Outlook: The Eagles finally got back to the Super Bowl after 25 years of struggle and while the outcome of that game wasn't what the Eagles hoped it would be, the franchise has set itself up for several seasons worth of runs for the Lombardi Trophy.
Head coach Andy Reid has assembled a staff that is the envy of the rest of the league. His offense is led by one of the best quarterbacks in the game, his defense is aggressive and dangerous and the special teams are led by one of the best coordinators in the entire NFL.
The Eagles had a tumultuous offseason that saw them lose G Jermane Mayberry, DE Derrick Burgess and backup LB Ike Reese to free agency. They also have mercurial WR Terrell Owens causing a stir with a contract squabble and disgruntled players like RB Brian Westbrook and DT Corey Simon, who was franchise-tagged. Even with all that, the Eagles still have superior talent compared to the rest of the NFC and the outlook is good for the foreseeable future in the "City of Brotherly Love".
Quarterbacks: QB Donovan McNabb is the heart and soul of the team. He seems to enjoy himself on the field, always sporting a smile and a positive attitude whether the team is winning or losing. He's an excellent leader and he has all of the intangibles a coach could ever ask for. McNabb also possesses incredible talent, including a cannon for an arm, the ability to read defenses well, toughness and the ability to elude the rush that few this side of Michael Vick have.
Until last season, McNabb's career quarterback rating was 77.6, but in 2004 he posted a rating of 104.7. He completed 64% of his passes for 3,875 yards, 31 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He also scrambled for 220 yards and three more touchdowns. He is the most important player on the team and it would be big-time trouble if they lost him for any significant time.
Koy Detmer isn't near the athlete the McNabb is, but he understands the intricacies of Reid's offense. He doesn't have a strong arm, but he is a good leader and a solid backup if needed for spot duty.
In free agency, the Eagles picked up an intriguing prospect in four-year vet Mike McMahon. McMahon is an excellent athlete who has spent his entire career in the West Coast Offense. He is an excellent third QB and has a chance to develop into an outstanding backup.
Running Backs: As stated above, Westbrook has not been happy with his contract situation and it is widely assumed that he will be auditioning for the rest of the league during the 2005 season. He is one of the better all-purpose backs in the league, posting 1,515 total yards from scrimmage (812 rushing, 703 receiving).
Westbrook plays bigger than his 5'8", 205-pound stature would suggest. He is also very elusive, able to run outside and cut on dime the other direction. His 73 receptions were second only to Owens' 77 and he continues to be an outlet for McNabb when he's needed.
In the offseason, the team re-signed Correll Buckhalter to be a compliment to Westbrook. Buckhalter has suffered two major knee injuries over the last three years, but he remains a tough inside runner and he's worked very hard to improve his hands to be a better receiver out of the backfield.
In the third round of the draft the Eagles picked up diminutive Ryan Moats. He is a Westbrook clone and the team hopes he can become a replacement for Westbrook should the veteran choose to leave after the season.
At fullback the main man is John Ritchie. He is an outstanding lead-blocker who picks up the blitz well and is an adequate receiver when needed.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: On the field, Owens was everything the Eagles could have wanted in a franchise wideout. Even though he missed the final two regular season games, he still posted 77 catches for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns (all team highs). He fought through a broken ankle to play in the Super Bowl and had an unbelievable game catching 9 passes for 122 yards.
While there is no questioning his toughness, off the field, Owens' "me first" attitude and consequent threat to be a distraction until he gets a new contract are not what a team heading into another possible Super Bowl run needs. After his performance last season, what should have been a marriage made in heaven could now turn into a one way trip to hell.
Lanky Todd Pinkston is penciled in as the starter opposite Owens. Pinkston has good speed, but isn't very physical or tough. He's at his best running deep and using his great leaping ability to go up and get the rock. He finished 2004 with 36 receptions for 676 yards but only one touchdown.
The release of mouthy wideout Freddie Mitchell has opened up competition for the third receiver spot, where rookie WR Reggie Brown and veteran Greg Lewis will battle it out. Brown has above-average speed and is tough enough to go over the middle. Rookie wideouts have rarely succeeded in Reid's offenses, but Brown is confident and has improved his knowledge of the offense during the minicamps.
Lewis has good quickness and hands and at the very least he is a very good fourth wideout. Last year, Lewis posted 17 catches for 183 yards.
The fifth spot will be a battle between Justin Jenkins – a practice squad player last year – and third-year wideout Billy McMullen.
