It is difficult to put aside the emotion at this time of the year. The fans feel it. The team does, too, but between the joy of signing free agent Stacy Andrews and the sorrow of seeing the beloved Brian Dawkins join Denver, there is a reality check. Where are the Eagles after a flurry of moves on the first weekend of free agency, and what is forthcoming? Let's take a look ...
- Andrews is a player on whom the Eagles are counting on in a big way. The young man is a monster, a physical specimen who has his best football in front of him. Andrews didn't start playing football until he was in college, at Mississippi, so he is a work in progress. That's a good thing for line coach Juan Castillo, who is salivating at the thought of working with a player as nimble, as athletic and as untapped as Andrews. The tests on Andrews' injured right knee proved to be positive, and he will continue to work to get ready for training camp and the regular season.
What we don't know about Andrews is when he will be ready to play. Head coach Andy Reid didn't commit to a timetable, saying only that Andrews is making good progress and that the Eagles' athletic training staff will continue to monitor Andrews. We also don't know where the Eagles plan to play Andrews, although right tackle is a good guess. The Eagles loved what they saw from Andrews at that position when he was a Bengal. In a game against the Giants last year, Andrews limited Justin Tuck to two tackles and zero sacks. Andrews has the width and the quick feet as a former basketball player to get out against the speed rush, and he has the long arms and the strength to beat the bull rush.
His presence gives the Eagles more options along the offensive line. They still have a question about who plays where, but they have more bodies and more talent to compete. With Stacy Andrews in town, Shawn Andrews sounded in great spirits and said he was ready physically when he spoke via conference call to the Philadelphia media on Saturday. Could Shawn Andrews play next to his brother and line up at right guard? Or could Shawn play left tackle? He said Saturday it is more natural for him to line up on the left side.
We will see. In the mix is Nick Cole, who is expected to compete for a starting job at the guard spots or at center, and the question with Tra Thomas remains. He is an unrestricted free agent, and there have been no published reports indicating that Thomas is receiving interest on the open market.
Maybe he comes back to the Eagles, solidifying the left tackle spot. Maybe the Eagles consider Shawn Andrews or left guard Todd Herermans, who played well at left tackle in his rookie season, as candidates to protect Donovan McNabb's blind side this season.
Stacy Andrews is not here to be a "solid" offensive lineman. He is here to dominate. That is why the Eagles reached out and made him their first target in free agency. Andrews was heavily courted in free agency. He was a top, top pick for many teams. The Eagles won out and now they are looking for big things up front from a big, big young man.
- Cornerback Lito Sheppard was traded to the Jets on Saturday, a deal that on the surface helps everybody. The Jets get a player who they are penciling in as a starter. Sheppard gets a chance to play and prove again that he is an elite cornerback. And the Eagles get two draft picks, reportedly a fifth-round selection this year and a conditional pick next year that starts as a fourth-round pick but one that could escalate to a second-round pick. Sheppard would have to meet certain playing-time requirements, I'm sure, to provide maximum benefit for the Eagles.
Sheppard's 2008 season was a washout, really. He never held out, to his credit, after the Eagles signed Asante Samuel in free agency, but Sheppard didn't do a whole lot on the field, either. He had a big interception in the end zone against Atlanta, but otherwise Sheppard faded from the rotation at cornerback. He was passed by Joselio Hanson on the depth chart, and Hanson was rewarded with a nice pre-free agency contract two weeks ago.
The extra fifth-round draft pick from the Jets gives the Eagles a whopping 11 draft picks on April 25-26, including two picks in the first round, three picks in the fifth round and two more in the sixth round. What the Eagles will do with those picks is anyone's guess. Expect them to be very active moving up, down, all around for those two days.
Without Sheppard, the Eagles still have a good situation at cornerback, but they could add more. Samuel and Sheldon Brown are the starters, with Hanson at the third cornerback spot. Second-year man Jack Ikegwuonu is going to get his shot to show what he can do after sitting out his rookie season rehabbing from his pre-draft knee injury, but the Eagles will have to consider some insurance.
- The tough part of the day was finding out, officially, that Dawkins had signed a five-year contract to join the Broncos. There is nothing but love and respect for what Dawkins has done with the Eagles, and there is a profound sense of disappointment that he won't play here in 2009 and that he won' t retire as an Eagle. Dawkins got a deal he couldn't turn down to sign up in Denver. We will all miss him, and we all thank him for the many, many memories.
