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Offensive Line: Pieces Need To Come Together

One of the looming questions in the wake of three days and 13 draft picks concerning this Eagles football team: Why did the Eagles not use at least one selection on an old Andy Reid favorite, the offensive line? How could they ignore the front even with all of those picks and after the way the season ended in Dallas, with the offense struggling so much in back-to-back losses?

Well, the reason the Eagles didn't use a draft pick is because they feel, upon intense review, that what they have a very good group already in place, a collection of proven veterans and some young veterans who have the opportunity to take a major step forward in 2010. They have one of the game's best left tackles in Jason Peters, a very solid guard next to him in Todd Herremans and a right tackle in Winston Justice who took massive steps forward last season and who clearly has his best days immediately in front of him.

If there are questions about the offensive line -- and there should be, admittedly -- they are focused on the center position and on the right guard spot. And to those questions, the Eagles believe they have answers. They are impressed with Stacy Andrews and the off-season he is having. While there won't be contact at the post-draft mini-camp, and no pads, of course, everybody wants to see a fully-healthy Andrews moving laterally, and they want to see him coming off the line of scrimmage and they want to see how his technique has improved.

The Eagles, in short, have invested in the belief that Andrews is ready to rebound to the form that impressed the Bengals enough a couple of years ago to use the franchise tag on him, rather than risk losing Andrews in free agency. As it turned out, Andrews played most of the next season and played well at right tackle before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

He then became an unrestricted free agent and the Eagles went to great lengths to sign Andrews early in the 2009 off-season. His first year in Philadelphia was, as we all know, a washout. Andrews started the opener in Carolina and rarely saw the field after that, starting only one more game. Andrews played in 10 games and just did not make an impact.

Instead of getting down about it, Andrews worked harder than ever once the season ended and is now 100 percent healthy, on board with Juan Castillo's demands and is ready and raring to go.

So, Andrews is the right guard. There is no dispute about that, not at this point, anyway. Max Jean-Gilles is going to have something to say about it as he enters his restricted free agent season, but it seems very obvious that the Eagles are excited to see Andrews perform as they think he can perform: at a very high level as a big, powerful and athletic right guard.

At center, the Eagles have some complications. There is no doubt about that. There is no glossing over the importance of not having Jamaal Jackson in place. He is a premier pass-blocking center in this league and Jackson's run-blocking skills are underrated, too. But he isn't going to play throughout much, if not all, of the summer, as he recovers from his late-season knee injury. In Jackson's place, Nice Cole is the leading contender to start, and that is not a bad thing at all.

Cole is a study, explosive offensive lineman who has proven his worth as a starting guard. He was thrust into a very difficult spot after Jackson's injury last year and had his problems at Cowboys Stadium. Everyone did. Without Jackson, the timing of the offense was not there. The precision was off. The Eagles didn't have the high level of communication they had all season with Jackson on the field.

But Cole has an entire off-season to work as a center. That is a whole lot better than two weeks, isn't it? And the Eagles -- Castillo, especially -- are banking on Cole to rise to the challenge and respond at his natural position.

Those are the starters at this point, in the off-season depth chart in my mind (and, on Friday, we'll see if the coaches agree): Peters, Herremans, Cole, Andrews, Justice, from left to right.

It is a group that has all of the components that comprise a strong offensive line. There is plenty of size and strength and quickness and athletic ability. A good, detail-oriented spring and summer should get this group on the same page and have them pointed in the right direction in 2010.

How about the reserves? Why didn't the Eagles, some ask, pick up some mid- or late-round prospects to build some depth? Well, the answer is because the Eagles have done that in past drafts and think they have a pretty good group of prospect on hand already.

In addition to Jean-Gilles, the Eagles think Mike McGlynn is ready to help at guard and at the center spot. McGlynn was a fourth-round pick a few drafts ago. King Dunlap had a taste of the action last year in Oakland, and while he struggled early, he improved during the course of the game and now has a better understanding of what it takes to make it at this level. Dunlap looks like he has gained serious strength throughout his body.

Why not a late-round draft pick this year? Because the Eagles used a fifth-round pick last year on Fenuki Tupou, and they want to find out about him now. They have a second-year man, Dallas Reynolds, who is up to 314 pounds. They signed A.Q. Shipley after he spent a season on the Steelers practice squad and they want to see what they have him.

There are a couple of players signed on Monday who weren't drafted and they bear some watching. Castillo loves working with big bodies who have good feet, and he has some prospects here to teach.

We'll see how it all comes together. I have great trust in Andy Reid and Juan Castillo to put together a good offensive line. The Eagles have never been shortchanged up front, even last year when the off-season blueprint fell apart so quickly. The Eagles plugged in Justice to replace the injury Shawn Andrews, used Jean-Gilles instead of Stacy Andrews at right guard, moved Cole to left guard until Herremans was healthy and then moved Cole over to right guard when Herremans moved into the lineup ... and still scored a franchise-record number of points.

Not until Jackson's injury, the straw that broke the offensive line's back, so to speak, did the line show signs of weakness.

The picture, from an internal perspective, is much different than some out there believe. I'm all for a dominating offensive line, and I am all for challenging every position. I've written about it in the off-season before. At the same time, I know that Reid values the line as much as any head coach can possibly value a group, and if he is convinced the Eagles are OK there, who am I to argue? They see the players every day working out; they know who is hitting the conditioning program and who is not. They know that Castillo is going to lean on these players heavily starting on Thursday when the players report to the NovaCare Complex to meet and prepare for five practices between Friday and Sunday.

For only the third time in the Reid era, the Eagles did not draft an offensive lineman. All of those years, the Eagles were actually criticized for focusing so much on the guys up front. Now they use 13 picks on other positions and they are still criticized for it. That's the nature of the business, I guess.

Anyway, the Eagles move into the meat of off-season for the players believing they have the right stuff along the offensive line. The proof, as they say ...

Until we know, really know, about the offensive line, there will be questions. The performance on the field will provide the answers.

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