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Football Talk: O Line Can Be Great

Posted Jan 16, 2013

As the Eagles continue the process to find their next head coach, let's take a pause from the play-by-play reporting and talk some football. In focus for me this offseason is what's up front offensively ...

In case you have not tuned in these last couple of days, the coaching search went into another phase when the Eagles had Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley in for a second interview on Tuesday. That interview ended after a reported seven hours, and Bradley is on his way, reportedly, to Jacksonville for a Wednesday interview.

The Eagles, meanwhile, continue to consider their options ...

Way, way, way behind the scenes the team announced on Tuesday the addition of offensive tackle Allen Barbre, a six-year veteran who was originally a fourth-round draft pick and who has played in 32 games in his career. I'm not here to tell you that Barbre is a difference-making offensive lineman because, frankly, I don't know much more about him than his bio reads.

Barbre's signing does, however, jerk back into focus one of my more important stories to follow of this offseason: The offensive line and what the Eagles are going to do to make it great.

No matter what offense the Eagles run, they can't excel without some big-time improvements up front. Injuries decimated the offensive line in 2012, taking left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce and right tackle Todd Herrremans off the field. While some of the backups gained valuable experience that will help them down the road in their NFL careers -- notably tackle/guard Dennis Kelly and center Dallas Reynolds -- the short-term results weren't all that good.

Oh, there were some moments better than others, but in the big picture the offensive line lost the battle too many times. Defenses blitzed quarterbacks Michael Vick and Nick Foles effectively and, bottom line, the offense turned the ball over too many times (most in the NFL) and didn't score enough points (ranked 29th in the league in points scored, 17.5 points per game).

It all starts up front, they say.

So what are the Eagles going to do about the offensive line? It's far too early to know for certain, but it's always time to discuss.

The expectation, first of all, is that Peters, Kelce and Herrremans will return to good health and have a chance to play to their pre-injury levels. Peters missed all of 2012 with a twice-injured Achilles tendon but made strong strides in his recovery and is on track to play at a high ceiling once again. It's fair to say that losing Peters had a tremendous ripple effect on the entire offense, and that because the Eagles couldn't adequately replace Peters with the combination of Demetress Bell and King Dunlap, the offense suffered.

Kelce suffered a torn ACL in Week 2 against Baltimore and has a ways to go in his rehab, but he's made strong progress. There is a matter of gaining strength and increasing mobility, and Kelce has been an every-day visitor to the athletic training room at the NovaCare Complex in the offseason.

Herremans is also tracking nicely after suffering his broken ankle. He, like Peters and Kelce, is very much in the picture for 2013.

Having all three starters return is, of course, a huge boost to the line of scrimmage. But it's not enough, and simply thinking that all three will play at a Pro Bowl level is foolhardy, which is why the offensive line has to be such an area of emphasis from this perspective.

Before the Eagles add too many pieces to the group, they have to identify what they have. Where does 2011 first-round draft pick Danny Watkins fit into the equation? His second NFL season was a washout and he clearly did not fit into what former offensive line coach Howard Mudd wanted done up front. Is Watkins going to turn his career around? He should be at the point that he has a clear direction in his career, but that doesn't appear to be the case after last season.

Then there is Kelly, a fifth-round draft pick last year from Purdue. He showed flashes of real talent at right tackle, and there is no doubt that a full offseason of conditioning and training will add strength and explosiveness to his body. He's got the feet to play in his league, but is he a starting-caliber tackle? Or does he project as a guard? Or is he a swing-position player who adds depth behind the starters in an ideal world?

As for Reynolds, he came a long way during the season, but he still projects behind Kelce moving forward. What will the new offensive line coach, whomever that may be, think of Reynolds? For that matter, what will he think of Kelce, who relies more on quickness and athletic ability rather than bulk?

The mock drafts have started and some of them indicate that Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel will be available when the Eagles pick fourth overall in the first round in April. If he's there, would the Eagles pass on a player who might be able to step in at right tackle and give Herremans a chance to go back to the guard position? Or do the Eagles want to give Watkins a chance to win back his job at right guard and keep Herremans at right tackle to use his athletic ability on the edge?

What are the plans for the offensive line? It's hard to know while the team is without a head coach and with free-agency still a couple of months away and the draft an eternity in the distance. Maybe signing Barbre is an indication that the Eagles want to add as many prospects as they can for the offensive line, recognizing that the opportunity to move the needle from potentially "good" to possibly "great" is a real priority here.

Let's hope so. The Eagles have something to build upon along their offensive line, and they're going to have a chance in the offseason to add to a strength. Making this offensive line great would pay huge dividends and help wipe away the sour performance of 2012.

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