Jamar Chaney is in school as we speak. He knows this week will be unlike any he has encountered in his life. He is preparing for his first NFL start, which happens to come at a time when the Eagles need the defense more than ever before against one of the most balanced, and certainly one of the best, offenses in the league.
This is the way life works in the NFL. It is late in the season. Every team has been taxed by injuries. Depth on the roster is being tested. General managers and front offices are going to their emergency lists to fill holes. The Eagles are no exception.
They lost two players in Sunday night's win. We have talked about Stewart Bradley and his dislocated elbow and what it means to the defense: Bradley will miss at least the next couple of games, meaning that Chaney and Omar Gaither must step up, meaning that Sean McDermott is in a similar situation as last year, when he worked through half the roster to try to replace Bradley and his three-down ability. Ultimately, the Eagles were unable to replace Bradley's production, although McDermott worked some smoke and mirrors to get the Eagles into the playoffs in 2009.
Chaney gives the Eagles a better chance than they had last season. Joe Mays just couldn't get it done for the defense, and the Eagles ended up trading him to Denver because they saw enough from Chaney early on to feel great confidence in him. Chaney, though, is a rookie. There is no escaping his lack of experience. He is new to the job, and with that there will be growing pains.
At the same time, though, Chaney is a player. He has a chance to be a really good player in this defense as he gains knowledge, as he gains strength. His best years are in front of him, but the Eagles need Chaney to grow up quickly this week and play well on Sunday against a veteran Giants team that is going to try to exploit him. There is no getting around that. Chaney will have a big bull's eye on his back in this game, and the Eagles know it.
Losing rookie end Brandon Graham is a much different story. In the short term, it is a blow, because Graham is a young player with energy who fit nicely in the rotation. But he was also playing only about 20 snaps a game along the defensive line, and you figure that Howie Roseman and his staff have a list of veteran players they think can come in and replace those snaps and add some punch to the pass rush. There are players like Adewale Ogunleye and Bobby McCray and others out there, players with experience and pop off the edge. That's what the Eagles need. They need to improve the pass rush. They need to take some of the pressure off of Trent Cole, who was silenced on Sunday at Dallas. The Eagles played an excellent coverage game against quarterback Jon Kitna and the Cowboys offense. They didn't swarm him with pressure.
Eli Manning is a different animal. You need to get after him, or he will carve a defense to pieces. Let Manning sit in the pocket and find Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith and you are in trouble. Make Manning move and force him to make quick decisions and you have a chance to get some takeaways.
As for Graham, it is a difficult blow. The Eagles love the kid. He wasn't as productive as I thought he would be this year -- just three sacks and limited playing time -- and that was concerning, but I understand that sometimes players take a year or two or longer to mature into top-notch defensive ends. Graham needs to be quicker off the ball. He needs more strength. He has to get his body right.
Now he has to overcome an injury. And there is one thing I have learned, it is to not trust any player the year after a major injury. Players just don't come all the way back that very next season. It doesn't happen. Graham is going to spend his offseason recovering from an injury, rather than changing his body and truly getting into NFL shape.
The old saying is that players improve the most from year one in the NFL to year two. How can Graham do that if he is rehabbing his knee injury?
Plus, the labor situation impacts his recovery. If there is no new agreement, no new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place in the spring, Graham won't be permitted to rehab with the trainers if I am correct in understanding the rules of the game. That is a serious concern. It is not a knock on Graham at all, but players need to have their team's athletic trainers in place, driving them, pushing them in the right direction. The athletic trainers know the benchmarks a player needs to reach in rehab to prepare for a season. It is asking a lot of a player and an athletic training staff elsewhere -- be it a college-related program or an independent program -- to provide the same structured environment.
Looking ahead, yeah, defensive end remains a need here. I'll play a fan here for a moment and say it wouldn't be a reach to think the Eagles need to have that position high on their list of needs for next season. They can't have enough pass rushers, that's for sure. The team still wants to take a look at Ricky Sapp, and Victor Abiamiri should be healthy for 2011, and Daniel Te-o'Nesheim is going to jump a lot from year one to year two, but the pass rush right now, and all season, hasn't been as lights-out as you want from the front four.
You are always looking to improve the roster, always looking to challenge one through 61 (including the practice squad). That doesn't change. Not now. Not when you look to the future. The Eagles have some work to do, starting with getting some pieces back (cornerback Asante Samuel, right tackle Winston Justice) and adding some help (Defensive end? Linebacker?) to beat the Giants and take control of the division.