Everybody knows that this was an off-season of change for the Philadelphia Eagles. Some changes look like upgrades over the 2002 squad, and others, well, one can't be certain what to expect from some of the new comers. This team has had it's foot in glory's door for the past two seasons, and anything less then a trip to the Super Bowl in 2003, once again will be considered a disappointment. In order for the ultimate goal to be reached, Philadelphia must answer some fairly glaring personnel questions before booking a trip to Houston this January.
After the team's horrific defeat at the hands of Tampa Bay, the most glaring holes were found at middle linebacker and Strong Safety. The team has made a definite upgrade at one position, but the other still looks shaky.
Michael Lewis showed signs of being a heavy hitter and an all around explosive strong safety last year. Lewis showed that he belongs in the starting lineup with big plays against the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams last year, and will be the fulltime starter this season. The Eagles did the right thing, releasing Blaine Bishop in favor of Lewis. A safety tandem of Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis will be one of the most feared in the league in 2003.
Throughout the course of last season, a back and forth battle between Barry Gardner and Levon Kirkland was waged at middle linebacker. Gardner was the starter at the position at this time last year, but on the first day of training camp, that story changed. The team brought in Kirkland, and well you know what happened. Kirkland was terrific against the run. But Kirkland was exposed against the short pass, especially on third down situations. The position was a glaring uncertainty last year, and looks to be the same once again in 2003.
Mark Simoneau was traded for to replace Kirkland, and many of the same questions surrounding this position still remain present entering this one. Simoneau is as unproven as they come. He is injury prone, and has never held a starting job in the NFL for an entire season. What the team hopes is that he can excel in Jim Johnson's downhill defensive schemes, and sure up the position, much like Jeremiah Trotter did during his time here. If Simoneau plays up to expectations set by the coaching staff, the acquisition will be successful. If that's the case than this team would finally have the middle linebacker it has sought for two years. If he falters, well, it gets pretty thin behind him. If Simoneau suffers an injury, which is not out of the question, then the front office may question not signing another veteran during the off-season.
When was the last time Eagles fans questioned the defensive end position? Hugh Douglas has been an anchor on the line, a tremendous leader, and a fan favorite since arriving in Philadelphia in 1999. His leadership as well as his 12.5 sacks in 2002 will be missed on this team. But life after Hugh must go on for this team, and Just when it looked like Eagles fans would be stuck watching Derrick Burgess and N.D Kalu try to fill Hugh's Void, the team pulled the trigger on a trade bringing the Eagles to the 11th selection in the NFL draft to pick Jerome McDougle. Now, the line is younger and faster then it has been in previous years. If Burgess can stay healthy, and McDougle can get on the field, then many people may easily forget Douglas's on the field antics.
It looks as though this year's young crop of defensive ends could be better then last years. However, the position is still a question mark and these guys will need to come together as a unit early in the season in order to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks
As a whole, this defensive unit has the potential to be as good if not better then last. Nate Wayne is as good and probably even better then Shawn Barber, and if all goes according to plan the linebackers will be flying around making plays all year long. Just as Andy Reid invasions they will. The defense will be faster, younger and hungrier then ever before. And if everyone plays up to his potential, Philadelphia will once again possess one of the top defenses in the league. But with youth come mistakes, and the team will have to overcome them early and come together quickly in the season to lead a drive to Super Bowl XXXVIII.