe the core of this Eagles team is destined to dissolve after 2008. Or maybe it still has three good years left. Doesn’t matter. A sense of urgency is pulsating through town.

Offense

There’s a monumental difference between a healthy Donovan McNabb and an unhealthy Donovan McNabb. One’s a playmaker and the other is not. McNabb posted some admirable numbers coming off ACL surgery last year. He averaged just over seven yards per pass attempt, tossed 19 touchdowns and threw only seven interceptions. However, his two most revealing statistics were his two most uninspiring: a 61.5 completion percentage and 44 sacks taken.

The idea that McNabb is a running quarterback has long been fallacious. Over his first four seasons as a fulltime starter, he averaged 4.7 rushing attempts for just over 33 yards per contest. However, in his last four seasons, he has attempted an average of just 3.1 runs per game for roughly 15 yards on the ground. That said, McNabb’s game is predicated on him being mobile enough to bide time in the pocket and make sandlot plays. When he’s thinking a lot is when you’ll see some of the bafflingly inaccurate throws that he spits out every so often.

Kevin Kolb’s name will be uttered more often this season if for no other reason than the second-year pro has moved ahead of veteran backup A.J. Feeley on the depth chart. Kolb has impressed in practices and could very well be the future of the franchise. But only a McNabb injury could bring the future to the forefront.

Given the receivers they have, Philadelphia needs an experienced playmaker under center. Kevin Curtis posted 1,110 yards in his first full season as a go-to option. Though his quickness makes him a sharp arrow in offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s quiver, Curtis is not the type of target that strikes fear in a defense. His placid physicality limits him in this short-passing West Coast offense.

Reggie Brown has firmly entrenched himself as a No. 2 receiver. Lanky and lithe, Brown can do damage in the 12-18-yard range, particularly near the sidelines. However, he doesn’t stretch the field as well as his speed would indicate, and his ability to make the circus catch doesn’t show up in traffic.

Philadelphia drafted Cal’s highly-touted DeSean Jackson, a 6’0″, 166-pound roadrunners in Round Two. He was brought in to inject the offense with the playmaking prowess it hasn’t had since Terrell Owens. Jackson seems a good fit for what Andy Reid is trying to do, though his presence poses no immediate threat to Brown. In fact, Jackson at this point may not even be a threat to third-year receivers Jason Avant (a slow but strong possession guy) and Hank Baskett (a tall but unproductive downfield option). The Eagles are content to let the rookie learn the ropes on offense while he makes his imprint in the return game.

A healthy L.J. Smith is expected to improve the red zone passing game in 2008. That’s partly why Philly franchise tagged the chiseled but inconsistent tight end. The presence of Kris Wilson–an H-back/tight end tweener whose fluid skills are a good fit in this offense–adds a little pressure on Smith to perform.

The tight ends as a group might catch 70 balls this season. That would be 20 less than what running back Brian Westbrook caught on his own last season. Westbrook is unequivocally the most important cog in Philly’s offense. He’s coming off a career-year in which he led the league with 2,104 yards from scrimmage (a franchise record). Though he’s by far the most accomplished pass-catching tailback in football (he leads all running backs in receptions and yards since 2004), Westbrook’s 1,333 rushing yards in ’07 prove he can move the chains on the ground. In fact, Philadelphia, long known for its pass-happy approach, actually ranked eighth in the league in rushing last year. And second in yards per attempt.

Durability will always be the caveat with Westbrook. He’s missed nine games over the past four seasons and has been known to skip practice to nurse bumps and bruises on a fairly regular basis. Veteran Correll Buckhalter is still around to handle some of the short-yardage responsibilities, and the Eagles also traded for Miami’s Lorenzo Booker (a retail version of Westbrook).

Fullback Jason Davis will contribute in the run-blocking efforts, though the onus often falls entirely on the guys up front. The Eagles are at their best when they run behind right guard Shawn Andrews. The fifth-year stud is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. At 335 pounds, Andrews is an immovable object in pass protection and, when he gets a step, a road-grader on the ground. There’s speculation that he may move to right tackle next season, though considering how well 35-year-old Jon Runyan continues to play, such a change seems highly unnecessary.

