Watching McNabb at the beginning of the 2007 season, Eagle's fans had to be alarmed. Coming off of a serious knee injury and sporting a large brace for extra support, McNabb looked out of sync with his receivers, tentative in his decision making and unable to maneuver in the pocket to gain more time to throw. By the middle of the season though, a more familiar quarterback was under center. Through the last eight games of the season, McNabb looked confident in his knee and efficient, staring down the opposing team's pass rushers and throwing 10 touchdown passes against just three interceptions. The Eagles won five of those last eight games (two of the losses came with A.J. Feeley at quarterback as McNabb sat out with an injured thumb) and finished the season on a three-game winning streak, looking like a different team than the one that started the season and building expectations for 2008.
This season, McNabb will start the year with a clean bill of health and there is little reason to believe that he can't return to his status as one of the best signal callers in the NFL. Before tearing his ACL in 2006, McNabb was on pace for a Pro Bowl season, throwing 18 touchdowns and scoring three on the ground in just 10 games played. Once his knee was fully recovered, he had the same kind of form at the end of last year. With Brian Westbrook coming off of a Pro Bowl season, McNabb will have the support of a dominant rushing attack and a road-grading offensive line to keep the defense honest. While the organization did not go out and land a big-name playmaker like Chad Johnson or Roy Williams to give McNabb a number one target, they did add a great deal of speed to the offense with players like rookie DeSean Jackson and Lorenzo Booker, who should draw some attention away from the Eagle's other weapons.
The main reason that McNabb is ready to have a big season though, is that one of his favorite targets, tight end L.J. Smith, will be returning to the lineup. Smith provides a reliable target in the middle of the field and has enough speed to beat most linebackers in coverage,while also serving as a go-to-guy in the redzone. All 15 of his career touchdowns have been from inside the 20-yard line and it was hard not to notice his absence in the lineup last year, as the Eagles struggled when they got into scoring position, converting only 23 of 51 redzone attempts into touchdowns.
LB Omar Gaither will move back to the weakside on defense and get more playmaking opportunities
(Getty Images/Al Bello)
The addition of Samuel and Clemons should compliment the rest of the defense and give them more chances to make plays, but the thing that will help Gaither the most is moving back to his natural position at weakside linebacker, where he played as a rookie in 2006. In his first NFL season, Gaither registered 62 tackles, a sack, and an interception while starting only five games. Last year, the Eagles signed veteran Takeo Spikes to play the weakside, so Gaither switched to the middle where his main responsibility was stopping the run. With Spikes out of the picture and second-year man Stewart Bradley moving to the middle lineback spot, Gaither will play the weakside and get more chances to use his speed on the blitz. Without a tight end on his side, he will be able to pursue running plays from the backside and won't have to take on as many lead blockers as he did last season. Gaither will also get more coverage responsibilities in zone coverage and will be a better match up against receivers coming out of the back field. If he continues to have a nose for finding the football the way he did last season and take advantage of more opportunities to make plays on the ball and get into the backfield, Gaither could be one of the best outside linebackers in the NFC.
The idea that wide receivers are more prone to have breakout seasons once they enter their third year in the league is one that developed with the increased popularity of fantasy football and with owners trying to predict who will be the next big sleeper pick. While the theory has examples that support it and others that refute its validity, the basic principle is that by his third NFL season, a receiver will have had the necessary time and experience to get comfortable with the offense he is in and learn the nuances of playing the position. As he prepares to enter his third season, Jason Avant is a receiver who could be ready for a banner year in 2008 if he has managed to put it all together.
Avant is expected to line up in the slot again this season, after recording 23 receptions for 267 yards and two touchdowns as the Eagle's third receiver in 2007. Although he is not a speed receiver, Avant has good size (6-foot, 212-pounds) for underneath routes, a staple of the west coast offense, and could be a threat around the goal line because he creates a mismatch against smaller corners. After getting more playing time and becoming a larger part of the offense, Avant has no excuse for not knowing the playbook and should have a better grasp of how to play against NFL defenses. This means his route running should be more crisp, he should be able to find holes in zone coverage more effectively, and he should have developed better chemistry with his quarterback. With two solid receivers on the outside in Curtis and Reggie Brown, Avant will often be matched up against nicklebacks and linebackers, and a strong running game will also help him because play action passes will be more effective.
With the necessary experience under his belt, Avant will have a chance to shine in 2008, and in the Eagle's pass happy offense, he should get more than enough chances.
Andrew Pluta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org