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Can Free Agency Help Bolster O-Line?

It is no secret that the Eagles would like to bolster the offensive line, that while they have the belief in tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters along with center Jason Kelce, there are question marks at the guard spots. At noon on Monday, the chase begins in the NFL free agency period and offensive linemen are the coveted pieces in the line of scrimmage chess match.

While the start of the 2016 business year is 4 PM on Wednesday and, thus, the "go" time when players with expiring contracts are officially free to sign with new teams, Monday at noon marks the period of time when teams are able to contact representatives of prospective unrestricted free agents and legally talk contract terms. And while no contract terms are able to be finalized during the period of time from Monday at noon until Wednesday at 4 PM, negotiations are permitted to become very detailed. In other words, Monday at noon launches a very important period of time.

"Offensive line is always a priority for us," executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said. "Every day. We're always looking to upgrade."

That's the way the Eagles are approaching the group now and that's the right way to go about business. It wasn't necessarily the case in recent years, as you know. The Eagles used a 2013 first-round draft pick on Johnson, and then did not draft another offensive linemen during Chip Kelly's tenure as head coach. And so now the Eagles are in a position of need for the offensive line, as so many teams in the NFL are.

Can free agency provide help for the Eagles up front? Is there a veteran or two who can join line coach Jeff Stoutland's room and upgrade the interior of the line? Is the draft a better option for the Eagles, who have nine picks, including the 13th overall?

We're going to learn some of the answers in the week ahead, but first let's discuss the line as it stands and what some of the pieces mean in the big picture.

The Eagles clearly believe that Peters, who earned the eighth Pro Bowl nod of his career and his sixth as an Eagle in 2015 despite playing just 66 percent of the offensive snaps while he battled injuries, has a lot left in his gas tank. Head coach Doug Pederson has said so several times, so the Eagles are planning for Peters to return to his top-level form in 2016. But don't they need to have some insurance, just in case? The offensive line in 2015 moved Johnson from right tackle to left tackle and used Dennis Kelly as a starter, with mixed results.

A versatile player like Andrew Gardner, a starter at right guard until he suffered a season-ending foot injury, should return healthy and add depth. He has played some right tackle - Gardner started two games there in 2014 for the Eagles - and he might be an already-on-the-roster option to back up on the edges. So is Kelly, who has nine starts at right tackle in his five Eagles seasons.

Kelce didn't have his best season in 2015, as he has talked about it frequently. Maybe it was the changing of the guards next to him, or the way the offense was structured, or Kelce himself. Perhaps it was a combination of all of the above. Kelce has been a regular at the NovaCare Complex in the offseason, a good sign for a player who should be a Pro Bowl regular.

Johnson's 2015 season was, just like the entire offense, marred by inconsistency. He's got all the tools and the work ethic and the intelligence, so it's just a matter of time before he finds his way to Pro Bowl-level play on an annual basis.

Allen Barbre started the entire season at left guard and was durable for all 16 games and he had his fine moments. But were there enough of them for the Eagles to feel like an upgrade isn't in order? We'll see.

Gardner, Matt Tobin and Kelly are veteran reserves, and Barrett Jones and Tanner Hawkinson have been in the league for a few years and are players the Eagles want to take a longer look in Training Camp. Josh Andrews is a young prospect who has a chance to earn some playing time and both Malcolm Bunche and Brett Boyko, who spent 2015 on the practice squad, look to make more of an impact in the season ahead.

But what about the starters? Front-line players? Standout interior linemen? It isn't enough to be "just OK" along the offensive line. The NFL of 2015 was all about dominating defenses and the athleticism on that side of the ball winning out more often than not. The Eagles weren't good enough up front to create a consistent running game or to keep quarterback Sam Bradford clean on a game-to-game basis. So, a priority is spelled out.

Improve the offensive line.

It's something the Eagles look for every day, as Roseman said. It's something that should be a clear mandate for free agency or the draft, or both. The Eagles need to improve the offensive line. Is this the week when we find out how the Eagles plan to upgrade up front? Stay tuned.

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