As the Eagles continue their off-season plan-making, their eventual approach to free agency and the draft will be dictated by several things, not the least of which is how they feel about the current roster here. With that in mind, then, let's consider some of the players who figure to be key in that evaluation process ...
BRENT CELEK, tight end
Brent Celek is in a different place than he was a year ago. Then he was coming off his rookie season and shortly thereafter had surgery on a shoulder injury that had bothered him for his entire rookie season. Celek's second NFL campaign was decidedly improved, punctuated with a fantastic performance in the playoffs.
Celek is now a starting tight end, and you could argue that his upside compares favorably to that of former Eagles tight end Chad Lewis in the way they both create ways to get open, catch the football so well and hang tough in the physical part of the game. Celek would appear to have the edge on Lewis at similar stages of their careers as an in-line blocker and as a runner after he makes the reception.
If the Eagles regard Celek as their guy, as their starting tight end, then they approach free agency and the draft differently. They then wouldn't be looking for an immediate starter to add to a position that could lose L.J. Smith in free agency. If the Eagles are looking to upgrade the spot and use Celek as more of a second tight end, then the Eagles might be more aggressive in free agency or, even, in the top half of the first half of the April draft to select the premier prospect on the board.
There is every reason to believe that Celek is going to take another large step forward in 2009. He is healthy now and working on the nuances of the game, rather than spending the next many weeks recovering from surgery. Celek came a long, long way last year and if he makes that kind of improvement in '09, the Eagles are going to have a strong weapon at tight end.
Make no mistake, the Eagles would be smart to add to the position. Smith would certainly seem to be a candidate to leave in free agency, and Matt Schobel has not been much a part of the offense in his time here. The question for the Eagles is whether they are looking for a starter now or for a player to compete with Celek and improve the depth of tight end in 2009.
*VICTOR ABIAMIRI, defensive end *
Injuries stunted the development of Victor Abiamiri in his second NFL season. Too bad. The Eagles wanted to see more and more of Abiamiri, because every time he played, they liked his production. After missing the first five weeks of the season with a wrist injury, Abiamiri came back and gradually worked his way into the rotation as a nickel tackle and a reserve defensive end.
He had 22 tackles and 2 sacks in 10 regular season games and added 6 more total tackles and a sack in his two playoff appearances. Abiamiri is not a flashy, speed-off-the-edge end; rather, he is a technician who is strong against the run and a presence inside as a pass-rushing tackle.
Here are the questions with Abiamiri: Can he develop into a consistent producer as an end and a tackle and give the Eagles more production from both positions? Can Abiamiri allow Trent Cole to have some freedom as a pass rusher? Is Abiamiri good enough that the Eagles don't have to look for that one pass rusher who can maybe put this defense over the top?
No doubt the Eagles have a lot of positives when it comes to the defense. The Eagles made a great improvement in 2008 on defense. To take things over the top for this group, the Eagles must complement Cole with another force up front. Is that force someone, like Abiamiri, on the current roster? Bryan Smith? Can the Eagles count on another big season from Darren Howard?
Really, the Eagles must know what their strategy is going in. Are they going to keep rotating and believe that the sum of all the parts is sufficient along their front four? Or do they go out into the off-season in search of that missing piece, that single player, who can make a significant different with this defense.
AKEEM JORDAN, WILL linebacker
Akeem Jordan replaced Omar Gaither in the starting lineup for the final six weeks of the regular season and then through the playoffs and put up some eye-popping numbers: 7 solo tackles in Baltimore, 9 total tackles against Cleveland, double-digit tackles at Washington and home against Dallas and then a superlative 13-tackle game against Minnesota in the Wild Card playoff game.
All the while, even as a starter, Jordan continued as one of the best special teams players on the Eagles. He ranked third on the team in production points and was second on the Eagles with 21 tackles on teams.
Is he the answer at WILL?
The Eagles have a good thing at linebacker with all of their young, rising players. They also have to make sure that Jordan is what he looked to be in '08: A fast, rangy player who buzzes around the ball and makes plays.
A full off-season gives offensive coaches plenty of time to find weaknesses in players. Every player has them, and coaches do a great job of exploiting them. The challenge for Jordan is to understand his weaknesses and improve them. It isn't as easy as it sounds, not at this level.
Teams are going to run at Jordan, as the Cardinals did, and make him prove he can get off his blocks and make tackles. They are going to test his mobility and his strength.
This is an important off-season for Jordan and, of course, for the Eagles. Would they ever sign a weak-side linebacker, or would they use a high draft pick on a prospect there? Is Jordan the guy going into the season? Or is Gaither or one of the other linebackers on this team still in the picture?
NICK COLE, offensive guard
After filling in for Max Jean-Gilles, who filled in for Shawn Andrews, Nick Cole proved in 5 regular season starts and then 3 more in the playoffs that he can play and play well in the NFL. So what does that mean for the Eagles?
It means a lot, actually. There is no doubt the offensive line is going to draw a lot of attention in the weeks to come from the Eagles. No question about that, with starting tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in two weeks. There are many variables to consider, but the Eagles understand that Cole played well in his tough audition last season. Now they know they have a piece here who can be used as a backup or as a starter, and maybe as a center and a player to line up at both guard spots.
