Last time out we talked about some general philosophies about how to head into the off-season. Let's now get more specific. What can be done? What needs to be done?
The first thing to keep in mind is this – contingencies. Off-season plans involve your own players, other players, other teams and agents. That is quite a lot of moving parts. You simply can't count on anything. Come up with a primary plan, but have a contingency plan in case the initial situation doesn't pan out.
The main order of business is improving the red zone offense. Adding one player won't accomplish this. Fixing the red zone offense is a multi-faceted situation. The offensive line is the place to begin.
Statistics will tell you the line had a good season. The team set a record for points scored. They set a record for lowest sack percentage. Sounds good, right? Blocking had to be a huge part of that. Yes and no. Pass protection was good, but running backs and tight ends spent more time blocking this year than any time I can remember in the Andy Reid era. Star tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan started to show some age. Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews missed the last 17 games. With that set up it only made sense to use conservative blocking schemes.
I'm certainly not trying to say the offensive line had a bad season. They were more up than down. The problem is that they struggled in some key situations. Short-yardage and goal-line plays were problems for most of the season. I think we all remember losses to the Bears, Redskins and Giants where the team came up, well, short. Better blocking on a handful of plays could have meant wins instead of losses.
Remember the old Cinderella song "Don't Know What You Got Till It's Gone?" I think a lot of fans are going to feel that way about Thomas and Runyan. Both guys are free agents. Having a terrific set of bookend tackles for the last nine seasons has spoiled us Eagles fans. That just doesn't happen anymore in today's NFL.
I think the Eagles should make Carolina Panthers tackle Jordan Gross their primary free agent target. He could re-sign with Carolina. He got the franchise tag last season and could get that again this year. If he does hit the market, expect Joe Banner to be on the phone with his agent on Feb. 27.
Adding Gross would give the line a foundation. He isn't a superstar offensive tackle like Orlando Pace or Walter Jones, but he did make the Pro Bowl this year. He has a good combination of talent and experience. You would plug Gross in where he's most comfortable, probably left tackle. Todd Herremans would take over the other tackle spot. Nick Cole would stay at right guard. Jamaal Jackson is set at center. Mike McGlynn and Max Jean-Gilles would then battle for the left guard spot.
That plan makes a lot of sense, but falls apart if Gross doesn't hit the market or decides to go elsewhere. At that point the Eagles have two main choices. They can re-sign Thomas or Runyan to stay on and have Herremans as the other tackle or they can spend a high pick on a tackle prospect and plan on him starting opposite of Herremans. Gross isn't the only free agent, but he's the only slam dunk in the group. I'm still watching tape on the other guys, but think about the Eagles history in free agency. Reid and Banner haven't brought in many mid-level targets to come here and be starters.
There is some logic to bringing back one of the guys. They know the scheme. They've had a lot of success here. The coaches know their strengths and limitations and how to use them. As much as I've enjoyed watching Thomas and Runyan, I'd actually prefer to see the Eagles get younger and look elsewhere.
Relying on a draft pick to come in and win a starting tackle job is tricky, but can be done. The Dolphins, Broncos, Falcons, Panthers and Texans all did this successfully in 2008. Three of those teams made the playoffs. So who might the Eagles target?
The top few offensive tackles will be gone by 21. There is an outside possibility that someone like Michael Oher could slide that far. It isn't likely. The Eagles could try to trade up if they value him. The other two players who could be targets in the late 20s would be Eben Britton of Arizona or William Beatty of Connecticut.
Oher would be brought in to play left tackle, where he spent most of his career at Ole Miss. Oher is talented, but I'm not sure he's worth trading up for. If he falls to 21, that's great. Britton played both right and left tackle at Arizona. He is listed at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds. That's good size. I think the Eagles would project him on the right side. He doesn't have great feet, but moves OK for a big guy. He uses his hands well. He's smart. Britton is a three-year starter. Beatty had the best season of the trio. He played really well for the Huskies. They had the nation's leading rusher and his blocking was a big part of that. He, too, is 6-6 but only 291 pounds. Beatty needs to add bulk. He has pretty good feet, but isn't a natural pass blocker. He's much more comfortable as a run blocker. He is tough and tenacious. I think the Eagles would put him on the right side.
