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Work Ahead To Improve Offensive Line

Posted Jan 29, 2016

Things are going in the right direction for the Eagles early in this offseason. They've put together what looks to be a strong coaching staff. They've signed three players to new contracts. It's good mojo. There is heavy lifting ahead, no doubt ...

Things are going in the right direction for the Eagles early in this offseason. They've put together what looks to be a strong coaching staff. They've signed three players to new contracts. It's good mojo. There is heavy lifting ahead, no doubt.

And a lot of that has to come up front, along the offensive line. On a day when the Eagles signed Lane Johnson to a contract extension that keeps him Philadelphia through 2021, it's fair to wonder what's next for an offensive line that needs some love. 

Johnson's extension is good news and it continues the positive momentum the Eagles have gained since the 2015 season ended. They've put together a coaching staff, led by head coach Doug Pederson, which mixes in a lot of NFL experience with eager, aggressive coaches. There is a ton of new energy there and inside the NovaCare Complex. They've signed tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek to go along with Johnson, cleaning up the salary cap picture, creating the space they want for 2016 and keeping an eye on fiscal flexibility for the years ahead.

Johnson, the only drafted offensive lineman since 2013, needs some help up front. The Eagles have not added to the offensive line in a particularly satisfactory way for years and years. Center Jason Kelce was an outstanding sixth-round draft pick in 2011. Johnson, of course, was the right choice at No. 4 overall in 2013 and everyone hopes he becomes a Pro Bowl player in the years to come. Otherwise, there have been too many misses and, in the last three seasons, too much neglect.

A fifth-round draft pick in 2012, Dennis Kelly is a solid backup lineman. Guard Brandon Washington was a sixth-round draft pick in 2012 and never made it here. Julian Vandervelde, actually taken 30 picks before Kelce in 2011, is a great guy and a human transaction machine, but he's never been a starter and isn't on an NFL roster now. Fenuki Tupou (fifth round) and Paul Fanaika (seventh round) didn't cut it from the 2009 NFL Draft and while King Dunlap remains in the league and has outlived the shelf life of a seventh-round draft pick (2008), he was far from special here. He's been a starter and he's been serviceable in San Diego, but the Chargers haven't been all that great up front, either.

The Eagles have tried to get by with some trades (Jason Peters was a brilliant move in 2009) and no-risk free-agent signings that panned out (guard Evan Mathis), but they've been negligent for too many years and now find themselves needing to upgrade the offensive line in a fairly urgent and extensive way.

Who can the Eagles count on for 2016? Johnson, yes. Kelce, coming off a season in which he was very critical of himself, yes. Jason Peters at age 34 at left tackle? Pederson speaks highly of Peters and there is hope that he can play at a high level for a year or two or three (??) to come, but Peters played in only 66 percent of the offensive snaps in 2015, a fact that is impossible to ignore. Can he get healthy and stay that way next year? 

What of the guard situation? Mathis was released in the 2015 offseason and is now preparing for the Super Bowl as a member of the Denver Broncos. He was banged up and beaten down all year and certainly didn't have a great season, but the Eagles did not upgrade the position, necessarily. Allen Barbre had his moments, but he struggled, too. Does he come back as a starter? Can the Eagles advance that position in a major way?

At right guard, the rotation of Andrew Gardner and Matt Tobin was inconsistent, with the entire line following suit. There wasn't enough push in the run game. The pass protection had some really good stretches, but there were some breakdowns in the second half of the season that proved costly.

"We just made too many mistakes," Johnson said on Friday when he signed his contract. "I think I led the league in penalties. We all had too many penalties, too many mistakes. We have a lot to clean up."

It's going to help that the Eagles are likely to slow things down offensively in Pederson's "hybrid West Coast offense" and that the offensive line matters to him and that one of his tenants is putting a premium on securing the football. The Eagles grew increasingly sloppy on offensive in these last three seasons. Maybe it was the tempo. Maybe it was the lack of attention to detail. Maybe it was the erosion of talent -- when Mathis was playing well and with Todd Herremans still on his game in 2013, the Eagles had continuity up front and the offense soared.

Maybe it was a little bit of all of the above that has the Eagles staring at an offensive line in need of upgrades.

"It all starts up front," Pederson said. "You have to get your offensive line where you want it to be effective in this league. You have to win at the line of scrimmage."

Pederson will mix some tempo into his offensive structure, and he might very well play more power football, as the Kansas City Chiefs did in 2015 on their way to the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs. Kansas City lost a Pro Bowl running back (Jamaal Charles) and still played well offensively. The offensive line did its job and the offense followed the path.

These early signs in the offseason are encouraging. There is a very definitive plan in place. A lot of good decisions must come in the future as the Eagles look to piece back together what was a sterling group in the hallowed run of the 2000s: The Eagles have to get better, a lot better, along the offensive line. Extending Johnson was a good first step. Let's see what they have in mind the rest of way between now and the end of the NFL Draft.

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