The interior of the offensive line was completely changed prior to the start of last season. The 2011 Eagles opened the year with a new starter at left guard, center and right guard. The Eagles kept the trio that finished the season intact when they inked left guard Evan Mathis to a new five-year contract in the offseason. With the starting pieces in place, what are the biggest questions facing the interior of the offensive line with Training Camp on the horizon ...
1. Will The "Big Three" Take The Next Step?
Upon the team's arrival at Training Camp last year, the team's first-round pick, Danny Watkins, was not signed. It was not yet known that Jason Kelce, an unheralded sixth-round pick out of Cincinnati, would be taking first-team reps at center. And Evan Mathis? He was on the street looking for a job. It is remarkable how much has changed since then.
Offensive line coach Howard Mudd worked wonders with the tackles - Jason Peters and Todd Herremans - but his best work might have come with the interior of the line. Watkins was not ready to be a starter at the beginning of the season, but Mudd continued to work with him and by Week 5 he was ready to get on the field. Watkins improved as the season progressed as he became more comfortable and confident in his abilities. Kelce was the Week 1 starter at center and his offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has since proclaimed that Kelce is the best young center in football. Mathis was a journeyman who earned a starting job and parlayed it into a five-year contract in the offseason.
Will the Eagles' interior line be able to hit the ground running, so to speak, once camp begins? Mathis will not have the benefit of the All-Pro Peters due to injury on his left as he adjusts to new starting left tackle Demetress Bell. Even though he received his big contract, Mathis finally found a home and a scheme in which he thrived in. He certainly will want to prove that he was not just some one-year wonder. Kelce and Watkins get the benefit of a full offseason after becoming the first rookie O-line duo in team history to start more than 10 games together. Kelce spent a day this offseason with former Mudd pupil Jeff Saturday to learn the intricacies of playing center in the NFL. Watkins, meanwhile, should benefit from not being in the spotlight. After being criticized for not starting immediately, Watkins was able to focus on football once he got on the field.
As much as the loss of Peters hurt this offseason, if the interior starting trio of Mathis, Kelce and Watkins all improve than the line as a whole will be much improved in 2012.
2. Who Will Be The Backup At Center?
According to Pro Football Focus, no player on offense played more snaps in 2011 than starting center Jason Kelce, who played in all but six of the team's plays. Herremans played the exact same amount. Last year, the Eagles had a veteran backup in Jamaal Jackson, who was a longtime starter for the Eagles and someone who could be relied upon to spell Kelce if needed. The Eagles released Jackson this offseason. Who will be the backup?
The two players who worked primarily as the backup at center in the Organized Team Activities were Dallas Reynolds and Steve Vallos. Reynolds is a veteran of the Eagles organization having spent the past three years on the practice squad. He has learned both Juan Castillo's and Mudd's methods when it comes to offensive line technique. With no more practice squad eligibility remaining, this is the make-or-break year for Reynolds.
The Eagles did sign Steve Vallos earlier this offseason. The fifth-year veteran has played in 40 career NFL games and started in eight of those contests (with seven at center). As excited as the team is about Kelce, the Eagles need to have a backup option in case of injury. Vallos provides insurance from an experience standpoint, but the Eagles want to see how he performs in Mudd's scheme at Training Camp and the preseason.
Second-year Eagle Julian Vandervelde also took snaps at center during the OTAs. He played in the Arizona game last season at guard, but that was it. Vandervelde started in 37 college games, but played both guard spots not center.
3. Will The Eagles Opt For Youth Or Experience?
In addition to Vallos, the Eagles brought back former draft pick Mike Gibson who in entering his fourth NFL season. Between the two of them, Vallos and Gibson have played in 60 regular season games. Gibson has eight career starts and two more in the postseason.
The Eagles have a number of young players at both guard and center in addition to Vandervelde. Brandon Washington was a sixth-round pick this year and Alfred McCullough was added as a rookie free agent.
Last season, the Eagles kept three backup interior linemen - Jackson, Vandervelde and King Dunlap. Two of those players had NFL experience while one was a rookie.
Yes, Dunlap factors into the mix at guard, but is right now the top swing tackle who also has an eye on the left tackle job. That offers the Eagles some flexibility. That could also be why Vandervelde was taking snaps at center in the spring. If a player can play more than one position, it will help when it comes time to whittle down the 90-man roster.
Will the Eagles want a player or two on the bench with some experience? Or will the Eagles simply keep the players who shine during Training Camp and the preseason? Needless to say, based on the fact that Mudd started a rookie at center from the beginning of Training Camp last year, it seems the Eagles will want the best players regardless of experience.
It will be interesting to see what the depth chart looks like once the full-team practices begin Thursday, July 26.
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