Back in 2013, the Eagles’ offensive line had a great season. The five starters stayed healthy all year and played at a very high level. That helped LeSean McCoy lead the league in rushing. It helped Nick Foles have one of the best quarterback ratings in league history. It helped DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper have career best seasons. The skill players thrived because the men up front played so well.
Injuries hit the offensive line in 2014 and there was a trickle-down effect. McCoy wasn't as productive. Foles came crashing back down to earth. The offense was still good, but it wasn't as consistent or explosive as 2013.
This past season, there were personnel changes up front with Chip Kelly letting go of Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans. There were also injuries, which forced backups to play and returning starters to switch positions at times. The line had some good moments, but the overall play declined and that affected the whole offense.
New head coach Doug Pederson has to get better play from the offensive line in 2016.
The first order of business for Pederson was deciding what to do from a coaching standpoint. He retained offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, which I think was a smart move. The line struggles of 2015 were due to talent and injury issues, not coaching. I think Pederson showed good confidence in keeping Stoutland around. Too many new coaches clean house. They only want new assistants. I think a smart coach will see the value in continuity and keep some staff members if they do a good job. Stoutland was worth keeping.
Next up for Pederson is deciding what to do with the current players. There was some question about the future of
The team signed
I think the coaches should look at Gardner as part of the solution at right guard. They do need to challenge him, though. Gardner won the job last summer and if he does that again, that's great. With his foot situation, you do need someone behind him who can play well if needed. That brings us to Tobin, who did take over when Gardner got hurt. Tobin had his moments, but was also inconsistent. He's worth bringing back to compete for a roster spot as a restricted free agent. You always want to be patient with young linemen. It can take them a few seasons to figure out what they're doing and become good players. Tobin is just 25. Gardner didn't do anything until he was 28 years old.
Dennis Kelly is another young guy with some potential, but also some questions. He just turned 26 a month ago and Kelly has terrific size. After showing potential as a rookie in 2012, Kelly was limited by injuries in 2013 and then shuffled between guard and tackle in 2014. He played mostly tackle in 2015, getting on the field at both left and right tackle. I thought Kelly played well when he practiced with the starters during the week and was prepared to play. I thought he struggled when coming off the bench and not having as much practice time. Kelly could be the No. 3 tackle for the Eagles this year or he might not even make the roster. He'll be competing for a spot.
More than anything, the Eagles need better guard play in 2016. I don't know if Pederson, Stoutland and Howie Roseman prefer to add help in free agency or to focus on adding young talent in the NFL Draft. There is something to be said for signing a veteran who can step in right away and play at a high level. The Eagles signed Jon Runyan in 2000 and he played well for years. Evan Mathis was signed in 2011 and did a good job at left guard for four seasons. If you find the right guy, adding a veteran can be a huge help.
There are some massive guards on the free agent market. Kelechi Osemele, Alex Boone and Brandon Brooks are all in the 330-pound range. If the Eagles want more size and power on the inside, they could go for any one of that trio. Jeff Allen played for the Chiefs for the past four years. Pederson will know him well and has spent most of his career at left guard. He would be a good fit. The Eagles could also look at someone like J.R. Sweezy as a target. He is long, athletic and a good run blocker. He started 46 of the past 48 games for Seattle and his best football is still in front of him.
There are lots of good options in the draft. Cody Whitehair from Kansas State might be an option in the first round. He played left tackle for the Wildcats, but could step in at left guard right away. He has a good combination of size, skill and athleticism. Joe Dahl showed a lot of potential down at the Senior Bowl. He could be a good mid-round target. Josh Garnett is a big guy who was a terrific left guard at Stanford. There are quite a few prospects who could be of interest as the Eagles look to add young talent to the offensive line.
I'm curious to see how the Eagles go about improving the offensive line. There are some talented pieces already in place. There are some young players ready to compete for spot. There still needs to be more talent added, especially on the inside. If the Eagles want better production from their skill players, they need better play from the line. The biggies up front need to win more battles and play more consistently.
It doesn't matter whether we're talking about Ray Rhodes, Andy Reid or Chip Kelly. Those coaches had their best teams when the offensive line played well. The Eagles must fix their line if Pederson is going to get off to a good start in his coaching career.