Play of New Look Offensive Line Will Define Eagles Season by Matt Lombardo

Through three preseason games the question marks that the Eagles face have been brought to the forefront, but most glaring is the offensive line.

Last season the Eagles offensive line gave up 49 sacks, 22 of which came on crucial third down plays which stopped drives dead in their tracks. Granted, some of those sacks can be attributed to a quarterback known for holding onto the ball and trying to extend the play with his legs.

However, When numbers like those stare a franchise between the eyes, one would assume that the line would become priority number one the following offseason.

So, during the lockout shortened offseason the Eagles persuaded Hall of Fame caliber offensive line coach Howard Mudd out of retirement to oversee a wholesale makeover of one of the most critical units on a football team. Later, the team chose 27 year old Danny Watkins out of Baylor in the first round of the draft. Five rounds later Cincinnati center Jason Kelce was donning midnight green.

But was it enough?

Early returns after a month long training camp and three preseason games are at best worrisome and at worst disastrous. Veteran center Jamaal Jackson is entrenched in a battle with Kelce for his job. Meanwhile, former starting right tackle Winston Justice appears destined to open the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List.

With two weeks remaining before the regular season kicks off in St. Louis, the Eagles offensive line looks more like a flimsy house of cards, than a unit prepared to set the tone for a juggernaut high powered offense. The Eagles have already awarded Kelce the starting center’s job, and he is a prototypical Mudd player, standing at 6-3 282 and is nimble on his feet. However he has yet to start a game in this league and will be doing so after five weeks of preparation as a member of an NFL roster.

Then there’s the issue of right tackle. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Andy Reid and Co. offer an injury settlement to Justice and wash their hands of him forever, but even if he does return it’s unknown if and how long he would remain the starter. During camp the most important position on the team, the guardian of Vick’s blindside, was left open to a battle between free agent signee Ryan Harris, King Dunlap and others. Harris fell to a herniated disc in his back and Dunlap had his moments but appeared overmatched.

In steps left guard Todd Herremans who returns to the right tackle spot for the first time since his rookie season. He was a Pro Bowl alternate at left guard a year ago and a major cog on the left side of the line where the Eagles ran behind on a vast majority of their rushing plays. Unheralded veteran Evan Mathis steps into the starting left guard spot, at least for now, as both Kelce and Jackson took reps at that spot in practice this week.

So for those keeping score at home, the Eagles intend to start the season with a rookie center, rookie right guard and a right tackle who hasn’t played the position in seven years. A quick inspection of Webster’s dictionary shows the Eagles offensive line depth chart alongside the definition of patchwork.

Some say that this team has the luxury of time on its side to find the chemistry necessary to succeed, but there is a flaw to that logic. Because of the lockout and lack of offseason OTA’s, minicamps and a shortened training camp, roughly 1,500 practice reps and countless hours of film study were lost. For a unit with so much turnover and so much value in chemistry, that lost time will certainly be an issue.

Then there’s the question of if these guys actually, you know, can play. Watkins showed mountains of potential at Baylor but at age 27, and only three years of football experience, one has to wonder about his learning curve. The rookie guard looked like he was playing the game for the first time in the preseason game against the Brown. Watkins struggled to find who to block and even more troubling, to pick up the scheme. Kelce looked decent in pass protection but missed some run blocking assignments against Cleveland as well.

As much as the Eagles offensive line struggled a year ago, one has to wonder if it was wise to hire Mudd to implement a vastly different scheme and philosophy from the one that has been in place on this team for the last 13 years, in a season without a true offseason. If this line can gel, then Philadelphia has the potential to once again post one of the highest rated offenses in the NFL. However, if Mudd can’t strike gold in time, opposing defensive coordinators are going to feast on the line, using the middle as the quickest route to quarterback Michael Vick. Especially if Kelce and Watkins follow their current learning curve.

A fast start it seems is out of the question for the Eagles. Even if Reid, Mudd and company find the magic formula to form a strong and dependable offensive line, this team will still be navigating through a season starting two rookies alongside one another. All of this happening  in a year without any offseason film study, significantly fewer practice reps and even less time to grasp life as a pro football player and the tendencies of the player alongside.

It’s an unenviable position that the Eagles have put their offensive line in entering this season, but fair or not it’s a position that will define this team’s success or failure this season.

Matt Lombardo is a reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL

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