At tight end the biggest question is who the backups will be to L.J. Smith. It is hoped that back surgery over the offseason cleared up some of Smith's health issues and that he can be the productive player the team knows he can be. Smith started only 8 of 16 games last year, but still managed 34 receptions for 377 yards and five touchdowns. Smith is athletic and fast, able to force defenses to watch the middle-seem when he is on the field. He also has good hands and has developed a good rapport with McNabb.
James Whalen was signed during free agency and while he isn't the athlete that Smith is, he is an excellent receiver and a good blocker.
Offensive Line: LT Tra Thomas is the cornerstone of the Eagles' offensive line. He has struggled through injuries the last few seasons, but still managed to earn his third trip to the Pro Bowl in 2004. He has excellent feet and a huge wing-span, allowing him to be one of the better pass-blocking tackles in the entire league. He had a problem this spring with a blood clot in his leg, but it is expected that he will be ready by the start of the season at the latest.
At right tackle, Jon Runyan returns for what could be his final season in Philly. While he's improved as a pass-blocker his specialty is run blocking. He is a road grader who has good pad level and explodes into the defenders.
The line will be bolstered by the return of 2004 first-rounder Shawn Andrews who missed all but the first quarter of the first game with a broken leg. He replaces the departed Mayberry at right guard and it remains to be seen how far he has fallen behind due to the injury. Andrews showed he has the skills to be an incredible run-blocker, but like most young linemen, he must work on his pass-blocking.
Projected LG Artis Hicks is the most versatile of all the linemen as he can play four of the five positions. The ideal situation for the Eagles would be for Hicks to be the backup at all four positions, but unless one of the young linemen on the roster steps up during training camp, he is going to be starting on the left side next to Thomas.
C Hank Fraley is one of the more intelligent pivot men in the league who gets by more on toughness and work ethic than sheer talent. Battling for the backup center spot will be versatile Jamaal Jackson and last-year's backup Alonzo Ephraim. Jackson's ability to play any of the three interior spots may just be the deciding factor.
Three rookies (T Calvin Armstrong, T Todd Herremans and G Scott Young) will battle two 2004 draft choices (T Trey Darilek and G Adrien Clarke) for the remaining spots along the line. The Eagles may be in the market for veteran backups if they aren't happy with the performances of the youngsters during training camp.
Defensive Line: This is one of the deepest positions on the team, but they might be lacking one of their best players. DT Corey Simon was tagged with the franchise designation in March and so far he has refused to sign the tender offer ($5.1 million) the team made to him.
Last year, Simon allowed his contract problems to affect his performance and he wasn't the player he normally is through the first part of the schedule in 2004. Toward the end of the season he was back to his old self and was one of the best defensive tackles in the NFC. When his head is in the game and he is in shape, he is an excellent interior pass-rusher who is also strong against the run.
Darwin Walker is the other starting tackle and while he isn't the playmaker that Simon is, he is consistent and solid. He also is a good pass-rusher as well.
DE Javon Kearse saw double-teams on almost every play last season but still managed 7.5 sacks, 31 tackles, two forced fumbles and six passes defensed. The team expects more out of him this season and as long as he's healthy, with his sheer quickness and athleticism, he should be able to produce better numbers.
The other defensive end spot is the big question-mark on the defense heading into camp and the battle for the starting spot will be worth watching. 2003 first-round selection Jerome McDougal is the favorite to win the job, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy for an entire season. Even if he is named the starter and stays healthy, the team needs him to show more of a pass-rush than he has (two sacks in two seasons).
If McDougal falters, the team has the option of moving Walker out to the end positions because the team is deep at tackle and then rotate him with seven-year veteran N.D. Kalu on passing downs. Also in the mix is Hugh Douglas who the team re-signed in the offseason. He has undergone shoulder surgery and the team thinks he should be better than he has been the last two years. Douglas ranks third on the team's all-time sack list with 54.5, behind Reggie White (124) and Clyde Simmons (76.5).
As mentioned earlier, the Eagles are very deep at the tackle position. They could have the deepest group in the entire league. Backing up Simon and Walker will be the underrated Sam Rayburn who had six sacks and 30 tackles in limited snaps last year. Also in the mix will be run stuffer Hollis Thomas, first-rounder Mike Patterson, ten-year veteran Paul Grasmanis and rookie Kenyotta Marshall.
Linebackers: This is the most important unit in defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's scheme. He demands speed and blitzing ability from his linebackers and he has a talented group on hand.
In his second tenure with the team, LB Jeremiah Trotter has solidified himself as the pulse of the defensive unit. In 2004 he was inserted into the middle of the defense in the second half of the season and his toughness and intensity were exactly what the team needed. He finished the season with 61 tackles, one sack and nine tackles for loss. In March, Trotter and the team agreed on a multi-year deal that all but assures he will retire as an Eagle.
