There are a lot of moving parts at work here as the Eagles dig in and prepare for a most crucial off-season. They have a lot of road to cover as they attempt to build a team prepared to be Super Bowl-worthy in 2009 and beyond. There are assets to use, there are avenues to explore and there is a wide-open period of time during the free-agency weeks and the draft to rebuild the roster and take the Eagles to the next level.
What the Eagles have coming back is promising after a run to the NFC Championship Game in 2008, but it isn't enough. The Eagles can't stand pat in the months ahead, and they know that. They know that with plenty of room within the salary cap and with 10 draft picks to use in late April, they have a great opportunity ahead.
I have a personal wish list, which is likely to change as things happen and as the roster takes shape. At this point, there are no definitive names, nor are there specifics as to how the Eagles might accomplish what I would like to see them do between now and August. These are concepts, dreams and some ideas to spark conversation as we wait until free agency begins on February 27.
With that, then, here is my first Wish List for 2009 ...
*DON'T OVERLOOK ANY POSITIONS *
There are enough opinions to go around, certainly, and most of them are focused on the offensive side of the ball. That is totally understood, but it is also the wrong way to approach the off-season. The Eagles have to challenge every spot on the roster and every position on the field. Yeah, ok, maybe the Eagles won't draft a quarterback. They have Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb and A.J. Feeley, so it would seem wise to skill that position.
Still, the Eagles must do their homework and investigate every player who is, or who may not be on the surface, available. What happens, for instance, if the draft rolls around and the Eagles come to the table with the 21st pick and they have a defensive end on their board who is far and away the highest-rated player remaining? You look at the depth chart now and see a Pro Bowl player in Trent Cole, a reserve veteran in Darren Howard who had 10 sacks last year, a good veteran in Juqua Parker, a player in whom the Eagles invested millions in Chris Clemons and some extremely promising young players like Victor Abiamiri and Bryan Smith. It's a good group. Could it be an improved group? Absolutely.
Therein is the challenge for the Eagles. Sure, they have a lot of strengths to work with in the months ahead, and, yeah, they like this roster, but they also can't ignore a player they have rated highly, whether it is in free agency or in the draft. The Eagles need competition, they need to improve their depth and they must continue to add playmakers to this team.
For the record, the positions the Eagles must address, from this perspective, goes like this: Offensive line, halfback, tight end, cornerback, fullback, safety, wide receiver, defensive line, punter. I think the Eagles are strong at linebacker, but I wouldn't rule out someone to challenge either Akeem Jordan or Chris Gocong. David Akers is a great placekicker and I think he worked out his challenges very nicely during the course of the season, so I don't see a great need there or a realistic candidate to come in and beat him out.
That list could change, of course. It's early February, after all.
*GET THE OFEFNSIVE LINE RIGHT *
This is priority number one, as I see it. With veterans Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on February 27, the Eagles have some work ahead of them. Both tackles are question marks as to their return for 2009, and what muddles the picture even more is that Runyan had surgery recently and is likely to still be rehabbing his injury when free agency begins? Can he be healthy for next season? It's one thing to recover from the injury and it is another thing entirely to get back and stay back for 16 punishing games plus, hopefully, the post-season.
Both Thomas and Runyan had their ups and downs last season, but the Eagles knew every week what they were getting from both players. They have always prepared meticulously and have been tactically very sound on the edges. The Eagles allowed the smallest percentage of sacks per pass plays in their history during the 2008 season, so a lot went right up front. Coach Juan Castillo worked his players hard and they responded despite injuries at right guard -- losing both Shawn Andrews and Max Jean-Gilles -- with a good, solid performance.
Is it enough, though, for the immediate future? The Eagles have choices to make, starting with the futures of Thomas and Runyan. If the Eagles decided to bring both back, they expect both tackle spots to be filled and then the focus would be on the interior linemen, where there are plenty of questions. If the Eagles decide to go in another direction for either Thomas or Runyan -- or both -- they are interrupting the stability at the tackle spots and would then prepare for the unknown.
Protecting Donovan McNabb's blind side is a matter of both physical and mental importance. He can't spend any time worrying about his back side. And the Eagles, who had a series of struggles prior to Thomas' arrivals, know they need to have a secure edge there.
It is an interesting, to say the least, situation up front. The Eagles have options, they can move around some players -- Shawn Andrews? Todd Herremans? -- and they still haven't given up on Winston Justice.
