The 2009 season was a lot of fun, at least up until the end. Ask Eagles fans to draw up a nightmare finish and you'd probably find out that consecutive losses to Dallas was the consensus scenario. All we can do now is cheer for the Vikings to take care of Dallas and start thinking about 2010. Opening day, after all, is just eight months away.
Now that the off-season is upon us everyone is ready for change. Patience, my friends. There is a process to the off-season. The first order of business is for the team to do some self-scouting and evaluate its own players. I don't think the average fan appreciates just how important this is.
Let's look at the dreaded Cowboys as an example. They cut Terrell Owens last year. They didn't add any significant pieces to replace him. They felt Roy Williams could replace Owens. They also felt like their young corps of receivers was ready to do even more. Obviously, no one thought Miles Austin would become a Pro Bowl player, but Dallas had faith that he could be a key contributor.
They let linebacker Greg Ellis go. They got rid of Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson. Ellis was replaced by Anthony Spencer, who had been pretty quiet his first couple of years. Cornerback Mike Jenkins emerged in his second year with the Cowboys. No one misses Pacman at all.
So who are the young Eagles? I'm not going to count LeSean McCoy or Jeremy Maclin because they started so much this year. I fully expect each guy to improve, but they are already established as good players. The only offensive players that really fit the bill are tight end Cornelius Ingram and offensive lineman Mike McGlynn. Ingram missed this year with a torn ACL.but looked very good in the mini-camps. The coaches were excited about the skill set that he brought to the offense. Ingram is a gifted athlete with excellent hands. Having two tight ends that can catch the ball and make plays can put a lot of pressure on the defense. Ingram could also be a good red zone weapon.
With Jamaal Jackson being hurt there is uncertainty at the center position. Nick Cole got the job this year, but McGlynn could take it over in 2010. He's played center in each of his two preseasons with the Eagles. McGlynn was a four-year starter at Pitt so he's a smart, experienced blocker. He doesn't know the NFL game, but guys with that much playing time are able to adapt quicker than raw players who might be more physically gifted. McGlynn isn't nearly as big or strong as Jackson. He is tenacious, uses his hands well and has good short area quickness. I didn't think Cole played well at center, so I hope McGlynn is able to beat him out for the job or the top backup spot should Jackson heal quicker than expected.
Defense is a completely different story. There are quite a few guys that could develop into key players. We'll start up front. Defensive end Victor Abiamiri disappointed me this year. I was really hoping to see him become the starter on the left side and a good player. Abiamiri played a lot at the beginning of the year, but then got hurt and missed some time. He mostly played as a tackle in the nickel defense down the stretch. I'm not ready to give up on Abiamiri yet. He still has the potential to be a solid starting left defensive end. Staying healthy has been a major problem. He's only played 29 games in his three-year career. That isn't much experience. Abiamiri is also just about to turn 24 years old. He's not yet in the prime of his career physically. The problem is that you can't count on him staying healthy or being the answer at left end. At this point, he's played better on the inside than at end. I still have hopes for Abiamiri to be a good player, but when a guy is still a mystery heading into his fourth season that isn't a good sign.
We have a pair of defensive tackles to talk about. Antonio Dixon was added to the roster just before the season opener. He quickly earned the No. 3 tackle spot. I was surprised to see how well he played for us. Dixon had size and strength, but was very raw coming out of college. He became a really solid role player for us. Dixon seemed to tail off a bit at the end of the season. He needs to get in better shape. He also needs some technique work. Dixon is very stout when he plays with good leverage and pad level. There are times when he gets sloppy. If blockers get under his pads, they can move him off the ball. I don't know that Dixon will ever develop into a good starter, but I am interested to see what kind of progress he can show next year.
Trevor Laws lost his job to Dixon this year. Laws fell to the No. 4 spot at defensive tackle. The problem is that we play so much nickel and dime defense that Laws wasn't always needed on gameday and spent several games on the inactive list. Laws lost the job fair and square. He has a couple of key problems. First, he struggles to hold the point of attack. Blockers are able to move him off the ball consistently. Laws also struggles to shed blocks. He's ideally suited for a scheme that lets him use his quickness and attack upfield. We used to do that, but now ask our tackles to control the middle. I thought very highly of Laws coming out of college. He had good talent and I loved his relentless style of play. He can get better, but I don't know that he'll ever be an ideal fit for our system. Bulking up would help.
