The next order of business for the Eagles, what they are working on at this very instant -- among other things -- is to attend to the players in line to become unrestricted free agents. How the Eagles address this list, and how they approach the individual situations, is going to say a lot about the team's plans in free agency and beyond.
Don't underestimate the importance of this list of free-agents-to-be. There are difficult decisions to make. It is entirely guesswork to ascertain who signs from this list, but it not far-fetched to suggest that not all of these players will return for 2009.
Let's talk about the list and the players on a case-by-case basis ...
**CORRELL BUCKHALTER, running back
Good football player. When Correll Buckhalter has had opportunities to carry the football, he has been productive. He has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his career and averaged 4.9 yards per rushing attempt in 2008, along with adding a career-best 26 receptions and two receiving touchdowns. In his ninth season, Buckhalter would love to go find a starter's job. If he reaches the market, we will see how other teams view Buckhalter, who has been healthy the last three seasons after missing three of the previous four years with knee injuries.
When Buckhalter was an unrestricted free agent a couple of years ago, he attracted little interest. Now, though, he has remained on the field for three straight years, so maybe a team will believe in his durability. Buckhalter has never been a full-time starter in eight seasons in the league. He has fit in very nicely here, although it could be argued that he was not used nearly enough the last couple of seasons.
The running back position is a key one for the Eagles after Brian Westbrook's injury-plagued season in 2008. Having an explosive, durable, impact running back in addition to Westbrook could be a key component of the Eagles' off-season plans. Buckhalter's case is going to be interesting. There are a few other good running backs scheduled to be on the market on February 27. Would Buckhalter get lost in the shuffle? Is there a team out there eyeing him?
It seems simple, and yet complicated for the Eagles: They can retain Buckhalter and largely keep the status quo in the backfield. Or they can part ways and look to upgrade in the draft or in free agency and see if they can get the impact that way. If the Eagles believe they can find answers elsewhere, the backfield could have a much different look next season.
**SEAN CONSIDINE, safety/special teams
While not a starter at safety, Sean Considine played a valuable role as a reserve in 2008 as part of the team's rotation there. Considine did not hold on to his starting job when he had the chance a couple of seasons ago, but he is healthy after having some shoulder problems and clearly had the best season of his career last year.
Considine's most important contribution came on special teams, where he was outstanding. A hustler who took good angles and played physical football, Considine was one of the core parts of the special teams here.
Entering his fifth NFL season, Considine is likely looking for an opportunity to expand his role on the field. That could lead to a dip into the free-agent pool to see if there are any teams biting for his services.
**BRIAN DAWKINS, safety
This has been a big story since late in the 2008 campaign: Has Brian Dawkins played his last game as an Eagle? Nobody really knows at this point, but Dawkins has expressed a profound interest in remaining with the team and the Eagles have indicated that they would love to have Dawkins back for 2009. A Pro Bowl safety for the seventh time in his Hall of Fame career, Dawkins is still a huge piece of the defense and of the locker-room leadership.
It would be hard to imagine Dawkins playing in another uniform. His situation is one that comes into focus more and more as February 27 nears. In the past, the Eagles have had some beloved veterans -- Jeremiah Trotter and Jon Runyan come to mind -- test free agency before re-signing them here. Should that scenario play out with Dawkins, a lot of Eagles fans would sweat profusely.
So maybe Dawkins is one of the cases here to keep an eye on for the next 17 days. If the Eagles are going to re-sign him, maybe it happens then so that we don't have to go through the hi-jinks of free-agency follies.
**JOSELIO HANSON, cornerback
His is a really interesting case. Joselio Hanson signed with the Eagles off the NFL's scrap heap and rose through the ranks with hard work, intelligence and the desire to improve. Hanson was the team's nickel cornerback last year, a role he played very, very well. With Hanson, you wonder just what other teams in the league think of him. Is there a team out there that believes he can be a starter? If Hanson and his agent believe that there is a team out there that wants him to start, it will be awfully tough to keep him in Philadelphia.
Clearly, though, it works for Hanson being here in this defense and in this role. Jim Johnson has given Hanson opportunities to make plays and Hanson has done a nice job making those plays. This really comes down to what Hanson believes is out there, among the other 31 teams, for him.
The Eagles thought highly enough of Hanson last year to tender him at a second-round pick level of compensation should he sign elsewhere. He then had a solid year for the defense. This time around? Keeping Hanson would be a plus for the Eagles, so his case certainly bears watching.
**JON RUNYAN, offensive tackle
The ironman of the offensive line, Jon Runyan recently underwent what he said was microfracture surgery on his knee and will be out for 4-to-6 months. How does a team take a chance on a 35-year-old offensive lineman who just had surgery? The NFL may just wait to see how Runyan comes through his injury before making a decision.
In the Eagles' case, Runyan's injury provides different scenarios. The Eagles can keep Runyan in mind as they go through free agency and the draft and then see where he is at -- and where the right tackle position is at -- in the spring. It wouldn't seem prudent, for example, for any team to rush out and sign Runyan. It is just too risky, no matter how confident Runyan is that he will return without a hitch.
Right tackle is obviously a huge, huge priority for the Eagles. They can tinker with the idea of sliding Shawn Andrews out from the guard spot, or they can address the situation in free agency and/or the draft. They can move Winston Justice there, but there were no indications from the coaching staff during 2008 that Justice had earned any level of confidence. What happens if the Eagles don't feel, in May, that they have solved the question at right tackle? The Eagles could then see how Runyan is feeling and make a decision then.
Whatever the Eagles do, they know that right tackle, after a decade of Runyan's consistency, is now a huge question mark.
**L.J. SMITH, tight end
After his disappointing 2008 season, L.J. Smith is likely eager to test free agency and see what the market holds for him. The Eagles, who used the franchise tag on Smith last year, promoted Brent Celek to the starting job at tight end late in the just-played campaign, so Smith could very well have that opportunity to move on.
If that happens, the Eagles obviously have a hole to fill at tight end. That's a different discussion for a different day, though. For Smith, it would be pretty surprising if the Eagles made a move to keep him from entering free agency.
**TRA THOMAS, offensive tackle
Whether he has been Tra Thomas or William Thomas, the former first-round draft pick in 1998 has been one of the best left tackles in Eagles history. Thomas has been to three Pro Bowls and has kept Donovan McNabb's blind side secure for a long, long time.
Now the question is, and I don't have the answer, whether the Eagles think Thomas will continue to play at a high level moving forward. It isn't about the past in situations like this; rather, the Eagles need to make a sound decision on their left-side bookend.
Offensive line is clearly the first priority here leading up to and including February 27. There are many, many variables and questions there. Thomas isn't a young, rising tackle any longer, but he started every game last year and seemed to play pretty well. Can he play well enough in 2009 and beyond?
Again, how the Eagles treat this situation will tell us a lot about the approach moving forward. If Thomas re-signs with the Eagles between now and February 27, you can understand that the team's focus in free agency and the draft is likely to not be on the offensive line. Or, at least, left tackle. If Thomas is a free agent on February 27, there is a huge, gaping, extremely important hole at left tackle that the Eagles will have to fill more than adequately.