The offensive line will be different in 2009. I hope Andrews can return because he's the best guard in football, but I just don't know. The combination of younger offensive tackles and a more experienced Nick Cole should help. If McGlynn or Jean-Gilles is able to win the left guard job and play solid football, the line should be vastly improved in terms of run blocking. That is crucial. They must get more push on known run plays. You can't rely on trickery on third-and-one. You can't put all the pressure on the running back. The line must create a hole for him or at least give him an area to attack. Too often we saw Eagles runners getting hit in the backfield on those kinds of plays.
Two other spots must be addressed. The Eagles need to get better at fullback and tight end. Fullback is interesting. Dan Klecko did OK in 2008 given the circumstances he faced. The Eagles need to have a good plan on how to get better. The first part of the plan should be to bring back Klecko at fullback. Don't give him the job. Have him compete for it. Remember that Klecko got moved back to defense prior to training camp. He didn't play fullback at Lehigh or in the preseason games. His only work was in mini-camps and passing camps. That doesn't get you ready for the grind of playing fullback. With a full off-season devoted to learning the job, Klecko might turn out to be the answer.
I hope the Eagles work Kyle Eckel in at the fullback position. He has potential. The question is whether he can be a consistently good lead blocker. He's definitely worth a look. There aren't many guys in free agency that jump out as targets. Remember what the Eagles are looking for. They want someone to block, catch the occasional pass and play special teams. I don't know that a guy like Leonard Weaver fits that description.
There are some intriguing draft prospects. My favorite fullback is Quinn Johnson of LSU. He's a very good blocker and showed some ability as a receiver at the Senior Bowl. Tony Fiammetta of Syracuse is a good college fullback. They could even look at a small school player like Marcus Mailei from Weber State.
The goal at fullback is to find someone who can pave the way for Brian Westbrook on those plays when the defense knows a run play is coming. The offense has to execute very well in those situations to have success. A good lead block can make or break some of those runs.
Brent Celek should be the starting tight end. I think he earned that job with his play down the stretch. The only way I'd replace him is if the team sees the opportunity to get a special player and the situation is too good to pass up. I think the team will add one tight end through the draft. They will potentially lose L.J. Smith in free agency. Matt Schobel mainly got on the field in three tight end sets and rarely had the ball thrown his way. Schobel isn't made for that situation. He's not a blocker and special teams kind of guy. That's what the Eagles need in a veteran. I don't know of any great blockers available, but they must find someone who embraces doing the dirty work. Use the draft to find an athletic guy to work into the offense as a receiver. There are plenty of guys to choose from.
Red zone offense isn't just about running. That's just the starting point. Get better blocking so that you can run the ball more effectively. That sets up play-action passes. It keeps the defense honest. Too often the Eagles want to try and outsmart opponents in the red zone. That's not the way to go. You must be able to run the ball. You must be able to execute base plays. You mix in the special plays here and there, but don't rely on them.
As far as passing in the red zone, there are a couple of things the Eagles should do to get better. Whoever is the starting tight end must have good hands. He also should be able to catch the ball in traffic. I think the Eagles will add a wide receiver through the draft. A lot of people will tell you the Eagles need a big guy. Sort of. I'm focused on the Eagles adding a tough, physical receiver. Adding a tall guy would be great, but just as important is finding someone who can fight through press coverage. Go get a guy who is strong and doesn't mind contact. I'm still working on evaluating receivers because of the high number of underclassmen. I'll try to dedicate a whole article to the receiver position. I do think DeSean Jackson will be much better in the red zone next year now that he knows what he's doing. I think Hank Baskett should be used more. Still, I hope the team finds a rookie to add to the mix.
One player isn't going to solve the red zone situation. I know a lot of people think a stud wide receiver or big back would make all the difference. I don't agree. You must fix the blocking first. I didn't cover the running back situation because that deserves an article of its own. Some help is needed in the backfield.
Remember how last year the Eagles needed help in the return game. They drafted both Jackson and Quintin Demps to help out. They traded for Lorenzo Booker who they wanted to use on kickoffs. They added Willie Reid to the practice squad so that there was a punt returner in place if anything happened to Jackson. My point is that the Eagles didn't go get one player. They addressed the problem systematically. That was smart and it worked. I hope they take the same approach to improving the red zone offense.