Runyan isn’t going to last forever, of course. And neither will his bookend Tra Thomas (even if, at 34 and with a history of back problems, he’s remarkably still going strong). Winston Justice was drafted in the second round back in 2006 to eventually replace one of these two. However, his catastrophic debut against the New York Giants on Sunday night last year made coaches cringe–shudder, even–at the thought of going to battle with him on a weekly basis. Justice had the type of off-night that can permanently damage an athlete’s psyche. The 320-pounder got moved to guard over the offseason, leaving the Eagles without a potent prospect at tackle.

Left guard Todd Herremans barely has enough power to function inside. If he’s less than 100 percent, he’ll be benched for 358-pound Max Jean-Gilles. Backup Scott Young could also push for playing time at guard. Center Jammal Jackson is steady in the middle, though not mobile enough to be a fulcrum in the rushing attack.

Defense

Jim Johnson’s defense needs to get its identity back. It has long been known as an aggressive, playmaking Cover 2 –sometimes 46–unit. However, the Eagles forced a league-low 19 turnovers last season and failed to top 40 sacks for the fourth time in five years. Intent on ending the turnover drought, Philly ponied up $20 million guaranteed for free agent cornerback Asante Samuel. Including playoff games, the sixth-year veteran has recorded 19 interceptions and three touchdown returns over the past two years. Samuel is one of the best route-jumpers in football.

However, his arrival will not be without tousle. For starters, Samuel is likely to struggle early on with the unfamiliar man-coverage responsibilities demanded by Johnson’s defense. The Eagles ask more from their cornerbacks than just about any team in football. Playing bump-and-run with no safety help for the first 15 yards in coverage is a far tougher challenge than lurking around in the Byzantine zone coverages of the Patriots.

Secondly, Samuel’s arrival piqued two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard. Sheppard, already unhappy with his contract, was immediately displaced from his familiar left cornerback spot. The Eagles signed Samuel thinking they could trade Sheppard–coaches have grown tired of his inability to perform when feeling anything less than 100 percent–but the market wasn’t willing to meet their high draft pick demands. If Sheppard stays healthy–a fairly big if–he’ll likely handle the starting right cornerback job. This would leave Sheldon Brown in the nickel role that many ignorant observers believe he should have been placed in two years ago. Brown is a good player–he just gives up a few too many receptions against bigger receivers.

Free safety Brian Dawkins is indeed nearing his end. The Eagles drafted rangy Quintin Demps to study under him, though if Dawkins–who has had neck problems in the past year–is unable to go at any time in ’08, they’ll likely call on J.R. Reed to fill in. For the past several years, Quintin Mikell was the guy they would have called on. However, Sean Considine’s shoulder injury and Mikell’s impressive work in relief last season–Reid dubbed it “Pro Bowl caliber”–has earned the sixth-year special teams maven a starting job. Mikell can sting players at the point of attack, and he’s smart. But the Eagles may soon realize that his value diminishes in a first-string role.

The secondary can suffocate receivers in 2008, but it won’t matter if the Eagles don’t get some pass-rushing help to compliment Trent Cole. The linebacker-turned-defensive end recorded 12.5 sacks last season, and a noteworthy 10.5 tackles for loss. His 6’3′, 270-pound frame has not been as big a liability in run defense as originally feared. In fact, it helps give him the superb leverage that makes him so difficult to deal with.

Cole is not dynamic enough to warrant a double team on every down, but he’ll draw considerable attention with middling pass-rushers like Juqua Parker, Victor Abiamiri and Darren Howard opposite him. Parker is an archetypal edge-rusher, but that doesn’t mean he’s prolific. Abiamiri was inactive for 10 games as a rookie last year. Howard hasn’t done anything since signing a $32 million contract in 2006. Many assumed Philly would send him packing with Jevon Kearse, but Johnson wanted to keep Howard around. The ninth-year veteran lost 15 pounds over the offseason in hopes of capturing a role that puts him on the field more than six or seven times a game.

Third-round rookie Bryan Smith was a sack master in college, but he played at 1-AA McNeese State. Eagles defensive line coach Pete Jenkins loves him; Jenkins left the combine thinking Smith had a greater upside than first-round pick Derrick Harvey. Philadelphia also signed former Redskin and Raider Chris Clemons, who is coming off an eight-sack campaign. Clemons, however, has just 13 sacks since 2004 and needs to prove he can put a complete season together two years in a row.