There are two young linebackers who could help us a lot. Rookie Moise Fokou is a player I get asked about a lot. I projected him to the weak side coming out of Maryland. I was caught off guard when the Eagles said they preferred him on the strong side. Fokou is only about 230 pounds, less than ideal size for that spot. I went back and reviewed some of my notes from the preseason. Fokou showed a lot of promise at shedding blocks. That's very important for a SAM linebacker. He has some coverage ability and a very good motor. During the regular season, he was up and down. Fokou was active and around the ball a lot. That's a good sign for a linebacker. He must improve at handling blockers. Sometimes you attack them full speed. Other times, your job is to pin the blocker in or out to maintain proper leverage. Fokou has the potential to be a solid starter. He's got to eliminate sloppy mistakes. He had a handful of penalties this year that all were due to being reckless. Those can't carry over to next year.
Joe Mays got a golden opportunity this year and didn't take advantage of it. He had a chance to be the starting middle linebacker when Stewart Bradley got hurt. During the preseason games, Mays was tentative and really struggled. He went back to being a backup, but still didn't shine. He did get on the field as a special teams player in the regular season. He started slow, but then became very good in kick coverage by the end of the season. Mays did get a chance to play some linebacker during the year, but still looked lost. This is going to be a crucial off-season for him. Mays must master the defense. As a rookie in 2008, his motor and effort were impressive. This year, he was unable to take the next step and show progress. He'll have an uphill battle to make the team next year if he's playing confused and making mistakes. Mays development on special teams is encouraging. Hopefully, that will boost his confidence and spill over to his play on defense. It would be great if he could be a quality backup as Bradley works his way back from a knee injury.
Defensive back is the most confusing spot of all. Quintin Demps was a player I wrote about at this time last year as someone on the rise. That didn't work out as I'd hoped. Demps got complacent in the off-season, always a worry with young players who get a taste of success. Players work hard to get playing time and to develop a role. Some guys let up a bit once that happens and lose their edge. We've seen this happen numerous times over the years. Some players adjust to the setback and get right back to where they were. Others don't handle the situation well and never recover.
We can't be fully sure what happened to Demps this year because of injuries. He missed time with a hamstring problem early in the year and then an ankle injury late in the season. There were some good moments in between, but too few to get really excited about. I still think Demps can be a starting safety for us, but again you have to deal with the question of whether we can count on him. The coaches saw him in practice. They dealt with him in the meeting rooms. They know if Demps was showing the kind of commitment needed from a starting player. One thing does appeal to me about him – speed. We really could use a fast safety that can cover a lot of ground. Demps is one of the speedier safeties in the entire league.
Rookie Macho Harris was all over the place this year. He started the year at free safety. He then lost the job to Sean Jones. Harris got it back late in the season. He also had to deal with some minor injuries along the way. Harris was new to playing safety. He played cornerback at Virginia Tech. I thought he showed some good things. He was aggressive. His tackling was good at times, but he's got to be more consistent. Harris was physical with receivers, but didn't draw many flags. My big disappointment was his lack of plays. In college, Harris was a ballhawk that regularly made things happen. He dropped an interception on opening day and never again had as good a shot at a pass. Harris showed good versatility. He was able to blitz, play man coverage, play off the ball and show up against the run. He just didn't excel in any area. The team could bring him back as the starting free safety. Harris now has a year of NFL experience under his belt and also knows how to play safety. He could greatly improve in 2010. We can't ignore what happened to Demps, though. Harris isn't a sure thing.
We have two young cornerbacks on the team right now. Geoffrey Pope is basically unknown. He didn't play at all for us. The coaches saw him in practice and I'm sure they like some things about him, but you certainly can't project him to be a major contributor in 2010. Pope has some size and good athletic ability. He hasn't been able to find an NFL niche so far. At the same time, teams have kept him around for a couple of years so there is definitely some potential. Dimitri Patterson was in Pope's shoes at this time last year. Patterson became an excellent gunner on special teams for us. He showed some promise on defense. I don't know that he'll ever be a starting corner, but he could be a good backup or potentially good slot corner.
Players don't all work on the same schedule. Todd Herremans came to the Eagles from a small school, but seemed ready for the NFL from day one. Winston Justice came here from USC and it took him several years to really find his groove. Brent Celek started slowly as a rookie and then got better in year two. He was a star for us this year. Think about how long it took Quintin Mikell to become a starter. Juqua Parker just had the highest sack total of his NFL career, in his ninth season. Jamaal Jackson spent some time on the practice squad before becoming a mainstay on the offensive line.
The goal in discussing these young players isn't to try and sell you that they'll all pan out and become stars for us. I do think too often that people overlook player development. You take guys on your roster and work with them. Through coaching and practice they can develop into good role players or even starters. We're all excited for free agency and the draft, but you can bet someone already here will have a surprising impact in 2010. Just ask the starting right tackle if you don't believe me.