I wonder if the Eagles are thinking about Cole as a starter along the offensive line. That would certainly change the dynamic up front, wouldn't it? Or do they consider him best suited for a reserve role? Interesting stuff.
There are going to be changes up front in the weeks ahead, no question. How Cole is being considered right now is part of the picture for the Eagles' offensive line.
DeSEAN JACKSON, wide receiver/punt returner
After his terrific rookie season, DeSean Jackson is a star on the rise. He is going to be a dynamic play-maker for this team for many years to come. Jackson's ceiling is very high as both a receiver and a return man, and that leads into the way the Eagles most want to use him. Would Jackson, for example, be more effective as a wide receiver if he did not return punts? Would he be fresher running routes if that were his sole responsibility?
Or, on the other hand, would Jackson be more effective as a wide receiver if he had fewer responsibilities? Could the Eagles lessen his reps at wide receiver to make him more productive? And if they did that, would they have to go out and bring in via free agency, a trade or the draft, someone to take those reps and catch those passes?
And how about this: Would the Eagles consider taking Jackson off the field entirely as a return man to allow him to concentrate on wide receiver?
Jackson is a valuable asset and the Eagles need to use him properly. I don't buy the notion that he is too slight to play on a full-time basis. Jackson has to be on the field. But where? And when? And how?
*BRIAN WESTBROOK, running back *
Prepare yourselves for an off-season of "Can Brian Westbrook hold up?" stories. It is a valid question, but let's make one thing clear here: Westbrook is one of the very best running backs in the league and even in a season when he battled injuries, Westbrook scored 14 touchdowns.
The key phrase is "When he is healthy ...."
So that is what the Eagles must determine. Just how far do they go believing that Westbrook will bounce back from the injury-riddled 2008 and be a game-in, game-out star in 2009?
It is very cut and dried: If the Eagles think Westbrook, who turns 30 this year -- the magical number for running backs, it seems -- can be a star and stay healthy, they are likely not to invest in a running back in free agency, or in the draft. But if there is any sense of needing insurance, or needing another "look" in the backfield, the Eagles could take that plunge.
Maybe the "plunge" is re-signing Correll Buckhalter. I don't know the plan. I know how productive Buckhalter has been in his career here, and he is a quality player. Maybe, though, the plunge is more significant and unexpected. We'll see soon.
*KYLE ECKEL, fullback *
Fullback is an interesting position. The Eagles, after a long search period, went with Dan Klecko last year, and he seemed to get better as the season went along. Who knows how much better he will be with a full year and an off-season to dedicate to the position?
Kyle Eckel, though, offers an interesting alternative. He played well in short-yardage situations late in the season and should be around to get another look in the spring and summer. Not a prototype body, Eckel is a hard-nosed player who understands the position. He is going to offer competition, for sure.
But is Eckel enough of an option to convince the Eagles that they are OK at fullback for next season?
*SHAWN ANDREWS, offensive guard/tackle *
We have talked about this extensively in the off-season already. Just what can the Eagles count on from Shawn Andrews, who is a Pro Bowl player and a dominating offensive linemen when he is healthy and right?
Andy Reid had his end-of-season chat with Andrews and Andrews said all the right things in his exit interview with the media. He is likely to be an active participant in the off-season conditioning program that begins in March. Having a healthy Andrews back on the field would be a huge plus for the Eagles.
But would he play guard, where he has made two Pro Bowls? Or is it time to move Andrews to tackle? Or ... do the Eagles count on Andrews at all?
REGGIE BROWN, wide receiver
Another player that has been discussed in the off-season. Reggie Brown is coming off a very disappointing 2008 season and his career here has to be considered at a crossroads. Still young, still talented and still a hard worker, Brown is, well, I don't know.
If the Eagles go out and get a big-time receiver in the coming weeks, Brown's situation would seem to be even more tenuous. If they don't, maybe the team is thinking that Brown will bounce back and contribute as a rotation receiver in 2009.
Obviously, Brown's play has been much discussed over the years. He has lacked the consistency to put it all together, and then last season everything just fell apart after injuries sidelined him early in the year.
QUINTIN DEMPS, safety
With Brian Dawkins and Sean Considine scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, the Eagles are -- at this very moment -- thin at safety with just Quintin Mikell and Quintin Demps signed for 2009. Now, here's hoping they can Dawkins back. He is such an important part of this team, on and off the field. Considine, who had a good, good season in '08 both on special teams and as a reserve safety, is likely looking for a starting job this year. I'm guessing he has plenty of offers in free agency. His will be a case to watch come February 27.
Demps has to take a big step forward this season and be ready for significant playing time. He has excellent skills, a good head on his shoulders and he has a chance to be a really good player. They say a player improves the most from year one to year two; Demps will offer a case study to watch closely.
As a return man, Demps should thrive under Ted Daisher's scheme that stresses hard-charging, straight-ahead speed returns with return men who are strong enough to break tackles. Demps fits that bill.
In his second season, Demps will have much more responsibility. Just how much depends, in large degree, on what the Eagles do in the coming months.