It was the focal point of last year's off-season, and as the Eagles put their plan together for 2010, the offensive line could very well be a center of attention again. The best-laid blueprint from 20009 -- signing Stacy Andrews in free agency, trading for Jason Peters, moving Shawn Andrews from guard to tackle -- fell largely on the wrong side of the ledger, leaving the Eagles with more questions to answer about the group up front.
What do the Eagles have up front? Well, there are a couple of ways to look at that question, so let's break it down. What do they think they have up front? They think they have a very good group, led by a Pro Bowl left tackle (Peters) and a solid and sometimes very-good left guard (Todd Herremans). They think Winston Justice is a developing right tackle who began to come into his own last season when he had his first substantial playing time.
What do they really have, though? Peters is one of the best in the business, no matter what the critics say. He needs to be more consistent and dominating, and a second year in the system under Juan Castillo should help Peters in that regard. Herremans missed five games with a foot injury last year, as well as most of training camp and the entire preseason, and it took some time for the line to build some continuity together. They have Justice at right tackle.
And then, from this perspective, they have a bunch of questions. How much will the Eagles look to answer those questions in free agency and in the draft?
What will the team do about the center position? Jamaal Jackson tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the Week 16 win over Denver and health is most definitely an issue with Jackson. Do they look to replace Jackson right here, right now, and allow him some time to recover? Do they make sure they are OK at center, have an insurance policy there, and guide Jackson along at his pace in his rehab for 2010?
More questions. What do they do with the Andrews brothers? Stacy's lack of playing time was a major disappointment, largely chalked up to his not-quite-100-percent health and the slower-than-expected transition to Castillo's technique. All of that seems reasonable enough, but what if Andrews just isn't good enough to provide a major upgrade? What if the Eagles determine that Andrews isn't the answer up front at guard or at tackle, where he played in Cincinnati?
Then the Eagles would have another hole to fill, and they could probably do so adequately by retaining Nick Cole and Max Jean-Gilles, both of whom would be restricted free agents if there is no new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place.
How about Shawn Andrews? Will he ever play again in the NFL? Will he ever play again as an Eagle? The man has missed most of the last two seasons, and enormous talent or not, the NFL is not forgiving at all when players are out that long. Andrews is recovering from back surgery in California and he remains on the roster, and the sense here is that the Eagles want to see where he is in a matter of months before they decide if there is any reasonable opportunity to move forward with the team's first-round draft pick in 2004.
And what is the ceiling with Justice? He was one of the more pleasant developments of 2009. He played well at right tackle, and hopefully he can keep improving. The goal, of course, is not to have "solid" linemen. The goal is to have a dominating group, so would the Eagles challenge Justice, even though he has a long-term contract? What happens if Shawn Andrews -- and I know it sounds like far-fetched thinking at this time, given everything that has happened with Shawn -- regains his health, shows he is hungry to be a dominating player and comes back playing great football in the summer? It would be a great, great scenario to consider.
There are others on the roster who merit a look. Mike McGlynn could very well factor into the picture at center or both guard spots. Cole, a good guard and center, helps in many ways. Is he as dominating as the Eagles want playing in the interior of the offensive line? Dallas Reynolds is a prospect who was on the active roster at the end of the year, and tackles King Dunlap and Fenuki Tupou will have a chance to shine in the post-draft camps.
The line really took a hit when Jackson went down. Once a group that thrived on continuity, the offensive line battled injury all season, but it was that Jackson ACL tear that really damaged the flow up front. Losing Jackson proved again how important leadership and communication is up front, and besides that, Jackson is a darn, fine player.
To me, the line deserves intense scrutiny in the off-season. The goal is not to have a "good" offensive line, or one that is "enough to get by with." The goal is to dominate. You see how the Jets built their line -- first-round picks and major free-agent acquisitions across the board -- and they went to the AFC title game because the line was good enough to nurture an offense spoon-feeding a rookie quarterback.
I want to see the offensive line dominate, and with all of these draft picks, with opportunities to acquire players in a variety of ways, I sure hope the Eagles don't think they have a final puzzle in place along the offensive line. Challenge every position, address the needs with major upgrades, evaluate harshly what they have, and the Eagles have a chance to put together the top-rate line they thought they had in place going into training camp last summer.