Still, you wonder. Free agency may produce a potential starter or two, and the draft is said to be strong up and down the offensive line. But all of that is an unknown, and for a team that has had stability, for the most part, for the last 10-plus seasons, is something new. And it is the most critical part of the next many weeks. The Eagles were OK up front in 2008, and that is a credit to Castillo and the players, but they need to be better at the line of scrimmage. They need to be more physical. They need to handle the blitz. They need to be better in the running game, in short-yardage situations.
Do they go forward with their two veteran tackles? One of them? Neither of them? On the edges of the offensive line, and then moving in, is where the conversation has to start in this off-season.
*TWEAK THE SCHEME ON OFFENSE *
This happens every season, but maybe it happens just a little bit more in this off-season. The Eagles have now had back-to-back seasons in which they didn't perform well enough in the red zone over the course of 16 games, so they have to look at that very, very closely. The offense did a lot of good things in 2008 and it scored a lot of points and clearly has some weapons to work with. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson, for example, should only get better and better, so he needs to have his role expanded as a go-to player in the offense.
In general, though, the Eagles must find a way to be more reliable with their red-zone opportunities and in the situational run game. Simply adding a "big running back" isn't the answer. It is, it seems, more of a philosophical question. The Eagles must have more of a "smash-mouth" mentality and follow the lead of a physical offensive line to run the ball more successfully.
The Eagles need to win more games when McNabb has an off day. They need to have the flexibility to go after a defense with both the run and the pass -- from anywhere on the field.
Any coaching staff that has been together, for the most part, as long as the Eagles' staff has to make sure it doesn't become too predictable. The Eagles regularly check tendencies and success rates, and they have to adjust accordingly in the 2009 season.
What was the personality of the offense last season? With Brian Westbrook hobbled, what became the bread-and-butter plays of the offense? It isn't easy to answer these questions. And how about this: How much has the game plan changed in the 10 years Andy Reid has run the West Coast offense? I am not smart enough to know that answer, but you can bet that the rest of the NFC East is trying to get a bead on what the Eagles have done offensively.
Can the Eagles improve their two-minute offense? Yes. And the red zone? Yes. Can they keep teams off-balance with a once-in-a-while use of the no-huddle offense? Maybe. These are just things to think about as the offensive staff gathers and makes some changes to the approach.
*FOLLOW THE HEAD, NOT THE HEART *
This is going to be a different kind of pre-free agency period than we have ever experienced. Key, beloved veterans like Thomas, Runyan, Brian Dawkins and Correll Buckhalter are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. They have been Eagles for many, many seasons, which separates them from other veterans -- Joselio Hanson, L.J. Smith and Sean Considine -- scheduled to be unrestricted free agents later this month.
Can the Eagles keep each of those veterans? Do they want to keep each of those veterans? Whatever the Eagles decide, they need to think with their heads and not their hearts. Holding on to players too long is a pathway to doom in the NFL, so the Eagles have to make the right decisions not only on those players but on young players they think are ready to become starters, or other veterans who may have taken a step backward.
The cases of players like Justice, wide receiver Reggie Brown and cornerback Lito Sheppard bear watching. Each case is an individual one. Do the Eagles think that those three players fit into the plans for the upcoming season?
It is all about what the players can provide in the years ahead, and not what the players have done in the past. The Eagles have always been outstanding compartmentalizing in this regard. This off-season, they will need to separate the emotions from the task of making this a better football team.
*IMPROVE McNABB'S MECHANICS *
With new quarterbacks coach James Urban taking over for Pat Shurmur, the Eagles have their first hands-on change with McNabb in his NFL career. This can be made into an extremely positive situation with fresh ideas and a new perspective. McNabb, to a degree after 10 NFL seasons, is what he is, and that is a quarterback with a ton of great skills and terrific production.
But every player has weaknesses, and McNabb could certainly stand to improve his accuracy throwing to small windows and allowing his receivers more catches in stride. It's an important facet, as we see every week in the NFL. And for McNabb, the talent is certainly there, but it seems to be more of a matter of consistency.
So it could be a matter of mechanics -- footwork, arm angle, release, whatever. If McNabb can improve his accuracy just a smidgen, it can make a world of difference for this team.
**SHORE UP THE SECONDARY
The addition of Asante Samuel was a huge boost for the defense in 2008. He provided the ball-hawking, big-play presence the secondary needed, and he came up absolutely huge in the playoffs. Samuel made the Pro Bowl, along with safety Brian Dawkins, and the Eagles locked down opposing passing games for much of the season.
