By Jason Brewer, Bleeding Green Nation
In the span of two offseasons and just about one calender year, the Eagles let go or shipped off Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook, Sheldon Brown & Donovan McNabb. Those four made up the last remaining starters from the 2004 Superbowl team. In fact, only kicker David Akers and S Quintin Mikell (who was just a special teamer at the time) remain from that team. Oh and the coach is still here...
Point is, the Eagles have moved on. That core of players had their shot (well, 10 shots I guess) and rather than keeping holding onto them for "one last run" and wondering if their "window had closed" the Eagles closed the window themselves and sold the house. The most amazing thing is that the team appears to have fully rebuilt itself without ever going through the pains you so often see "rebuilding" teams go through. They continued winning, continued making the playoffs and turned over their roster without anyone realizing it. The Eagles' average age is now 24, and they've still got six pro bowlers on the squad.
Significant offseason additions/subtractions
I addressed the subtractions above. The Eagles traded QB Donovan McNabb to the Redskins for a second round pick in 2010(turned out to be FS Nate Allen) and either a 3rd or 4th in 2011. They dealt long time starting corner Sheldon Brown to the Browns and released RB Brian Westbrook, who later signed with the 49ers.
Their significant additions almost all came through the draft. First, they traded up in the first round to take DE Brandon Graham from Michigan who has been so impressive in camp and preseason that he's already won a starting job. The other was USF free safety Nate Allen, who was taken with the pick received for Donovan McNabb. He's also already won a starting job and will be counted on the fill the void left by Brian Dawkins.
The one new starter that didn't come from the draft is former Lions' LB Ernie Sims. The Eagles traded for the former top 10 overall pick for just a fifth rounder and he'll be starting at the WILL position. Sims was a standout in training camp, but hasn't made much of an impression in preseason games yet.
The Eagles offense has one of the better sets of young skill position players in the NFL. Everyone already knows DeSean Jackson who racked up 50+ yard TDs at a record pace last year and got to his first pro bowl. TE Brent Celek had a breakout 900+ yard, 8 TD season and first round pick Jeremy Maclin enjoyed a very solid rookie season in which he was starting by week 2. Fullback Leonard Weaver, who was signed from the Seahawks last year, proved to be a suprising weapon both in the running and receiving game. LeSean McCoy, last year's second round pick, will be counted on to build from his solid rookie season as he takes over from Brian Westbrook as the full time starter. GIven how much time Westbrook missed last year, "Shady" McCoy has basically been the Eagles starting RB since early last season anyway. The offensive line was up and down last year, but still make up a good group when healthy. I stress when healthy because that wasn't the case last year and hasn't been the case this year as well. The only Eagles offensive lineman who did not miss time to injury last year was the suprising Winston Justice, who had been written off as a bust before last season. He proved to be the teams' most consistent lineman last season. Center Jamaal Jackson had offseason knee surgery and has yet to play in the preseason and was only recently cleared to practice. Ditto for starting LG Todd Herremans who had surgery on his foot. Herremans will be ready to start the year, but Jackson is still a doubt. Until this group proves it can stay healthy and come together as a unit, they have to be counted as a major question mark.
Then of course there's Kevin Kolb. The biggest and most notable change on the Eagles offense. The Texas native finally gets his chance to take over the starting job after being selected by the Eagles at the top of the second round four years ago. He's had the chance to observe and learn from the bench for three seasons, he's watched one of the better QBs in football over that time, he's been coached by two guys who previously coached guys like Steve Young, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia, & Mark Brunell. He's had a chance to start two games last year, where he became the first QB in NFL history to throw for back to back 300 yard games in his first two starts. He's taking over an offense replete with explosive young weapons. There's literally nothing else that could be done to better prepare Kevin Kolb to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Now, It's all up to him to repay the Eagles faith in him...
The numbers would tell you that the Eagles defense had a pretty good year in 2009. They were middle of the league in points allowed per game, but ranked right near the top in sacks and turnovers. Maybe it's that numbers don't tell the whole story or maybe it's that here in Philly we've been spoiled by great Jim Johnson defenses over the years, but last year didn't feel like the defense was very good. It all started to go wrong right in camp.
