In this lull period prior to the draft, we need to take stock of the Eagles, in particular the offense. How much better have the Eagles gotten during the free-agency period? How much more work do they need to be where they want to be in 2009?
To begin, the Eagles exited 2008 with an offense that ranked among the best in the league. There were down periods, to be sure, in the '08 season, but the overwhelming evidence is that the Eagles moved the ball well from one possession to the next, that they won the battle of field position and that they scored a lot of points.
There were, however, blights among the high points, enough to raise concerns and put the Eagles in a position where they had some options to improve the unit over the course of the last month or so. The first priority, as the Eagles saw it, was to address the offensive line and to become younger and more athletic and, hopefully, better at the tackle positions.
By allowing Tra Thomas to enter free agency and then to sign with Jacksonville, the Eagles were clearly making the point that they felt it was time to move on from the longtime starter at left tackle. To this point, left tackle remains a position that – unlike since prior to the 1998 draft – is a question mark. Do the Eagles slide Todd Herremans to left tackle from his left guard spot? Does Shawn Andrews move from right guard to left tackle? Is the plan to address left tackle in the draft that is four weeks away?
Certainly, the goal is to find a long-term solution there. In the focused window, the Eagles must have an immediate upgrade there, a player who can protect Donovan McNabb's blind side and even foster an improved running game to the left side of the offense.
Some, at this point, may view the fact that the Eagles haven't announced their plans at left tackle as a reason to think the position will take a step back in 2009. That is not the viewpoint of head coach Andy Reid, who clearly has his Plans A, B and C for the spot. Had Reid wanted to play it safe, he would have retained Thomas and moved on seamlessly for the year ahead.
The goal is to make left tackle better. The Eagles have unfinished business there, as it stands now. There is a piece or two still capable of being moved along the offensive line, a puzzle that won't be finished – at the earliest – until the draft is completed.
Right tackle, where Jon Runyan manned so capably since 2000, is another question mark for this offense. The Eagles signed Stacy Andrews in free agency and are pleased with both his upside potential and his recovery from a serious knee injury in the next-to-last Bengals game of 2008. Reid thinks Andrews will be on the field in training camp, and until then Andrews will rehab his knee and take mental reps as he learns the offense and what line coach Juan Castillo demands.
So is the offensive line improved? At this point, it is impossible to say yes. Or no. Or, well, that the picture is complete. The Eagles, every draft expert says, will address the offensive line in some way shape or form in the draft. I tend to agree. What remains to be seen if the Eagles go in that direction, is when they will draft a lineman and where they will pencil in the draft pick (or picks) to play. It is possible the Eagles will take a tackle from what is said to be a strong position. Or the Eagles could draft and help the line from the inside out, and select a guard who can challenge at one of the three interior positions.
Offensive line, then, requires an incomplete at this point. Draft weekend will be telling here.
Moving on, the Eagles certainly improved the fullback position in free agency. Dan Klecko was a willing and hearty effort player last year at the position, but he had never before played the position and that lack of experience was impossible to make up in the course of four months. So bringing in Leonard Weaver serves as a real plus for fullback, and for the offense.
The book on Weaver is this: Good, tactical blocker with a nice feel for the position. Not a bulldozer, per se, but he gets the job done. Can run with the football and has good hands and play-making ability in the receiving game.
How the Eagles use Weaver, and to what degree his presence affects the structure of the X's and O's remains to be seen. It's going to be enlightening to see what the Eagles do with Weaver in training camp.
The remainder of the offense returns largely as-was from the NFC Championship Game. Brent Celek is the starting tight end, and he is a young player who the Eagles think is ready to take the next step in his development. Celek must become a better in-line blocker, and that is the thrust of his off-season must-do list. A diligent worker who has been at the NovaCare Complex attacking his conditioning since '08 ended, Celek is taking the right approach.
There is a need for a second tight end, and that need is one of the more fascinating sub-plots of the draft approach. The clear-cut ""best"" tight end in the draft is Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew, who some think will be a Top 15 pick. Would the Eagles move up to take Pettigrew? Could they pass him up if he were on the board at 21? Or are there other tight ends who can be what the Eagles want later in the draft? Surely, they are going to acquire one prior to their post-draft mini-camp. Is there help available outside of the draft?
At wide receiver, the Eagles are going to be pretty much what they were in 2008, with the anticipated improvement from some of the players providing improvement over last season. Kevin Curtis is healthy after the sports hernia injury KO'd much of his year. He will need to get into a groove right away and be a go-to receiver as he was in 2007. DeSean Jackson has a huge responsibility in his second NFL season. Jackson will be a marked man as defenses spend the off-season studying his game, so the Eagles plan to push Jackson harder than ever to improve his all-around game.
Can he add some strength and refine his routes and take his understanding of the offense and of NFL defenses to a new level? The Eagles are counting on Jackson to do just that.
Safely situated as the team's slot receiver is Jason Avant, who has the kind of toughness, strong hands and precision and feel on his routes to excel in an expanded role working the middle of the field.
Hank Baskett worked his way into a bigger weapon in the offense last season until he tailed off with a knee injury late in the season. Will the Eagles look Baskett's way more this year?
The X factor among the receivers, the one who is trying to fit back into the puzzle, is Reggie Brown. A talented player who seemed ready to become more of a consistent factor in the offense, Brown took a step back last season. Reid refers to Brown as ""a starter,"" and the Eagles think he can get back in the picture. But where? Above whom? In what role?
Those are the Eagles' five receivers right now. The ones you see in the rotation. The ones who are the constant focus of fans and analysts who wonder if there are enough playmakers there to win a Super Bowl.
One area where the Eagles must improve is their touchdown production from the wide receivers, particularly in the red zone. Jackson is a deep threat, for sure. Curtis has speed to go down the field, and he is a find-the-crease receiver who can give defenses fits. Avant will catch just about anything thrown to him, and maybe he needs to become more of a red-zone target. Baskett has the big body, but he has not been a go-to target near the goal line. Brown? Everything about him is a question mark.
Do the Eagles need to get a bigger, more difficult-to-cover receiver in the red zone? They have given no indications that they are looking in that direction, rumors notwithstanding.
Draft weekend looms …
At halfback, the Eagles resisted any urges they might have had to go out in free agency and add a player like Derrick Ward, who was there for the taking. Instead, the Eagles think they will get the best of Brian Westbrook as he comes off an injury-plagued 2008 during which he still scored 14 touchdowns. Every report on Westbrook is extremely encouraging, so we'll see a lot of Westbrook ahead.
But the Eagles need more than Westbrook at halfback. They allowed Correll Buckhalter to leave in free agency, so now we'll look for the next move. Surely -- it has to be, right? -- the Eagles will use a draft pick on a running back. How high, we'll find out in four weeks. For now the Eagles have Westbrook, whom is the star attraction. They have Lorenzo Booker, a disappointment last season who comes back hoping to find a role in the offense. Kyle Eckel will try to make the team as a big running back/fullback. And Eldra Buckley, claimed off of waivers from San Diego, is an unknown who will get his reps.
At quarterback, the Eagles have their familiar trio, led by Donovan McNabb. McNabb has pieces of his game to improve upon, as does every player. The Eagles are in excellent shape at quarterback.
So are the Eagles better on offense now than they were in the NFC Championship Game? There are still too many unknowns -- who plays offensive tackle on both sides? Who is Westbrook's backup? -- but the Eagles have reason to think they will have substantial improvement if the pieces fall into place and if the draft is executed effectively.