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Backfield Picture Is Optimistic For 2009

Now that they have a true fullback in Leonard Weaver and a promising young halfback in LeSean McCoy and a Brian Westbrook who is healthy and ready to resume his Pro Bowl career, the Eagles have to like the makeup of their backfield very, very much. Don't they? Won't they? As the offense had its makeover in the off-season, the backfield was central in the focus.

Why the need? Why couldn't the Eagles simply keep it as it was a year ago and retain Correll Buckhalter and hope that Westbrook would respond favorably to a restful off-season and that Dan Klecko would make great improvement with a full season at fullback under his belt?

The Eagles took a much more active approach. They allowed Buckhalter to hit free agency and find a suitor in Denver. They signed Leonard Weaver to play fullback. Westbrook had a surgical procedure that he says cleaned up every bit of his nagging knee injury from a season ago. And in the draft the Eagles used a second-round pick on LeSean McCoy who, on paper from what he showed in college and through his first post-draft mini-camp, is the perfect fit for what the Eagles demand from the halfback position.

Along the way, the Eagles made some moves that may or may not pay off. They claimed Eldra Buckley off of waivers from San Diego, where he spent two seasons on the practice squad. After the draft, they signed a big halfback, Walter Mendenhall, from Illinois State, and also added fullback Marcus Mailei, a massive 255-pounder who enjoyed a fine career at Weber State.

They welcomed back halfbacks Lorenzo Booker and Kyle Eckel, who now have a full understanding of the system and what is required of them.

Done deal? Looks like it.

Good enough to be a great backfield? Could be. Time will tell on that one.

As it stands now, though, the Eagles are extremely encouraged by what they have. Westbrook is healthy, and everyone knows that when Westbrook is right, he is as good as any back in the NFL. Even when he isn't quite 100 percent healthy, like last year, Westbrook is still pretty darn good as his 14 regular-season touchdowns, his 936 rushing yards and his 54 receptions on the balky knee attest.

Make no mistake; this offense still revolves around Westbrook. You can gush about the offensive line -- deservedly so, for the Eagles won't go anywhere unless the line is as good as advertised -- and the youth and speed the team has at wide receiver and at tight end -- and you understand that Weaver is a huge addition at fullback, but it is Westbrook who complements quarterback Donovan McNabb and who is the key figure in the offense.

Westbrook's struggles with his knee last year have been fully documented, and his production slide well chronicled. There were times when Westbrook just couldn't run away from the defense as he has done in the past and the difference in his game was obvious.

Now, Westbrook is whole. The Eagles expect him to be great again in 2009, and right now all of that "he is approaching 30 years old" stuff is just talk. Westbrook is spry and excited and pain free and he is the workhorse in the running game.

But the Eagles made sure to fortify the backfield with the selection of McCoy. And I know what you have read about McCoy and what you have seen from him during his sensational career at Pittsburgh and from the video of last week's mini-camp. Internally, the Eagles are every bit as excited that they drafted the right back for this West Coast offense. McCoy's receiving skills are superlative. He has the natural gift of instincts that few backs have. His ability to make a defender miss is heralded after the legendary career at Pittsburgh.

Combined with a desire to be a star, and a football intellect that rates off the charts, McCoy impressed everyone in the post-draft camp. Everyone. Mature, hungry, smart and a football player, McCoy worked with the second team behind Westbrook and scored very well in his assignments last weekend. The young man is off to a terrific start, with a bunch of work ahead.

So the Eagles feel great about where they are at halfback. Westbrook is ready to go. McCoy gave off signs early that he can contribute right away. Behind the two of them at halfback is Booker, who shined last spring and into the summer before fading out of the rotation in the regular season. Eckel showed in his time last season that he can be an effective short-yardage running back. Both Mendenhall and Buckley have to continue to learn the system, but both more than held their own at the mini-camp after the draft.

The fullback position should see a significant upgrade with Weaver, who is as complete a player at that position as the Eagles have had since, well, maybe since the Kevin Turner days. Jon Ritchie was a pure fullback and a good one, but he didn't have the play-making skills that Weaver has. Weaver gives the Eagles more options at fullback than they have had in years -- he can work out of the one-back set, he can catch the ball, he is good in pass protection and in leading the halfback through the hole -- and the Eagles plan to use him enough to make defenses account for the position. That is a dramatic difference from the past.

It is an exciting group, one that provides more depth and promise than the Eagles have had in the backfield in years. The first key, of course, is Westbrook's return to full health. He needs to be a superstar again for this offense to reach its full ability. McCoy's progress must continue after his lights-out mini-camp -- and I can only articulate so much here about all the good things I've heard on McCoy from those who only deal in truths -- and Weaver has to fully comprehend the system and the way the Eagles teach their protection schemes and blocking assignments.

There is going to be excellent competition for the third halfback spot -- the winner likely has to show he can help enough on special teams to merit a roster spot -- and a fourth halfback position would seem a long shot on the 53-man roster.

Only the next several months will determine just how good the backfield can be for the Eagles, but make no mistake: It is an exciting combination back there with experience and youth and speed and versatility and, yeah, power. It begins with Westbrook -- the entire offensive discussion has to lean heavily on Westbrook -- but there is a whole lot more to consider this year as the Eagles hope to have their most-balanced and dangerous group they have had in many seasons.

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