Jeff Stoutland is in a really, really happy mood. He's looking up at the depth chart of his Eagles offensive line and you know what he sees? He sees depth. He sees competition. He sees a chance to have something very special up front for the team's offense in 2017.
"This is great, what we're doing. I give the credit to Howie Roseman and to Joe Douglas that they've got the faith in me to work with all of these players and put something together with our offensive line that I think we're all going to be very happy with," Stoutland said. "It's going to be a lot of fun seeing all of these players pushing each other to be the best they can be this year."
Ah, the offensive line. The staple of Andy Reid's teams from 2000-08 when the Eagles went to five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl, it was largely ignored in the three Chip Kelly seasons. Outside of the first-round pick used on Lane Johnson in 2013, the Eagles didn't use another draft pick with Kelly at the helm. The lack of front-line talent and depth caught up with the team and strained Stoutland as the offense bogged down late in 2014 and for most of 2015.
Last year, the Eagles made the offensive line a priority again with Doug Pederson on board as the head coach and with Roseman back in charge of personnel. They signed veteran Stefen Wisniewski as an unrestricted free agent. They used two draft picks on linemen – Isaac Seumalo in the third round and Halapoulivaati Vaitai in the fifth round.
They gave Stoutland some options. He needed every one of them, too, as Johnson's 10-game suspension along with some injuries forced the Eagles to use five different starters at right tackle and seven starting combinations along the offensive line through the course of the year.
The line, then, was a big priority for the Eagles in the first few days of free agency.
"We want it to be the best it can be," Roseman said. "Make it great up there with a deep, competitive unit. That was part of our plan."
And now, the Eagles have kept the offensive line front of mind. Wisniewski is back on a three-year contract. Chance Warmack, a starting guard with the Titans, was signed on a one-year contract.
And Stoutland is smiling.
"I think very few teams in the NFL will go through a season without having injuries. I think the Atlanta Falcons were the only team this year that made it through the year with all five players intact. We did it in 2013 and we went to the playoffs," he said. "But it's few and far between. You have to prepare yourself for injury situations. Right now, we have two groups of guys who are going to compete with each other.
"It's going to bring out the best in everybody. It's going to be a lot of fun."
There has been a narrative in some circles that the Eagles are preparing to release some of their veterans, notably center Jason Kelce. That isn't the case. The Eagles plan on Kelce starting at center. They have Jason Peters at left tackle ("He had the best year last year since I've been coaching him," Stoutland said of Peters. "He's been fantastic.") They have Lane Johnson at right tackle. They have Brandon Brooks at right guard. They have an open situation at left guard and players like Seumalo, Allen Barbre, Wisniewski, and Warmack will compete for the job.
They have depth and starting experience up and down the line.
On Kelce, Stoutland says, "He had a better 2016 than he did in 2015. I'm not just saying that, I know that. I grade all the film. He is the conductor of the band. He runs the show, and he knows it inside and out. He has room for improvement and he did get better towards the end of the year.
"I'm very much so excited about this group. When you're away from the players as we have been, you get a little ornery and you get a little antsy and then you look at the board and you see the guys who are coming back and you see Chance coming in, you get excited. I know there is going to be a lot of competition. I know there is going to be a lot of energy and that's what makes the game fun."
Where does Warmack fit into the equation? We'll see. Stoutland had him at Alabama, where Warmack was the best lineman in the country and, eventually, the 10th-overall pick in the 2013 draft. A massive guy, Warmack responded to Stoutland's aggressive, and loving, style of coaching.
If Warmack returns to that level, look out for this line. The Eagles will have to find room to play Warmack somewhere.
"He was extremely physical at Alabama. He played left guard for us and was really a dominating force at the college level, in the SEC. That's the reason he was drafted 10th overall, because he dominated the people he played against," Stoutland said. "He was eager, wants to learn, wants to be coached hard, which I did and he responded. I'm going to coach him the same way here. I know how he ticks. I know how he thinks and he knows how I think. We're on the same page. For him, it's going to be a real easy transition into our system and I'm excited.
"I think it will be easier for him to go from Tennessee and what they do to here than it was for him to go from Alabama to Tennessee because I coached him all through college and the terminology, from a personal technique standpoint, is extremely similar. When I found out we got him, I was very excited. I know what kind of player he was in college and I know what kind of player he can be at the NFL level."
Warmack is another piece in a very deep crop of offensive linemen who are going to bring it every day in practice. Stoutland, after years of working with a skeleton crew, has all kinds of options now. And that means good things, and maybe great things, at the line of scrimmage for the Eagles in 2017.
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