Some of these ends will slide inside on third downs, even though Johnson already employs a four-man rotation at defensive tackle. Currently, Mike Patterson (a destructive run defender who is quick enough to get penetration when going full-bore) and Brodrick Bunkley (a recently acceptable former first-round pick) are the starters. Undersized but presumably useful second-round rookie Trevor Laws–who, like last year’s second-rounder Abiamiri, hails from Notre Dame–will come off the bench with Montae Reagor for a few series a game. The Eagles also have goal-line stuffers Kimo von Oelhoffen and Dan Klecko on the roster.

Linebackers coach Bill Shuey is one of the most important figures in the franchise this year. Shuey is the man responsible for tutoring Chris Gocong, Stewart Bradley and Omar Gaither. All three are under 25 and have been juggled around at various positions since arriving as mid-round draft picks. The Eagles have finally found the combination they like.

Gocong, a pass-rushing defensive end at Cal Poly, is the strongside linebacker. He saw significant time here last season and showed athleticism and strength while being able to change directions. It’s apparent that he’s still learning the game though. As his awareness expands, he’ll start making more individual plays.

Bradley is slated to play the middle–a job Gaither handled in pedestrian fashion last year. Coaches adore Bradley’s ferocity and strength (traits that are needed in the center of this scheme). Bradley is only in his second season, but the Eagles don’t usually put linebackers on the field who aren’t ready.

Gaither can go back to being a beast now that he’s free to roam on the weak side. Strong as he is, he doesn’t get off blocks extremely well (which is why he struggled at middle linebacker). He must improve his reads and pursuit angles in run defense. His pass defense is superb for a linebacker.

A lot rides on these three young starters. There is no Jeremiah Trotter, Dhani Jones or Takeo Spikes to offer veteran wisdom in the linebacking core. The only experienced backup is Rocky Boiman, a Cover 2 veteran but irrelevant run-defender.

Special Teams

The Eagles prioritized special teams over the offseason, bringing in stellar veterans like Rocky Boiman, Dan Klecko, Kris Wilson, Luke Lawton and Chris Clemons. All were standout special teamers at their previous stops.

Philly also drafted DeSean Jackson for his fireworks as a return artist. The hope is that the rookie works out better than Jeremy Bloom did. Jackson had trouble catching punter Saverio Rocca’s towering boots in some of the early practices, but he should be fine. (If he’s not, he won’t play. Reid learned how painful special teams fumbles can be when it cost his team a game in Week 1 at Green Bay last year.)

Kicker David Akers must regain the long-distance form that once made him great. He was a horrendous 2/10 from beyond 40 yards in ’07.

Bottom Line

One way to keep the veteran stars on this team around a few more years is to go out and win in 2008. As close as the Eagles are to the edge, there’s no reason they can’t manage 10 or 11 victories this season. Injuries have dealt Philly some blows in recent years, and they don’t have the depth to afford major personnel losses again. But if all goes well, this organization can return to being rock-solid.

Myth Buster

Lito Sheppard is not an elite cornerback

Sheppard is every bit as talented as his Pro Bowl accolades suggest–just not when he’s dinged up. Philly’s frustration with Sheppard’s fragility is the root of the trade speculation swirling around the cornerback. It’s not a performance issue. In fact, when fully healthy, quarterbacks tend to throw away from Sheppard’s side of the field (this is part of the reason people erroneously think Sheldon Brown is a liability).

Open Thought

Eagle fans who claim to boo their own team–which is pretty much all of them–out of passion are ridiculous. The only trait that tops their “passion” is their stupidity.

First off, booing the home team is classless. Secondly, it’s harmful to the cause (at least when you boo in the first quarter, as has been known to happen at The Linc).

There isn’t an Eagles fan out there who can offer any logic behind booing. They’ll tell you that the booing is to let the players know that they as fans aren’t happy. It’s great they clear that up; one of the biggest problems in professional sports is home teams mistakenly thinking that they’re pleasing their fans by screwing up. It’s almost as big a problem as home teams screwing up on purpose.

Way to go, Philly fans. Given your “passion,” it’s hard to fathom why none of your professional hometown teams have won a title in the last 25 years.


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