The Eagles need Winston Justice. Who would have ever thought that to be the case after the 2006 second-round draft pick had three less-than-impressive seasons here, after the Eagles went out and added Stacy Andrews and Jason Peters in the offseason and then moved Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews to right tackle? Who even thought Justice would be part of the picture at this point in the preseason, three weeks out from the opening game in Carolina?
Yet, here is Justice, quietly going about his business and earning the strong reviews from the coaches who evaluate his every move on the football field. Here is Justice, the team's starting right tackle going out every day in practice and improving his skills, gaining his confidence and putting himself in position to take that role right into the regular season.
He deserves a lot of credit. Ever since that unfortunate night against the Giants, when Justice played left tackle and was beaten so badly all night by a Giants pass rush that, truthfully, beat *everybody *that night on the way to recording double-digit sacks as they beat the Eagles. It was an embarrassing game for everyone, but only Justice took the abuse from the media and the fans. Day after day he stood tall and answered the questions and made no excuses and promised that some day he would get back on the field and play better.
I'm not sure a lot of people believed that day would ever come. Talk radio called him soft. Fans ridiculed his every move. Reporters mocked him quietly and, well, not so quietly.
And Justice kept right on working.
And here he is, the team's starting right tackle.
Now, the fact that Shawn Andrews hasn't practiced throughout the entire training camp and preseason has contributed to Justice's rise to the starting lineup. Had Andrews been out there and healthy and playing to his all-world ability, Justice wouldn't have had the chance to take all the practice reps and to work on his footwork and to become a more physical offensive lineman.
However, Andrews has been spending his practice time recovering from his back injury, opening the door for Justice. And while it was encouraging on Saturday to hear Shawn Andrews speak with such great confidence that he will be ready to go against Carolina and Julius Peppers on September 13. We'll keep an eye on Andrews and hope he is able to return to practice.
But by no means will Andrews walk right back to the top of the depth chart. He has missed an awful lot of practice time, not to mention that he played only two games in the 2008 season. At his best, Andrews is a powerful, dominating offensive tackle. He has every skill you can imagine, and his upside -- I can't stand that word at this time of the year; it's all about going out and doing it on the field -- is as high as anybody's in the league.
Every day that goes by with Justice on the field and not Andrews makes me believe that the coaches feel pretty darn good about Justice and that if Andrews isn't ready and not playing at a high level, they will feel fine about Justice starting at right tackle when the curtain rises on the regular season.
He is playing well. Justice is back at the position he played at USC, and he is clearly more at home there than on the left side. There is no question that Justice approached his off-season with urgency and that he knows that he has to be more physical and commanding to make it as a starter in the NFL.
I'm hoping like anything that Andrews gets back on the field soon and that he is ready to go for Carolina. I worry, though, about a player who missed most of last season, who hasn't played in three preseasons and who is nursing a dicey back. Andrews has the skills to be an all-time great tackle if he is healthy to play 16 games and the playoffs each season. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. Fortunately, the Eagles found out last year that Max Jean-Gilles and then Nick Cole could start and play well in the league.
Now they're in a similar situation. They have Andrews, a Pro Bowl talent. He hasn't played in the preseason, so the Eagles have turned to Justice and they have pleasantly learned that he is good enough to play a good right tackle in this league. Given Andrews' injury history, the Eagles have to make sure they are well-equipped with depth at right tackle.
Four seasons later, Justice is playing the best football of his life. And, three weeks before the opener, it is a good, good thing. The Eagles need Justice. Whether he starts or doesn't this season, he needs to be ready to step on the field and do a great job. A second-round draft pick who has largely been a disappointment, Justice may just be ready to start justifying his draft status at a time when the Eagles really need him.