2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Eric Edholm
So much of the Eagles' 2010 season was centered around Michael Vick, for both good and bad. The obvious good: Vick was better than ever, an MVP candidate until late in the season, and he helped carry the team through some rough patches.
Vick also helped mask some of the team's other problems, such as the declining defense, which led to the ouster of coordinator Sean McDermott following the season.
Although Vick apparently has reinvented himself and now is the unquestioned leader of the Eagles, the pressure has been increased significantly.
One other reason why: Management and Andy Reid green-lit a spending spree in free agency the likes of which have not been seen in a few years. In addition to high-profile additions Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin on defense, the team also added several complementary parts — including name players Vince Young and Ronnie Brown — to an already stacked offense.
Super Bowl or bust? The Eagles, namely Reid, already were trying to quell that talk (especially when Young made the mistake of uttering the words "dream" and "team" together upon joining the roster). But you can see that they are loaded and in great shape to make a run.
Still, there are concerns. Can DeSean Jackson stay with the program? Will the rebuilt offensive line improve? Are the linebackers any good? These are a few of the things that could keep the Lombardi Trophy from finally landing in Philly.
The design of the offense changed three times last year: From Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb to Michael Vick. Although the playbook is largely the same, a lot of the calls were different with Vick under center. He rolled out more to his left, often will take seven-step drops (instead of the typical West Coast three), and the play designs gave him room to roam when there were no open receivers. But with all the options, we saw a more patient Vick go through his progressions well. It's still a 60-40 pass-run offense, but there might be more of an emphasis on running this season with new OL coach Howard Mudd helping to improve the line.
Quarterbacks: Although Michael Vick developed some bad habits at season's end, he was far more cognizant of his form than ever before, bending his knees when throwing, not dropping down his arm angle and not throwing off his back foot as often. He has a cannon arm and innate scrambling and playmaking ability when things break down — but he always has had those tools. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg have helped make Vick into a better all-around quarterback. If he can continue working on his form and film study, adding even more arrows to his quiver, Vick could finish his career with a Steve Young-like flair, as Mornhinweg believes he can. Vince Young is a low-risk investment, but given Vick's health track record, the Eagles have to count on Young being on the field. He and Vick are different animals. Young is taller, has far less arm strength but still can make plays when reeled in. The coaching staff might have to break some of his bad habits, too, as they did with Vick. Mike Kafka has intelligence, instincts and athleticism. He had a good camp and was pushing Young to be the No. 2 QB as of this writing.
Running backs: LeSean McCoy developed into the all-around back many thought he could be last season, leading the NFC in catches with 78 and gaining more than five yards per carry. He can improve his run strength and blocking prowess, but McCoy is explosive and shifty with underrated toughness. The Eagles will expand his role if he shows he can handle more punishment, but the signing of Ronnie Brown gives them insurance. Brown might be excellent in the No. 2 role, perhaps taking third-down snaps away from McCoy, even after gaining a career-low 3.7 yards per carry last season. He has good size but isn't a true power back. Tough vet Eldra Buckley and rookie Dion Lewis are battling for the No. 3 spot. Lewis has McCoy-like quickness and shiftiness. FB Owen Schmitt is a hard-headed, straight-ahead lead blocker with some versatility in the receiving game.
Receivers: Diminutive DeSean Jackson is one of the game's better field tilters, gaining a phenomenal 22.5 yards per catch in 2010, and he thrived in a more vertical offense with Michael Vick under center. But Jackson, despite his game-breaking ability, is moody and occasionally distracted, especially when his team needs him most. His holdout this summer for a better contract really angered many Eagles officials and put Jackson's long-term standing with the team in question. Steadier Jeremy Maclin is developing into a strong, reliable No. 2 option with potential to be a No. 1. He can stretch the field but also is very smooth in and out of breaks and showed his red-zone value with seven TDs coming inside the 20. Maclin missed most of camp with a mysterious ailment — a lymphoma scare was ruled out — but he and the team still hope and think he can be out there in Week One. Slot WR Jason Avant expanded his game and is a reliable third-down option. Avant also can block in the run game effectively. Ex-Giant Steve Smith is coming off microfracture surgery and could miss the first part of the season on the PUP list. When healthy, Smith is one of the better short and intermediate receivers in the game. Riley Cooper has good size and is a quality special-teamer, too. Chad Hall lines up at receiver and in the backfield and is an Andy Reid favorite. Johnnie Lee Higgins is a Raiders burnout with good wheels. TE Brent Celek saw his numbers and confidence sink last season, but part of it had to do with Vick looking his way less often than Donovan McNabb did. Also, Celek was asked to block more often because of the offensive line's issues. Clay Harbor is an athletic wonder who developed quicker than expected and improved his blocking. He and Donald Lee, a strong blocker signed from the Packers, round out a nice TE group.
Offensive linemen: It should be fascinating to see the effect of new OL coach Howard Mudd. He favors smaller, quicker linemen while the Andy Reid mold always called for bigger, more powerful bodies up front. The Eagles have used zone-blocking schemes, which Mudd prefers, so the transition might not be a massive undertaking. OLT Jason Peters' technique was sharper last season, and his sacks allowed and penalties committed both were down. He can overwhelm defenders but didn't simply try to dominate rushers with brute strength. Mudd might take Peters to an elite level if the four-time Pro Bowler is ready to work. Because of the injuries to Winston Justice (knee) and Ryan Harris (back), the Eagles have moved Todd Herremans from left guard to right tackle to start the season. He improved after a slow start and is a good technician who gets into space on move plays. Herremans has played tackle before and should be steady. Evan Mathis graded out well in Cincinnati and will step in at left guard. A change could happen at center, where rookie Jason Kelce might be pushing Jamaal Jackson out of a starting spot. The overachieving Kelce has caught Mudd's eye, reminding him of a young Jeff Saturday, although he can be shoved around. Rookie ORG Danny Watkins, who is 26, has had a few teachable moments in camp but is smart and extremely hardworking. Justice took a step backward in his rehab, and Harris' back surgery will keep him out indefinitely. King Dunlap and Austin Howard are two big reserve tackles. Mike McGlynn is versatile but not special as an interior reserve.
