Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Eagles Preview: Wild Card Time

In spite of myself, I find myself somewhat bullish on the Eagles. This is in direct contrast to last year, where I spent most of the off-season thinking the Eagles were darn good- only to find myself in September forecasting, then witnessing, a .500 season (a nine win forecast versus eight actual).

Walking out of the Linc last season for the last time, and through much of the summer, I had the Eagles ticketed for woe of the first order. But, unlike last year, training camp and events have been kind to the locals.

On paper, the Eagles are facile to break down- a mixture of the good (defense) and real problematic (the entire offense!).

Offensively, Lord, but do they have a ton of questions. Outside of Westbrook, every position is a source of potential problems. They might have solutions identified- the Eagles, for all their faults, are all about the “plan”. But consequently, a lot of stuff then has to go right to get them even to something north of “okay”.

For example, the offensive tackles, Runyan and Thomas, are aging and have slipped the past two campaigns from very good to pretty mediocre. They still forecast a certain degree of competence- and one could figure we can survive another year with the mix. Unfortunately, the back-up grooming project(s) as of yet do not inspire confidence. Marry that uncertainty to a real suspect interior group. Outside of Shawn Andrews, that group was the worst part of the team last year: a nice mixture of injury and underachievement. They figure to have healed up- but now Andrews’ psyche is literally suspect. I dunno; the questions mount.

The wide outs have no top options- and although it is currently real correct is Philadelphia to be agog at DeSean Jackson- you simply can’t forecast him being an 80-catch impact guy. Westbrook is a stud- but he is the only plus skill position player on the ENTIRE roster. Not good. Due to Westbrook’s limited workload, the back-up running back plays a significant role here- and that role has a real “new and improved” mediocre veteran feel to it (Booker). I can’t believe Buckhalter is still on the roster.

The only hope the Eagles have of elevating this mob to something north of average is a renaissance of good old #5. Sure, it has been three years now since McNabb has been good! They obviously need something better than this sort of mix: four good games, four okay games, four rusty game and a few we just miss entirely.

Frankly, there are too many moving parts that need to go right to be good. Fortunately, the defense projects better.

The front seven returns pretty much the same cast as last year- although they spent some money to bolster the pass rush. The defensive line is young, features some good depth- and honestly figures to improve. The ‘backers are unremarkable- you can probably throw at them as a collective, not real good cover people there- but again there seem to be a lot of options/depth to mix and match to a good level. They sacrifice some quality for quantity there- but again, it is a young group that played better last year and figures to move up.

And, of course, the defensive backfield is superb. I am not worried about how to get Brown and Sheppard and Samuel on the field at the same time. The Eagles play more nickel than anyone- and their secret fantasy has been for Brown to play "safety" for like forever. Mikell was last season’s official nice surprise- and Considine and Dawkins figure to share what time is left at the other safety spot- depending on who is going well/healthy at any given moment. Guys like Reed and Hanson- deep reserves- would start a lot of places. You can overanalyze it; frankly it is just a real solid group.

While I am unsure about his contributions to the wide-out group- DeSean Jackson seems to be the real deal in the return game. This spot cost them two games last year. They spent a second round pick to fix it- and I’m inclined to think they have. I’d like to see JR Reed get some reps at kick-off return.

Their offensive issues keep me from any crazy, Sports Illustrated style, predictions. But unlike last year, the off-season seems to be have been kind. I’d normally put them at nine wins- but the last place schedule is not only “easy” but also breaks nicely: road games at San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati and Baltimore. The departure of Osi Umenyiora and Strahan moves the Giants back a step- the Eagles are no longer definitely the third best team on paper in the division. A 3-3 mark in the division seems pretty achievable.

As long as the quarterback is healthy and productive, married to this defense, the Eagles are a factor in the NFC. I’m just doubtful of McNabb’s ability to start sixteen games. So let’s use the schedule as grounds to move’em up a little from the nine wins on paper, call it ten, and a wild card play-off berth.