The Eagles let their defensive leader Brian Dawkins go in free agency and didn't adequacy replace him. Rookie Macho Harris, who had never played safety before, was tapped to start in his place. Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, who looked like an emerging star the previous year was lost for the year thanks to a knee injury in preseason. The team would go on to start 6 different middle linebackers that year. Injuries to linebackers would become a regular occurrence through the year. Then, worst of all, the great Jim Johnson passed away during training camp.
This year, the Eagles defense looks to be starting off on a much better foot. Young defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has a year under his belt and a full offseason as the man in charge. Stewart Bradley is back healthy and playing really well in preseason so far. Rookie Nate Allen, a star safety at USF, was drafted to take over the FS position and has already won the starting the job. Rookie DE Brandon Graham has had a stellar camp and also won a starting job already. The defense is healthy and over the first two preseason games has allowed just one score and has two takeaways.
Question marks do still remain. After trading Sheldon Brown to the Browns this offseason, Ellis Hobbs will reprise the role he played on the undefeated Patriots team as Asante Samuel's partner. After being lost to injury most of last season, Hobbs has been a standout in camp for the Eagles this year. Whether that translates to a strong regular season remains to be seen. The Eagles' LB corps was bolstered by the return of Bradley and the addition of Ernie Sims, but this group is still an unknown as a unit, and it appears like Akeem Jordan will be asked to start at SAM where he's never played before. Whether they can come together as an effective unit bears watching.
One guy I left out in the "notable additions" section is arguably among the team's most important offseason acquisitions. Former Bills' special teams coach Bobby April was brought in to fill that role in Philadelphia. April has long been regarded as one of the leagues' best special teams coaches and his Buffalo squad has consistently ranked among the top 5 special teams units in his time there. April will stabilize a coaching position that has been in a state of flux since longtime special teams coach John Harbaugh was hired as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
David Akers has been one of the better kickers in the NFL over the past two seasons after struggling for a two year stretch from late 2006 to 2008. He struggled with injuries and inconsistency during that time, but the team stuck with him and been rewarded with two straight years of pro bowl level kicking. He hasn't missed a FG in preseason and looks set to pick up right where he left off.
Last season DeSean Jackson was voted into the pro bowl as the NFC's return man, which he couldn't accept because he'd also been voted as a starting WR. He was the first player in Pro Bowl history to be voted as a starter at two positions. While he has yet to be used as a punt returner in the preseason, it's likely that he'll resume that role when the season starts for real.
Andy Reid will enter his 12th season in charge of the Eagles with a young roster that's been built entirely by himself. in addition to being the head coach of the Eagles, Andy also gets final say on all personnel matters, so this is very much Andy's team and it's success or failure will ultimately determine Reid's legacy.
Sean McDemott spent nearly a decade as Jim Johnson's assistant and was thrust into the role of defensive coordinator in the middle of training camp last year when Johnson passed away. As I said before, the Eagles defense had it's struggles last year, but McDermott is undoubtedly starting off 2010 on a better foot than he did 2009. As I pointed out in some research I did last season, the track record for former assistants of Jim Johnson is very impressive, so the expectations for McDermott leading the Eagles defense back to prominence this year are high.
I discussed what impact the addition of Bobby April as special teams coach should have. His teams have always been among the best in the NFL and Eagles fans are expecting him to mold the Philly unit into one of the leagues' best as well.
Conclusion/Prediction for 2010
In many ways the 2010 Eagles are better that the 2009 Eagles who won 11 games. So it's really not unreasonable to expect at least the same, if not more from the 2010 squad. They're healthier heading into the season, they're more talented after a solid and defense heavy draft, and their young offensive weapons are a year smarter. However, there's the one big question mark hanging out there... "Is Kevin Kolb ready to be a starting QB in the NFL?" The answer to that question will ultimately be the one that defines the 2010 Eagles season. If he can play, I see no way this Eagles team won't be contending for a playoff spot. If Kolb falters, then the Eagles could be looking at a long couple of years...
After spending a few weeks watching the team at training camp and feeling the loose, positive vibe around the team, I feel good about these 2010 Eagles. I'm predicting 10 wins and a wildcard berth.