What exactly new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo plans to do is unknown. He's completely inexperienced as a play-caller on defense, having not coached defense since 1989 at the high school level. He probably won't call as many complex blitzes as ex-coordinator Sean McDermott did, and Castillo will allow his great athletes to read and react, run and hit more. Entrusting Castillo with the "D" is the kind of move that has serious boom-or-bust potential, but Andy Reid clearly believes in him. There is talent here, but depth, size and stamina are issues.
Defensive linemen: The Eagles remade their line with the additions of DE Jason Babin and DT Cullen Jenkins, opting for more size and force up front. Jenkins can hold the point but also is one of the better penetrating interior rushers in the NFL. Babin plays the strong side as the "wide nine-technique" rusher outside the tight end. He experienced a breakout season under DL coach Jim Washburn (now with the Eagles) in 2010 in Tennessee. Babin doesn't have an arsenal of pass-rush moves, but his motor runs hot and he has good straight-line speed. One of the better surprises last season was the development of DT Antonio Dixon, who came from nowhere to become the Eagles' best run defender. He can envelop blockers, mess up run schemes and play with power. Although Dixon offers little in the way of a pass rush, that's not what he's being asked to do. Health is a major concern for two key players: DT Mike Patterson and DE Brandon Graham. Patterson had a frightening seizure during practice and tests detected a rare brain condition, but doctors have cleared him to resume football activities. Graham is coming back from microfracture surgery in his knee and might not return until midseason. DT Trevor Laws finally showed something and sees a fair number of reps in the rotation. Opposite Babin is DRE Trent Cole, who was strong early on but faded late, a common theme in his career. His motor never stops and he eats up slow-footed left tackles, but Cole is undersized and tends to get beaten up with more snaps. Reserve DEs Juqua Parker, Phillip Hunt, Darryl Tapp and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim will vie for spots, as will DTs Anthony Hargrove and Derek Landri.
Linebackers: No Eagles unit carries more unknowns than at linebacker, where starters Stewart Bradley and Ernie Sims were jettisoned. Jamar Chaney, who replaced Bradley inside, now moves to the strong side. He is a stout, downhill thumper, but he slides along the line well and became more comfortable with his surroundings the more reps he received. Fourth-rounder Casey Matthews has been thrown into the mix at middle linebacker. He has handled the defensive calls and has impressed with his intelligence and athleticism but is not as physically gifted as his brother, Packers OLB Clay Matthews, and must disengage better from blockers. Moise Fokou lost the starting job on the strong side but regained it and also improved his confidence; now he is the first option on the weak side. He's solid but far from a special player. The Eagles also like Keenan Clayton, who stood out in nickel packages and has the fast-flow ability to be a playmaker. Akeem Jordan and Rashad Jeanty and rookies Brian Rolle and Greg Lloyd round out a group that is rife with questions and could be the team's Achilles' heel.
Defensive backs: The coverage was far from ideal last season, despite an impressive 23 interceptions. Too often, teams picked on the RCB and nickel spots, choosing to avoid LCB Asante Samuel whenever possible. Enter Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was acquired from Arizona in a trade for QB Kevin Kolb. The team made its biggest free-agent splash in years when it landed arguably the best big corner in the NFL, Asomugha, giving the team the kind of presence and length it hasn't had since the Bobby Taylor days. Asomugha likes to press at the line and get physical, and most teams typically choose to throw away from him. Samuel excels in off coverage, baiting QBs to throw his way and often making picks. But he also is a poor tackler and tends to freelance too much. Rodgers-Cromartie had similar issues in Arizona, but he has great height and ball skills, making this the best CB trio in the league. The team could use a three-CB base defense much of the time, and you could see Asomugha in a Charles Woodson-like role, lining up in multiple spots depending on the opponent. Joselio Hanson could be on the outs, with the team having drafted Trevor Lindley and Curtis Marsh the past two seasons. FS Nate Allen could lead the secondary, but he is coming off a torn patellar tendon. If healthy, Allen has good range and really had only one poor outing as a rookie, winning the starting job out of camp. He's backed by Marlin Jackson and Jarrad Page. Strong safety is in the hands of rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett and second-year Kurt Coleman. Jarrett's calling card is his hitting ability, and Coleman is a smart, heady player with limited foot speed.
Replacing PK David Akers, the Eagles' all-time leading scorer, is Alex Henery, whose next field goal will be the first of his NFL career. The strong-legged rookie has a chance to be great, but he's following a local legend. With Sav Rocca, maybe the best Eagles punter ever, having joined the Redskins, the team hopes undrafted rookie Chas Henry wins the job. PR DeSean Jackson is one of the game's more electric returners, as his Giant killer in Week 15 proved, but Andy Reid hesitates to use him full time. KR Jorrick Calvin, who also can handle punts, did a decent job as a rookie.
The Eagles have the hype and the glitz factor with Michael Vick and a slew of talented skill-position players. Last year's offense was the league's best some weeks, and the defense could take a big step. But there are concerns with a major leap of faith under new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and some holes on the depth chart. Plus, Vick will be the target of every team he faces, and teams started figuring him out late last season. The Eagles also face the prospect of being many people's Super Bowl favorites, which amps up the pressure even more.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.