You remember the status of the offensive line just prior to training camp last year. Who was playing where? Who was Howard Mudd? How could the offensive line, a mark of stability and excellence during the franchise's potent years in the mid 2000s and even as late as 2008, regain its footing and move forward with some continuity?
Somehow, it happened. It happened because the 2011 Rookie Class produced an immediate starting center in Jason Kelce and a first-year starter in right guard Danny Watkins. Both figure to be right where they are, with a bullet going up, for years to come. It happened because the Eagles made a terrific under-the-radar signing of veteran Evan Mathis in free agency. All he did was become the starting left guard who had a season so solid that he earned a five-year contract a few months ago.
It happened because Todd Herremans made the transition from left guard to right tackle and played very well protecting Michael Vick's backside. And it happened because Jason Peters elevated his Pro Bowl game to a higher level at left tackle and took care of all kinds of business there.
It happened because Mudd wasn't afraid to take chances. It happened because Howie Roseman and Andy Reid surrounded Mudd with his kind of pieces and then Mudd made all of those pieces fit into a neat, effective puzzle.
What is the state of the offensive line now? Well, there are some complications, of course, but the outlook is extremely optimistic. Mathis, Kelce, Watkins and Herremans return. Peters is likely out for the season with his Achilles tendon injury, but the Eagles were able to go out and sign Demetress Bell, a former starter in Buffalo who brings the requisite athleticism, intelligence and ability to fit right into what Mudd wants up front. Chalk that move up to another case of Roseman operating aggressively and of being on the same page with the coaching staff, of bringing in players that fit what the coaches want.
Now, Bell isn't Peters. Nobody is going to tell you that the Eagles are going to have a seamless transition there. It isn't fair to Bell, who is only replacing the best left tackle in the NFL.
Bell, though, has some game. He doesn't yet have the name, but he may very well have one not too long into the season. Once Bell becomes totally ingrained in the Mudd Way, great things are going to happen for him.
And Mudd, a second year and a full offseason deep into teaching the linemen the methods of his coaching genius, knows his line is far advanced beyond where it was last September, or October or, in some respects, November and December.
Mathis is a proven player now, a reliable veteran who could get some Pro Bowl recognition if he plays at the same level at which he played in 2011. Kelce is the leader of the line now in his second season. He worked out at the NovaCare Complex every day in the offseason, is going to play at a stout 295 pounds or so, and has that rare second-level quickness that brings about comparisons to former Pro Bowl Cowboys great Mark Stepnoski. Watkins was lost for much of his rookie season, making the transition from left tackle in college to right guard here. Not until late in the year did Watkins get it, and his game improved greatly.
Herremans showed what kind of athlete he is by making the move to right tackle. He relied on his natural ability much more last year, and now has a foundation more deeply in place. Going into the season knowing he is a right tackle is going to make Herremans that much better.
It's a good fivesome. A very good group, in fact. The Eagles could end up fielding one of their best offensive lines if all the pieces take the right steps forward together.
There are some questions about depth, but only because we aren't familiar with the names as much as we have been in the past. King Dunlap returns to back up both tackle spots, if he beats out some competition. Also added were young veterans Thomas Welch and D.J. Jones, along with draft pick Dennis Kelly. On the inside, for depth, the Eagles brought in veterans Mike Gibson and Steve Vallos and drafted Brandon Washington. Second-year man Julian Vandervelde hopes to make an impression at both guard spots and as a backup center, and Mudd likes him.
Offensive line is one of the big stories heading into training camp. As much as the Eagles return so many strong pieces, the absence of Peters is a missing piece certain to be dissected.
But every chance Mudd and the front office made last year paid off, so there is every reason to be optimistic. The Eagles have a lot going for them up front offensively. There is a bunch of work to do, but hopes are high for another step forward with Mudd and his offensive line.