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Strength in trenches and at QB give Eagles edge in NFC East

Jason Kelce was a rookie in 2011 when the NFL was locked down during a labor dispute, and the players were sidelined and prohibited from contacting team personnel, for four and a half months. From mid-March through the end of July, the players were on their own.

The difference between then and now are significant, though: The players now can take part in a team's offseason program, albeit in a virtual manner. That means players have the opportunity to participate in a conditioning program as well as classroom sessions, and they all have a playbook loaded into their tablets. Kelce, for example, didn't have access to the playbook until two days before the Eagles reported to Training Camp at Lehigh University.

That didn't stop him from earning playing time right away – Kelce started all 16 games that season, and he hasn't looked back since.

"Part of it was a lucky situation," Kelce said. "Howard Mudd (then the offensive line coach) wanted a different center, a more athletic guy than what he had before and they were giving me an opportunity. And then part of it, I'm a pretty smart, cerebral guy, so I kind of grasp things pretty quickly.

"There's no doubt that it's going to be a struggle (in 2020) for the young guys, and for rookies and even free agents, moreso for rookies. You're just going to have to hit it that much harder when everything does get cleared up."

It's a challenge for every team and every player. The good news for the Eagles is that they have a roster that is returning largely intact, particularly in areas where they have invested the most through the years: The offensive and defensive lines, along with the quarterback position. For the purposes of this conversation, the focus is on the line of scrimmage, where the Eagles are expected to be extremely strong.

With Kelce as the lead, the offensive line returns four of five starters from the 2019 season – Isaac Seumalo at left guard, Brandon Brooks at right guard, and Lane Johnson at right tackle. Second-year man Andre Dillard, the team's first-round draft pick in 2019, is in position to start at left tackle. Kelce is confident that the very talented Dillard is ready for the promotion, despite the lack of spring on-field reps.

"Andre is a guy who I think has incredible physical abilities," Kelce said. "He's very quick-twitched, he can move his feet really well, he's athletic, he's smart, he's got a lot of the things that are hard to get if you don't have them. If there was one weakness in his game last year, it was power. I think he knows that and everybody knows that. It wasn't even that big of a weakness that we couldn't go out there and win games with him because we did, at times. Now, he gets a whole offseason to improve on that."

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Since the early days of Andy Reid, the Eagles have invested in the offensive line and it's paid off in a significant way. Whether it's the NFL Draft, free agency, or additions in other creative ways, along with a heavy investment in coaching, the Eagles have made sure to keep their offensive line as good as any in the league. This starting five includes two first-round draft picks – Johnson and Dillard, a third-round pick in Seumalo, a priority free agent in Brooks and Kelce, a sixth-round draft pick who is one of the best selections the Eagles have ever made in their franchise history.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles have made the same kind of investment. Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and Derek Barnett are first-round draft picks. Malik Jackson and Javon Hargrave are high-level free agent additions.

Winning in the trenches matters. The Eagles have proven that with their commitment year after year after year.

"We're going to build from the line of scrimmage out," General Manager Howie Roseman has said in the past. "That's the way we put together a roster."

And, of course, the Eagles made the ultimate investment at quarterback when Roseman engineered a series of trades in 2016 to get to the No. 2 overall position in the NFL Draft to select Carson Wentz, the move that, coupled with the arrival of Doug Pederson as the head coach, reignited the Eagles as one of the NFL's premier teams.

It's a nifty and consistent method to building a winner: Make your lines of scrimmage the best they can be, develop a young quarterback into one of the game's best, and then draft, develop, and retain the core of the roster, filling in areas of need through free agency and other creative ways of adding talent.

So, in these unique times as the Eagles continue on in their virtual offseason, we all try to predict how the season will play out and how the NFC East will look with three teams welcoming in new head coaches. The Eagles have the experienced hand in Pederson and they have the best combination of offensive line/defensive line/quarterback in the division. That's the formula that wins games, and while the global pandemic has presented unimaginable hardships far beyond the sport of football, the Eagles are navigating the landscape as well as can be expected.

"I'm very excited and I can't wait to get going again with the guys," Kelce said.

That's the general feeling within the team. We're in mid-May. Players are getting their work in. Coaches are meeting, virtually, and putting the schemes in place. It's business as usual, as close to the way it used to be as is possible. And the Eagles know this: They're good at the line of scrimmage, very good. They're great at quarterback. They have a path to winning a lot of football games in 2020, no matter the circumstances.

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