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Stoutland Excited About O-Line Picture

Jeff Stoutland is holding court, and when that happens he's usually snorting and snuffing and animated and passionate talking about his favorite subject: The Eagles offensive line.

It is an offensive line that has some question marks after an injury-riddled 2014. Left guard Evan Mathis, who has played in the last two Pro Bowls, hasn't attended any of the offseason workouts or Organized Training Activities. Longtime right guard Todd Herremans left in free agency and signed with Indianapolis. The Eagles didn't use a pick on the offensive line for the second consecutive draft weekend.

Questions, yes. Concerns? Not for Stoutland, who likes what he's worked with through five OTA sessions and who always sees the upside in his players, no matter their NFL portfolio. Stoutland begins his overview by lauding four players who will have key roles up front in 2015.

"I feel like we have two left tackles that are playing with our team, in Lane (Johnson, right tackle) and JP (Jason Peters). I mean that sincerely. And obviously (Jason) Kelce is the conductor of the whole band. He does an awesome job at what he does. He's got a lot of respect from our team, the players here. You can ask any of them. He gets tremendous respect from the players for what he's all about. The other player I really think is underrated is Allen Barbre. He is a really good player. We have a lot of confidence in him and his abilities."

That's a good start for the offensive line. Peters is an All-Pro left tackle who continues to impress Stoutland with his ageless athleticism in these OTAs. Kelce last season made the first of what should be multiple Pro Bowls. Johnson is an emerging talent who everyone believes will take that big step forward to elite in his third NFL season. Barbre is playing left guard for now and the foreseeable future after breaking his ankle in Week 1 last season filling in for Johnson at right tackle. At right guard? It's Matt Tobin and then Andrew Gardner and Stoutland professes major confidence in both.

The bottom line? While it's reasonable to ask questions about the guard spots with Mathis away and Herremans gone, Stoutland believes in what he has and when that comes from one of the game's best offensive line coaches, you get a feeling of confidence and relief and anticipation all rolled into one huge exhale.

"I feel good about the guard situation. We've got a lot of good players around here," Stoutland said. "Right now it's to find the right person, the right people, to play those positions. There's no depth chart right now. Right now we're trying to find the right mix, so every day it's a different person in there, getting a look at him on film and just evaluating the critical factors as they are in there."

Tobin looms as a hugely important player in the offensive line equation. A third-year man from Iowa who went undrafted in 2013, Tobin has taken steps forward in each of his first two seasons. He used 2013 to get stronger and learn the NFL game after starting his final two years at Iowa at left tackle and left guard. In 2014, when injuries swept through the offensive line, Tobin moved from his sixth-man role into a starting position, getting two starts at left guard and five at right guard. The results were mixed, and in the end Gardner stepped in started the final six games of the season.

Is Tobin ready to become a full-time starter at right guard? Is Gardner the guy there? Are the Eagles solid enough with Tobin in the lead role?

"Put it this way: There are areas that I thought he needed to improve in and he's very conscious of those things," Stoutland said. "Whenever it rears its ugly head again, we right away jump on it and talk about it and say, 'You need to keep your hips down and sustain better balance. You need to be more violent with your hands and you need engage the blocks. You can't get your hands clean.' "

Stoutland calls Gardner "the most versatile player that we have," and that would seem to make him the best fit for the critical sixth-man role along the offensive line. He can flip sides and he can play inside and outside, and Stoutland moves Gardner around when the situation dictates.

And as Gardner's playing time increased last year and Tobin's went down, something clicked in Tobin. He's "a man on a mission," says Stoutland, who says that Tobin is "more hungry" after losing his starting spot in 2014.

Who else? Kevin Graf spent 2014 on both the Eagles practice squad and the active roster after signing in the post-draft period. Josh Andrews was here on the practice squad last season. Julian Vandervelde has been in the system for a few seasons. David Molk stepped in at center last season when Kelce was injured. Four rookies were signed after the 2015 draft and Stoutland and assistant line coach Greg Austin are developing those talents.

Can the Eagles use another good lineman or two? Yeah, sure. What team out there wouldn't want more? Stoutland works with what the roster gives him and he gets the most out of his players as a great teacher who has off-the-charts passion and dedication. The Eagles led the NFL in rushing and in explosive plays in 2013 when the line started the same five players for 16 regular-season games. They started seven different combinations and used 11 linemen in all last year, started two quarterbacks and still ran the ball well, passed it effectively and scored a lot of points.

No matter the names, the level of talent or what the outside world says, Stoutland says the expectations don't change. Not one bit.

"The expectations are always high. It doesn't matter year from year to year. You were selected to be here, you were selected to be part of the Philadelphia Eagles and so we go about business every day from an individual standpoint working on all the little things to a team standpoint," Stoutland said. "These guys who are here right now, I can tell you and I'm being honest with you, they're responded extremely well to everything we're doing. There are certain days when we slow it to teach, and there are other days when we want to go-go-go, and you don't have to keep harping on it. You tell it to them one time and they respond."

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