But this is the NFL, and there is no time for crying. The Eagles anticipated the possibility that Dawkins would move on once free agency started. Now they have to make sure they replace his production on the field, and fill the void in leadership on the team. It would slight the rest of this team, suddenly made up of a very young and talented locker room, to suggest that Dawkins is irreplaceable. Everyone in this league can be replaced. The Eagles have been down this road before with players like Troy Vincent, Duce Staley, Hugh Douglas, Jeremiah Trotter and others. And they have always rebounded.
Quintin Demps is the first man in, at this point, to play free safety. The Eagles liked what Demps showed as a rookie. He absorbed the defense quickly. He has the great speed and sideline-to-sideline ability necessary to play free safety. He was more physical than the rap Demps was given coming out of college.
Surely, the Eagles would have kept Dawkins had they felt they could not live without him. The Eagles have the resources with their salary-cap space and their draft picks. Dawkins is gone and there is no time for the team to mourn. Free agency is still early, although a thin field of talent has thinned greatly already.
If you trust Reid and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, you know they will make it work on defense. Dawkins was used differently in the last couple of seasons. He made the majority of his plays at the line of scrimmage, and he made plenty of big plays. Perhaps the Eagles can now give different looks to the defense and take advantage of the young legs and the speed Demps provides.
You can be certain that the Eagles will address the position again. It isn't even a given that Demps will play free safety. Who knows? It's too early to know for sure. The draft has a lot of good prospects expected to be taken in the second-to-third-round range, and the Eagles will keep their eyes open to replace Dawkins and Sean Considine -- who signed with Jacksonville -- on the roster.
- As for what happens next, well, your guess is as good as mine. At this point in free agency, the big-dollar deals and the top talents are largely gone. Those players still unsigned likely have large dollar signs still in their eyes, but the market will now grind to a mini-halt. There were few "stars" in free agency this year, anyway. What remains is a group of role players who can help a team, but who won't come in and command high dollars and a starting job. This is the time when high-level talks kick into another gear as the roads to trades are paved and deals are discussed in generalities.
The Eagles have their needs, and they have a lot of work to do in the weeks ahead. They need, from this perspective, answers at several positions. Here is a list ...
- Left tackle needs to be firmed up. Whether it is Thomas, or moving a player to the spot on the line now, or using a high draft pick on a left tackle of the future, the Eagles must know by the end of the day on April 25 (the draft's first day) how left tackle looks. Reid will not go into a season with a less-than-stellar offensive line.
- With Correll Buckhalter having signed in Denver, the Eagles clearly want to go to a more stout -- read, younger? -- solution behind Brian Westbrook. Either the Eagles get in the game for unrestricted free agent Derrick Ward -- a long shot, as I see it -- or they use a draft pick on one of the many fine prospects to bring in a player who can carry the football 20 times a game every week, if necessary.
- A second tight end. Brent Celek deserves the starting job. But with L.J. Smith a free agent and expected to leave, the Eagles need another quality option here. Brandon Pettigrew headlines an interesting group of tight ends in the draft. There isn't much out there in free agency. A trade? Could be, but the Eagles will really have to be creative here. Kansas City isn't going to trade away Tony Gonzalez, for example. Having acquired quarterback Matt Cassel on Saturday, the Chiefs are in win-now mode with a bunch of draft picks already for April.
- Safety. Minus Dawkins and Considine, the safety numbers are thin.
- Cornerback. Maybe the Eagles surprise us all and go cornerback early in the draft. Can't hurt to add another quality cornerback to a good group.
- Wide receiver. I'll throw this in there. The Eagles have shown no interest in T.J. Houshmandzadeh or Marvin Harrison or any of the other "names" out there. If they bring in a receiver, they want to bring in a clear, no-doubt-about-it upgrade. I think it is a remote possibility, at best.
- Fullback. Look, there are players out there, if the Eagles wanted to add somebody like Leonard Weaver. But the team has not moved in that direction. So right now, it's Dan Klecko and Kyle Eckel.
- Return game. If Demps starts at free safety, he won't return kickoffs. Same with DeSean Jackson, who may have to give up his return duties in the punt game if he is the go-to receiver in the passing game. So there is a bunch to do. The front office knows it. They are digging in, understanding the way the market works and knowing very well the landscape of the market, both now and in the future.