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A Big-Picture View Of O Line

Posted Apr 4, 2012

For years, as the Eagles rolled out the same offensive line season after season, we took it for granted. No longer. How do the Eagles stack up for 2012? ...

The pieces are in place after some nifty legwork from the front office these last two offseasons. The Eagles overhauled the offensive line in the blink of an eye, even relative to the quick-twitch world of the NFL.

Understand that teams just don't do this, in this extreme time span, and feel as good as the Eagles do about the guys they have up front.

So how good is this offensive line? The expectations are high, that's for sure, but how high is realistic.

I'm not sure, and nobody truly is. I can tell you this: Rarely has the offensive line, from a group standpoint, presented as much intrigue and optimism in the years the Eagles have played the game.

This is a fivesome, and a handful of reserves, that comes from all makes and models and different backgrounds. There are high draft picks, mid-round selections, late-round-who-is-he? kind of guys. There are rookies and young veterans and established players who have enjoyed a degree of success in the league.

The leader of the group is coach Howard Mudd, who prepares for his second season here after head coach Andy Reid lured Mudd out of retirement. It was a challenge worth pursuing for Mudd, who approached his job with tremendous enthusiasm and vigor, and brought along a newly-formed offensive line in a very quick period of time last year.

Mudd revamped the pieces up front, ultimately going with rookie right guard Danny Watkins and rookie center Jason Kelce, moving Todd Herremans from left guard to right tackle and inserting journeyman veteran Evan Mathis into the starting left guard spot. The lone slam dunk was Jason Peters at left tackle, the singular holdover from the 2010 offensive line.

By the time an 8-8 season ended, the offensive line was a bright spot to build upon. The Eagles made the line an offseason priority heading into 2012, retaining Mathis with a five-year contract after his exploration into the free-agency market.

Last week's news that Peters suffered what could very well be a season-ended Achilles tendon injury put a damper on the enthusiasm for the offensive line. How could the Eagles replace an All-Pro left tackle, even with five months to go before training camp began?

Well, the Eagles think they've done as good a job as they possibly could to replace Peters. They have Demetress Bell in the fold, and he brings four years of playing time with 30 starts from his time in Buffalo. Bell has a lot of work in front of him to attain the level of success the Eagles think he has in his body. Everyone agrees with that.

But it is not simply a matter of bringing Bell up to speed as a definition of how good the Eagles' offensive line will be this season. It's going to take a group effort as the four other starters enjoy their second go-around with Mudd.

How imperative is it, for example, that both Watkins and Kelce take that huge leap that the good players take from year one in the league to year two? Watkins was just entering a phase in which he understood the right guard position after playing left tackle in college. He was faster off the ball and more confident in his assignments and technique. Kelce, a starter from Day 1 of the regular season, improved weekly with his mental assignments and his technique from the cockpit of the offensive line.

Mathis, signed as a free agent last summer, was a pleasant surprise in his first season as an Eagle. He isn't a surprise any longer. In fact, the need for Mathis to be a great left guard increases with Peters sidelined. Mathis is on everyone's radar now, and he is ready to live up to the expectations a strong season and a good contract bring.

Herremans should improve by leaps and bounds at right tackle after moving there last season. He has a full offseason to dance the footwork, to use his hands the way Mudd wants, and to grow into the position on a full-time basis.

The starters, barring any dramatic change in the depth chart, are set. Who backs them up?

King Dunlap is going to be a key swing tackle, and a kid like D.J. Jones, claimed off of waivers from Baltimore, has a chance to win a roster spot, too. Second-year man Julian Vandervelde must take last year's learning experience and translate it into confidence this year. He will be challenged by veterans Mike Gibson and Steve Vallos in training camp. Maybe Dallas Reynolds, on the practice squad the last couple of years, steps forward. And perhaps Zane Taylor, unknown to this point, provides depth as an interior swing lineman.

It's not out of the question that the Eagles will use one of the draft picks (9, at the moment) on an offensive linemen just to create more competition and improve depth.

The Eagles have done an impressive job with their offensive line makeover since Mudd took control of the trenches. Of the five projected starters for 2012, only Herremans was here 12 months ago, and he played left guard back then.

So, yeah, the pieces are there. The next challenge is even greater: Work collectively to make the line great, bookend to bookend, from the very first day of the season and give quarterback Michael Vick and Co. enough time to do their damage.

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