DETROIT - SEPTEMBER 19: Jason Peters #71 of the Philadelphia Eagles leaves the game with an injury during the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on September 19 2010 in Detroit Michigan. The Eagles defeated the Lions 35-32. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
What should we expect from the Eagles OL in 2011? What did the draft tell us about the OL and what Howard Mudd thought of the situation?
Juan Castillo was a good offensive line coach for the Eagles for more than a decade. He brought stability to a part of the team that had been a trouble spot for years. From the mid 1980s to the late 1990s the Eagles had mediocre to poor offensive line play. The Eagles tried a variety of things to solve the problem, but none worked until Castillo and Andy Reid got together. Since 1999, the line has been solid, sometimes outstanding.
Castillo was given talent to work with. He inherited left tackle Tra Thomas, a high first round pick. Prior to the 2000 season the Eagles signed Jon Runyan to come be the right tackle and enforcer on the line. Jermaine Mayberry was a former first round pick that found a home at right guard and developed into a Pro Bowl player. The Eagles would use a first round pick on Shawn Andrews in 2004 and Castillo turned him into a Pro Bowl guard. In 2009 the Eagles traded a first round pick to acquire stud left tackle Jason Peters so he could replace Thomas. Castillo deserves credit for getting his players to play well, even if he was handed plenty of talent. The Eagles have used a lot of resources on the defensive line in the last five or six years and the results haven't been so good. Just drafting players early and signing free agents doesn't guarantee anything. The coach still has to get the players to perform.
While Castillo did a good job, I was never a big fan of the players he liked. He wanted players that were massive so they could anchor well in pass protection. 2006 was the low point for me. Prior to that draft I listed a pair of offensive linemen on my "All-Underachiever" team. They were Winston Justice and Max Jean-Gilles, both taken by the Eagles in that draft. Barf. Both guys had (and have) NFL ability. Both guys were highly inconsistent in college and failed to play up to their talent level. Both players have been highly inconsistent in the NFL.
Howard Mudd is the new offensive line coach. He does not need (or necessarily like) massive linemen. Mudd prefers smaller blockers that have excellent agility. He also wants linemen that are tenacious. Guys that can't rely on their massive size to pound on defenders must make up for that with effort and nastiness. Think of it in boxing terms. Instead of a heavyweight fighter looking to land one knockout punch you have a middleweight that will punch relentlessly.
The Eagles took three linemen in the 2011 draft and I liked all of them quite a bit. They all fit Mudd's system very well. Mudd lets his blockers be aggressive, even when pass blocking. Linemen love that. They hate being passive and having to give ground. They would much rather fire off the ball and engage defenders at the line of scrimmage. Mudd also needs blockers that are active and will play to the whistle. Draft picks Danny Watkins, Julian Vandervelde, and Jason Kelce are all aggressive, active, and nasty blockers.
I look forward to seeing the new blockers and the new system. I think it will be a lot of fun. My biggest beef over the last few years was not knowing what to expect from the offensive line. Nick Cole looked good in 2008. He was up and down in 2009. He was awful last season. Jean-Gilles was inconsistent from game to game throughout his career. There were times when it looked like the light came on, but then he would disappoint the next week. Jamaal Jackson was up and down as he dealt with his weight issues, also part of Jean-Gilles' problems.
Mudd's system certainly isn't flawless. The Colts had some games over the years where they got overwhelmed by good defenses, such as the Steelers and Patriots. I still prefer his way of doing things. It fits in well with Reid's offense. Castillo's big guys thrived in 2002 and 2006 when backup quarterbacks started large portions of the season and Reid had to run a more balanced offense. Unfortunately Reid's pass-happy attack and Castillo's style of blocking meant that the big boys up front were going backward most of every game. That won't be the case anymore. The Eagles will still be throwing the ball 35 to 40 times a game, but now the linemen can be aggressive even in pass protection.
Mudd will be working with Castillo's players initially. Todd Herremans and Mike McGlynn actually fit Mudd's system better than Castillo's. They should be excited about the change. Jason Peters is so gifted that he can play in any system. Jamaal Jackson's biggest hurdle is staying healthy. He should be okay in the new system. I see Winston Justice as the mystery man. He's got the talent to play in any system, but his inconsistent ways must become a thing of the past. Cole isn't expected back and Jean-Gilles isn't a lock to make the team. Those guys don't have the build or skill set that Mudd is looking for.
All three of the linemen taken by the Eagles were interior blockers. That shows you where Howie Roseman, Reid, and Mudd thought the problems were last year. The Eagles didn't have an adequate starter at right guard and didn't have the depth to fill the spot. The team lacked talent at those spots. Watkins is here to start. Vandervelde and Kelce aren't locks to make the team, but they are here to push the starters and provide an infusion of athletic ability to the interior of the line.
The Eagles didn't draft any tackles so that tells you that Mudd is okay with the starters and likely the backups as well. I thought A.Q. Shipley might be a player to watch in the new system, but the drafting of Kelce ruined that notion. Dallas Reynolds is a longhsot to make the roster, but if it is ever going to happen this will be the year. Fenuki Tupou played tackle in college, but the Eagles viewed him as a guard mostly. I'm not sure if he's the kind of athletic guy that Mudd wants on the interior or if he's good enough to make it on the outside.
The offensive line was a major problem in 2010. Right guard was the biggest hole on the line. The Eagles have already addressed both issues. Mudd is here to help get the line to play better. Watkins is here to plug the hole at right guard. There are three "ifs" to watch. If Jamaal Jackson can return to his 2009 form...if Watkins can be a solid rookie...if Winston Justice can rebound to his 2009 form...if these things happen the offensive line could go from weakness to strength. McGlynn provides insurance at center and right guard. Dunlap provides insurance at right tackle. The Eagles have been smart about not putting all their eggs into one basket. No matter what, it is hard to imagine right guard being as much of a mess in 2011 as it was last year.