COMMENTARY | Any day now, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly is expected to officially announce the team's new coaching staff. But as of Feb. 4, the Monday after the Super Bowl, several major question marks remained - including who will coach the Eagles' beleaguered offensive line, which surrendered 48 sacks in 2012?
By comparison, that's 16 sacks more than the O-line gave up the previous year. But even that alarming stat doesn't tell the full tale of the line's ineffectiveness for much of the season. The running game suffered from the blockers' inability to consistently open up lanes. Pass rushers frequently busted into the backfield to harass and hurry Eagles' quarterbacks. Michael Vick was battered so often that nobody was surprised when he finally succumbed to a concussion against Dallas in November and was lost for five weeks. Even Vick's backup, rookie quarterback Nick Foles, couldn't finish the season. Foles ended up breaking his hand against the Washington Redskins in December.
Whoever Kelly picks to be the new O-line coach, he will be tasked with getting the line back on track so they can help implement Kelly's explosive offense. But how did a unit that looked strong at the end of 2011 become such a liability? And more importantly, what can the Eagles do to solidify the line for 2013?
A 'Perfect Storm' of Injuries.
It was devastating enough when Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters injured his Achilles twice in the offseason. But then sophomore center Jason Kelce went down with a serious knee injury after only two games. The line also lost right tackle Todd Herremans in early November when the veteran hurt his right foot and ankle. Plus, Danny Watkins was rendered inactive in weeks 8-10 due to a "chronic" ankle injury, but by then the former first-round pick had already proved he still wasn't ready to play in the NFL. Watkins ended up starting only five games in 2012.
Somehow, guard Evan Mathis escaped the season without serious injury. He was the only member of the O-line to start all 16 games. Without Mathis anchoring the line, the season would have been an even bigger debacle.
But hey, every team is impacted by injuries. However, it's the ones who adequately plan for this eventuality that continue to succeed where the Eagles did not.
To the team's credit, when Peters injured his Achilles, they swiftly signed veteran tackle Demetress Bell to fill in, which seemed like a decent move. After all, Bell had previously replaced Peters in Buffalo and started at left tackle in 30 games for the Bills over three seasons. Nobody was expecting him to be brilliant in Philly, but surely he'd be able to hold the line in place of Peters? WRONG! In his five underwhelming starts for the Eagles, Bell turned out to be a human turnstile and ended up riding the bench for most of the season.
Fortunately, the Eagles still had a 6'9", 330-pound beast named King Dunlap waiting in the wings, right? WRONG! Despite his colossal size, Dunlap at best is an average backup who is unable to consistently thwart pass rushers without physically holding them. He might suffice for a game or two when the rest of the line is at full strength, but Dunlap proved that he is no long-term solution when the going gets tough.
OK, well at least the Eagles had some other veteran backups ready to step up, right? WRONG! An appalling lack of depth on the O-line forced the Eagles to start Dallas Reynolds and Dennis Kelly. Reynolds was actually on the Eagles' practice squad until Kelce's injury gave him an opportunity to start at center. And Kelly was a rookie fifth-round draft pick. Both battled admirably in the trenches, but they were frequently overmatched. Luckily, the eventual acquisition of nine-year NFL veteran Jake Scott at starting right guard added some much-needed stability to the line.
Rebuilding Through the Draft
If the Eagles are going to successfully bolster their O-line this offseason, general manager Howie Roseman needs to make some savvy acquisitions in the 2013 draft.
The Eagles have a number of pressing needs, not the least of which are at safety and cornerback, but overlooking the offensive line would be a big mistake. Jason Peters is already 31 years old, and there's no guarantee that he'll be able to return to his Pro Bowl form after coming off his Achilles injuries. The Eagles also need capable backups who are ready to step in at center and guard. Reynolds, Kelly and especially Scott should all be allowed to compete for starting jobs, but it's well past time to release Dunlap and Bell. As for Watkins, if he can't keep a starting job in his third season, it's time to send him packing too.
The Birds currently have the fourth overall draft pick, and there is no lack of offensive line talent available. They could take a shot at offensive tackle Luke Joeckel from Texas A&M, who is expected to be one of the top picks. But they also shouldn't overlook players like Lane Johnson from Oklahoma, Eric Fisher from Michigan, Barrett Jones from Alabama, Dallas Thomas from Tennessee, Odai Aboushi from Virginia and Chance Warmack from Alabama. Nabbing one or two of these promising prospects would be a smart move, especially if any are available in the second or third rounds. It also wouldn't be a bad idea to look for a project or two in the later rounds - let's not forget that Kelce was a sixth-round pick in 2011, but has turned out to be a savvy, athletic warrior at center.
Roseman also needs to stop being penny-wise but pound foolish when it comes to loosening the Eagles' purse strings. I'm certainly not advocating another free agent spending binge, but Roseman simply can't allow the Birds to start the 2013 season with the same lack of depth on the bench that they had in 2012, especially when the team was reportedly $20 million below the salary cap. That would be another recipe for disaster when starters underperform or get hurt, as the 2012 season so clearly illustrated.
Gary Strassberg has been a journalist for more than 20 years. He has worked for the E.W. Scripps Company, The Nielsen Company, and other media outlets. Follow Gary on Twitter: @GaryStrassberg
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