Behind Trotter will be a battle between second-year player Mike Labinjo and undrafted rookie free agent Martin Patterson. Labinjo was an undrafted free agent last season, but impressed coaches with his play on special teams and when he filled in during the final three weeks of the season. Patterson has looked good during the team's minicamps and has a chance to stick on the final roster.
On the outside Dhani Jones struggled to pick up Johnson's scheme, but eventually became more comfortable and played well over the final half of the season. As the strongside linebacker, Jones isn't the dominant force other players are over the tight end, but he has excellent speed and the team hopes he will use his athleticism more to make big plays.
Keith Adams and Mark Simoneau will battle it out during camp for the starting spot on the weakside. Because both are undersized, look for Johnson to rotate them in and out depending on the situation to keep them fresh. Both are big hitters and their presence in lineup as blitzers is a key.
Rookie Matt McCoy, taken in the second-round, is an intriguing prospect. The team loves his speed and athleticism, but he too is undersized. Johnson has mentioned he would like to use McCoy in the nickel defense to take advantage of his coverage skills.
Others who will enter camp battling for spots will be Trent Cole, Greg Richmond and David Bergeron.
Defensive Backs: Probably the biggest question heading into the 2004 was how their young cornerbacks would play. Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown exceeded all expectations and had banner years and now the pressure is on to continue their improvement.
Sheppard and Brown are both on the smaller side (5'10), but they played bigger than their size indicates. Sheppard got more attention, hauling in a team-leading five interceptions (one was returned 101 yards for a touchdown) and heading to the Pro Bowl, but many felt Brown had the better and more consistent season. Brown is an especially solid tackler, coming up strong against the run. He finished second on the team with 81 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and 16 passes defensed.
CB Roderick Hood is the nickel corner and he has the skills and athleticism necessary to start if one of the two starters goes down. He is tough and isn't afraid to make a play on the ball. In limited action he had 31 tackles, one interception and seven passes defensed.
Second-year CB Matt Ware, who unlike the other corners is huge (6'2, 215), played in the dime packages last year and struggled during the Super Bowl. However, he has had a good offseason and the expectation is he has learned from his mistakes and should have a better understanding of what teams are trying to do with that experience under his belt.
At safety the Eagles have no worries. FS Brian Dawkins and SS Michael Lewis both went to the Pro Bowl and there is no reason to think either won't be in Honolulu in February again.
Dawkins is the brains of the secondary, acting as another coach on the field. His tough, hard-hitting mentality is exactly what the defense needs. He finished third on the team with 70 tackles and also contributed three sacks, four interceptions and 12 passes defensed. Even more importantly, he made sure everyone was lined up correctly and he made the coverage adjustments when needed.
Lewis led the team with 90 stops and had two forced fumbles and one interception. He still needs to improve in pass-coverage, but he is excellent in run support and when he arrives at the ball-carrier, a violent collision usually occurs.
Rookie Sean Considine is the likely back up to Dawkins, as last year's backup, J.R. Reed suffered a freak leg injury during the offseason. Quintin Mikell is Lewis' backup and Johnson loves to use him against two-tight end sets.
Special Teams: This unit is led by arguably the best special teams coach in the NFL, John Harbaugh. He consistently has the Eagles coverage units ranked at or near the top of the league and there is no reason to think that will change in 2005.
At kicker, David Akers continues to be the most accurate kicker whose team plays in an outdoor stadium. His 83.2 accuracy is even more amazing when you consider the swirling winds he has had to deal with at Lincoln Financial Field. Last year Akers hit 2 of 3 from beyond 50 yards and an incredible 15 of 18 between 40 and 49 yards. He finished the season with 122 points and finished fourth in the NFL in scoring. He has a strong and accurate leg and is one of the most consistent kickers ever in the NFL.
P Dirk Johnson, who is entering his fourth season in the league, had an excellent season in 2004. He had a stout 37.4 net average (yardage after the return) and dropped 20 of 72 punts inside the 20-yard line. He gets good hangtime and has improved his accuracy.
Final Projection: Reid, Johnson, McNabb, Owens, Kearse, Trotter and Dawkins are why this team played for the Lombardi Trophy last year and, barring Owens causing problems early in the season, they are the class of the NFC.
If Owens goes through a protracted contract squabble some of the younger wideouts will be called on to step up. How much that affects the Eagles' chances of a return visit to the final game of the season remains to be seen.
This team is loaded with experienced talent and now that they have a taste for a championship there shouldn't be anything holding them back. Seeing as they have arguably the deepest team in the entire league, there is no reason this team shouldn't be in Detroit for Super Bowl XL in early February. This time however, it looks like they have the stuff to win it all.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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