Free Agency Bolsters Eagles

The Eagles have made it to the NFC Championship Game the last three years, but two key free-agent additions might have made this year's version of the Eagles even better.

Rarely has a team reached a conference title game three years in a row (twice at home) and not advanced to the Super Bowl. The Philadelphia Eagles are one such team and, if the offseason was any indication, they have no intention of seeing that happen a fourth time.

The Eagles landed the two marquee free agents of the spring — wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse. Both are expected to make a huge impact and make up for several losses that have stretched depth critically tight at a couple of key positions.

One position that isn't a question is quarterback, where Donovan McNabb has continued to develop into a championship leader. Once known most for his scrambling, McNabb has learned to play under more control. His ability to avoid a pass rush and take off makes blitzing a risky proposition, and he has a cannon for an arm that can beat single coverage deep. McNabb could be spied much of the game by E.J. Henderson to prevent huge ground gains and to make him force passes into coverage.

For the last couple years, the Eagles had a deep committee of running backs. While it was expected that speedy Brian Westbrook would be a key to the offense, no one thought the former change-of-pace back would be so critical. With Duce Staley moving across the state to Pittsburgh and Correll Buckhalter injured, depth behind Westbrook is woefully thin — with second-year pro Reno Mahe and fullbacks Jon Ritchie and Thomas Tapeh as the next options. If Westbrook gets dinged up, the running game could become almost nonexistent.

T.O. brings the big offensive trump card at wide receiver, where the Eagles were nothing short of awful a year ago. A player viewed in the same breath with guys like Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison, Owens gives McNabb the go-to receiver he's never had and makes everyone else a little better. Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell no longer have the onus of trying to be a No. 1 receiver — a job neither did particularly well — and can be speed options to open the field over the middle for Owens. McNabb also has a couple of solid tight end weapons in Chad Lewis and L.J. Smith. Lewis is a seven-year vet who is a good blocker and a McNabb red zone favorite, while Smith is entering his second year and is seen as a much better downfield threat in the Alge Crumpler mode. Look for the Vikings to try to take away T.O. and force others to step up.

The Eagles were in transition on the offensive line even before they lost first-round draft pick Shawn Andrews to a broken leg in the season opener. Now they are shuffling the deck again. The tackles are solid with seven-year vet Tra Thomas and nine-year vet Jon Runyan. Philly drafted Runyan's eventual replacement, Andrews, by moving up in the first round, but he was playing guard in the opener. His injury has forced a shakeup at guard. Nine-year veteran Jermaine Mayberry returns to right guard, and Artis Hicks moves from a backup to the starting left guard. Hank Fraley, whom the Eagles have seemingly tried to replace for three years, returns at center — where he is still viewed as the weak link of the O-line.

The Eagles' strength most of last year wasn't a high-powered offense but a stingy defense that allowed 17 points or fewer in nine games. Up front, the unit has undergone a dramatic makeover — some good, some bad. The loss of N.D. Kalu didn't help the Eagles, but they have one of the more impressive line rotations in the league. Even without Kalu, they can rotate Kearse, 2003 first-rounder Jerome McDougle, returning veteran Hugh Douglas and preseason phenom Derrick Burgess. In the middle, the rotation of Corey Simon, Darwin Walker, Paul Grasmanis and Hollis Thomas gives the Eagles perhaps the deepest and most athletic D-line in the league. For the Vikings to win, the offensive line will have to deal with fresher legs and contrasting styles to win the battle.

The Eagles lost LB Carlos Emmons in free agency but have plugged in former Giant Dhani Jones to play alongside Mark Simoneau and Nate Wayne. While Jones is a bit of a downgrade from Emmons, it won't be as noticeable because this has been the weakness of the Eagles defense during their recent run. Simoneau and Wayne both wore down last year, so they hope former Eagle Jeremiah Trotter can regain some of his old form and make some early contributions and possibly move into the starting lineup.

The secondary is the big question for the Eagles defense. To pay for Owens and Kearse, the Eagles had to let former Pro Bowlers Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent go via free agency. They have been replaced by a group of youngsters that has speed and skill but very little experience. Third-year man Lito Sheppard was the nickel back when the Big Two were healthy, and he joins second-year pro Sheldon Brown as the new starters. Between them, they started 12 games last year as injury fill-ins, but they are the front line of defense this time around. And that's the extent of cornerback experience, with sixth-round rookie Dexter Wynn and second-year free agent Roderick Hood as the next options. Safety remains a strength with Pro Bowl-caliber players Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis, but both with have to come up with big plays to make up for the lack of experience on the outside.

The Eagles are a new-look team in many respects but still have the solid core of players that have dominated the NFC for the last three years. If the Vikings are going to win on the road on national TV, they are going to need the assistance of so many new players still unfamiliar with one another in game-time situations. If the Eagles mesh early, a fourth trip to the NFC title game (or farther) isn't out of the realm of possibility.

KEY MATCHUP

RANDY MOSS vs. TERRELL OWENS —
Last year when the Vikings met the 49ers, we made this the key matchup — even though Moss and Owens are never on the field at the same time. But, as huge as that matchup turned out to be last year, it may be even more significant Monday against the Eagles.

Prior to last year, Moss and Owens had never been in a head-to-head matchup. As competitors who both believe they are the best wide receiver in the NFL, it was the first chance for each of them to see the other live and in person. Moss caught eight passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns, while Owens' most noteworthy contribution was a sideline screaming match directed at his offensive coordinator. His relationship with the coaches and QB Jeff Garcia broke down from that point in time and, by the end of the season, it was clear T.O. was out of San Fran — with fingers pointed directly at the matchup with Moss and the Vikings as the breaking point.

This time, Owens may have even more to prove in his attempt to one-up Moss. The game will be a marketer's dream — Ownes and McNabb vs. Moss and Culpepper in prime time. But there will be factors the promoters don't take into account prior to game time to hype the matchup — namely, who will be trying to stop Owens and Moss. This looks like an ideal chance to see if Antoine Winfield can spend a game one-on-one beating up an opponent's top receiver all night long. On the other hand, Moss is going up against starting corners that have a combined three years of NFL experience and have never faced a receiver of his stature.

While the Matchup to Hype is strictly a Moss-Owens star power battle, the real key will be how early each gets involved in the offense, to what degree his quarterback feels obligated to force in passes and how many catches, yards and TDs they finish the game with — making this, for perhaps a different reason than ABC and Disney have mind, the matchup to watch.



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