Philadelphia Eagles News

The Day After, The Eagles Look Ahead

Let's end the suspense right now and focus on other things: Head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb are returning for the 2009 season, as Team President Joe Banner reiterated in a statement issued by the team on Monday morning. Good thing, there. The Eagles need to build on what they have, not tear it down and start new.

In this business, you learn to look ahead, no matter how much it hurts. Sunday's 32-25 loss to Arizona leaves everyone with a hollow feeling, a lousy one. A team that turned its season around at 5-5-1 fell short once again in the NFC Championship Game, the fourth time in five trips for the Reid/McNabb era.

But just because the Eagles' 2008 season is over doesn't mean the era has to end. What the Eagles need to do is improve the picture here, better the team and come back strong next season.

There are certainly many reasons to believe the Eagles will be strong next season, and there are plenty of intriguing questions to answer along the way toward building the 2009 roster. There also isn't a whole lot of time here, as the Senior Bowl practices happen this week, free agency begins in six weeks and the draft is right around the corner.

What the Eagles have on their hands is a talented roster with some emerging, young players who deserve a chance to expand their roles in the season ahead. The Eagles also have two first-round draft picks -- the 21st pick in the first round and Carolina's No. 1 pick, the 28th selection overall -- and they have an extra fifth-round pick from Cleveland and an extra sixth-round pick from Minnesota.

Cap room is not a problem at all, but finding players on the market to spend the money on might be. The Eagles can really do what they want to do in free agency, and that includes signed their own players, trading for talent and signing available free agents.

It is going to be a very interesting off-season.

You can basically look at every position -- and we will here in the next weeks and months over and over again -- and have a reasonable question. I'll start here: With McNabb returning, what happens with Kevin Kolb? The Eagles used their first draft pick on a player who isn't going to play for at least three years? Or do the Eagles field trade offers for Kolb, a second-round draft pick in 2007? How about running back, where Brian Westbrook labored through an injury-plagued 2008 season, where Correll Buckhalter is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, and where Lorenzo Booker provided such a disappointing lack of production?

Is Dan Klecko the answer at fullback? Can Kyle Eckel find a role as a big back/fullback here?

Wide receiver? DeSean Jackson is a future standout and Kevin Curtis is a good receiver and Jason Avant emerged as a go-to role receiver, but what about the rest of them? Hank Baskett becomes a restricted free agent and both Reggie Brown and Greg Lewis were in and out of the active gameday plans in the playoffs.

At tight end, Brent Celek showed that he can be a starting-caliber player. He was outstanding in the playoffs. Do the Eagles feel he is ready to carry that responsibility for 16 games? L.J. Smith is an unrestricted free agent on the heels of a poor season as the team's franchise-designated player. It would be, frankly, surprising to see Smith back next year, leaving Celek and Matt Schobel as the only tight ends on the roster.

Position by position we go, with questions at every turn. Veteran offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are warriors, Eagles forever, but they are also scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. What happens with them? Runyan, one of the toughest players to ever put on an Eagles uniform, could barely walk at points in the game on Sunday. How about Shawn Andrews, who played in just two games in '08? Do the Eagles even count on him to play here again? Does he want to play again? Does he love the game enough to give it everything he has?

More questions along the offensive line: Where does Nick Cole fit in? He acquitted himself nicely at right guard, so can the Eagles count on him to compete for a starting job there, or at center, even? Cole can play both positions. How about Max Jean-Gilles, who has a long road to recovery ahead with his broken fibula? Where do youngsters Mike McGlynn and Mike Gibson fit in here?

Defensively, there are fewer obvious questions, but there are questions nonetheless. The Eagles made great strides defensively until they fell apart in the first half in Arizona, and there is a lot to work with here. The first question is an obvious one: Is Brian Dawkins coming back? He was the NFC's Defensive Player of the Month in December and he is the emotional heart of the defense, and he seems to have gas in his tank. But the Eagles will have to answer those questions at the contract table.

Also at safety, Sean Considine and Quintin Demps shared time behind starters Dawkins and Quintin Mikell and all four played well. Considine, another unrestricted free-agent-to-be, was a standout on special teams. Does he come back here next year or does he go looking for more playing time elsewhere? Will Demps have his role increased? He is a very, very talented young player.

In the secondary, valuable nickel cornerback Joselio Hanson is an unrestricted free agent in February and his departure would be a loss. Jack Ikegwuonu is a physical talent and a great athlete who is going to be healthy in the spring. Can he grasp the mental part of this game and understand the way of life in the NFL? Ikegwuonu spent the entire year shelved with a knee injury he suffered prior to the draft and he spent the season watching and learning. Will he be ready to contribute next season?

Lito Sheppard was a tremendous disappointment this season. Instead of competing as a third cornerback, Sheppard fell off the radar screen. Can he get it back here, or is Sheppard no longer in the team's plans? At his best, Sheppard is a Pro Bowl talent, but he didn't help the Eagles much on the field in 2008.

The linebackers came a long way in 2008 and then did not play very well in Arizona, so they have work to do to get better. They will work at it. They have that kind of attitude. They are talented and bright and they will be a strength of this defense. Are the Eagles set, though, with Akeem Jordan at WILL, Stewart Bradley in the middle and Chris Gocong on the strong side? What about Omar Gaither and Joe Mays and even Tracey White, who played very well on special teams along with Tank Daniels?

Along the defensive lines, the Eagles have a lot of depth and talent. Veteran Darren Howard was a Comeback Player of the Year candidate with 10 quarterback sacks. Trent Cole was excellent all year and tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson did a superb job against the run. Trevor Laws played valuable snaps and improved as a rookie. The Eagles want to see more of Victor Abiamiri, who has a bright future, and they want to see Bryan Smith blossom. Juqua Parker played well for much of the year and fit well along with Chris Clemons in the rotation at left end.

Losing Sunday is going to stick with all of us for a long time. It was a sudden and shocking end to a wonderful revival for this team, this city and Eagles fans around the world. The support the team received, well, nobody here can thank the fans enough. You were great all year.

Now it is the team's task to find a way to be great all year in 2009, too. There are a lot of tough decisions ahead. Some of these veteran free agents aren't going to return. The Eagles are keeping Reid and they are keeping McNabb and that's final. No more speculation. What the team needs to do now is build around them, improve the team and start on the road for another journey next season.

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