Now they have some questions in the secondary. Dawkins is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, along with reserve safety Sean Considine. So is valuable nickel cornerback Joselio Hanson, who passed Sheppard by on the depth chart during the season.
What are the Eagles looking at right now? They have the issues of free agency to deal with. They have the issue of Sheppard, who all of last year was a story about his contract situation. Very soon here, the Eagles are going to learn about Jack Ikegwuonu, who spent his rookie season on the sidelines recovering from his knee injury suffered before last April's draft.
It is important that the Eagles have all of those issues resolved prior to the draft. It would be very hard to lose all three potential unrestricted free agents and not take a step backward, so the Eagles may be very aggressive in the pre-free agency period with those three players. Dawkins, for the record, has said he wants to return to the Eagles and that he thinks "something will get done" for the 2009 season and beyond. We shall see. The countdown to free agency is very much here ...
Anyway, the Eagles have a lot to work with in the secondary if all of their pieces are in place. They have the wild card in Ikegwuonu, who is said to be a very talented player. Can he handle everything else that goes with life at the NFL level?
BE AGGRESSIVE IN FREE AGENCY
The quality of the talent available remains to be seen, but the Eagles are in good cap shape and are going to be prepared to act quickly if there is a player or two they like. It could be a similar scenario to last year when the Eagles signed Samuel and Clemons in the first two days of free agency.
I don't expect the Eagles to sign five or six players in free agency. Truth be told, I don't know what to expect, other than to think the Eagles will explore every player to sign and every trade to make.
That's all there is to say about free agency. It is way too early to speculate about which players the Eagles might like, or what players are even going to reach the market.
**ADD FIREPOWER IN BACKFIELD
Brian Westbrook's aching knee has to be a concern for the coaching staff. He hardly practiced in the second half of the season and the numbers weren't at his usual superstar levels. Westbrook should be ready to go for the regular season, in tip-top shape, but the Eagles need to dedicate themselves to the backfield and to making the running game more efficient.
Buckhalter is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, so that is one question in the backfield. Another is this: Can Lorenzo Booker help this team? The Eagles thought highly of him when they acquired him last April and then he disappeared from the picture during the season. What about now? Will another year in the system help him find a role?
The Eagles must be prepared in case Westbrook isn't ready for 2009. That's just a fact. Remember, they have to separate the heart from the head here. Westbrook is going to come back strong. He is going to have a fantastic season. But just in case ...
*MAKE TIGHT END A BIGGER PART OF THE OFFENSE *
Brent Celek came on strong in his second season, and then he blossomed in a big way in the playoffs, catching 19 passes and scoring 3 touchdowns in the three games. How much better can he be in his third year? Celek has an off-season in front of him to improve, rather than to rehab from the shoulder surgery he had 12 months ago.
Celek deserves the shot to be the starter, and he deserves to be a more featured option in the offense. That said, the Eagles have to address the position should Smith depart in free agency. And Matt Schobel has been a spare part the last couple of seasons, so his status has to be in question, too.
The Eagles must keep the tight end involved in the passing game. And they certainly need the tight end to be a major factor in the red zone, an area of weakness.
Smith did not take the next step the Eagles hoped he would take after making him a second-round draft pick. Celek passed Smith on the depth chart late in the year, and then went out and earned more trust and opportunities for big plays from McNabb. The NFL is about commanding respect between the hashes, and it's about creating good matchups. The tight end here has to be a threat from anywhere on the field to take attention away from Westbrook and from the receivers.
* SOLVE THE SHAWN ANDREWS PUZZLE *
This certainly goes back to an earlier need -- to make the offensive line right. But it goes deeper than that with Andrews, an extraordinary talent who had a troublesome season in 2008. Whether it was his bout with depression or his back injury, Andrews contributed very little to the cause.
Now, as the team looks ahead, how much can they count on Andrews? How much does he love the game? Is his mind right? Is his body right?
At his best, Andrews can take the entire offensive line up to a different level. The Eagles would love him to be at that level. They want to count on him every day.
Can they? Will they? Is Andrews ready to return and be a Pro Bowl player?
Or do the Eagles proceed as if anything they get from Andrews is a bonus?
In any event, the Eagles must find out about Andrews and they must know for sure. He is a critical piece, one way or the other, in the season ahead.