OL coach Howard Mudd has made some interesting moves with his lineup. What is the thinking behind moving players around and starting a rookie center over a proven player?
On Saturday the Eagles announced that Todd Herremans had moved to right tackle. Evan Mathis was taking his spot at left guard. It also became clear that Jason Kelce would be the starting center, although there was no formal announcement. Going into the season, the offensive line will be:
LT Jason Peters
LG Evan Mathis
C Jason Kelce
RG Danny Watkins
RT Todd Herremans
That means only one player, Peters, will start at the same spot as last year. Mathis is a veteran newcomer. Watkins and Kelce are rookies. The times they are a changin'. So what the heck happened? A couple of weeks back I wrote about the notion of the Eagles going "all in". Well, this is Howard Mudd's version of going all in. He's going against the grain to get the five players he wants on the field.
Mudd had training camp and three preseason games in order to watch his linemen. He knew Peters was going to be the left tackle and Watkins was going to be the right guard. Beyond that, things weren't so certain. Right tackle was the big mystery. Winston Justice was rehabbing an injured knee. His status was, and remains, uncertain. The Eagles hoped that King Dunlap would fill in. Unfortunately Dunlap was slow to adjust to Mudd's style of blocking. Dunlap started at right tackle in the last two preseason games and was effective, but wasn't so good that you could feel comfortable with him. Austin Howard and Fenuki Tupou were complete non-factors at right tackle.
Free agent Ryan Harris was going to be the right tackle, but his back had other ideas. Harris played pretty well in his one game. His back flared up after that and he's now headed for season ending surgery. With Harris completely out of the picture, Mudd had to decide the best solution for right tackle.
Mudd could have stuck with Dunlap, but instead decided to try and get his best possible set of players on the field. That led him to moving Herremans from left guard to right tackle and then promoting Mathis. Herremans has played well this summer and is a quality veteran blocker. Mathis was somewhat of an afterthought when he signed, but has proven to be a good player. He is a natural fit in Mudd's system and hasn't shown any delay in picking up the offense or blocking scheme. You'd think Mudd brought Mathis with him from the Colts.
The risk in this move is that you weaken the left side of the offensive line. Peters and Herremans were the one sure thing that the Eagles had. Now Herremans is moving to a new position and Peters must adjust to playing beside Mathis. While Herremans hasn't played right tackle in the NFL, it is the position he was originally targeted for. It was hoped he could replace Jon Runyan. Herremans was so impressive that the Eagles forced him into the lineup by making him the left guard in 2006. He's been there ever since.
Herremans has the ideal frame for tackle. He is 6-6. He doesn't have great arm length, but that's less of a factor at right tackle. Herremans has a sleek, athletic build. He has good feet and can be a good pass protector. There will be some bumps in the road, but Herremans has wanted to play tackle his whole career. He's finally getting his shot and I think that will bring out the best in him.
Mathis is a veteran left guard. That's his ideal spot. He's played on several teams and with plenty of linemen. I think he will form a solid bond with Peters and they should get on the same page pretty quickly. It does help that Mathis is such a natural fit in the blocking scheme. It is much easier to stay sharp mentally when you are physically comfortable with what you are being asked to do.
Mudd now has his guys in place at four of five spots on the offensive line. Most fans and media members are comfortable with the shift of Herremans to the outside. Mudd's plan makes sense. He's moving his players around to get the right guys on the field.
So what about center?
Mudd is going with Kelce over Jamaal Jackson. This move does not make sense to fans and the media. This is a head scratcher to them. Why go with a late round rookie over a proven veteran? Kelce has played pretty well this summer, but has also shown some weak spots. Jackson hasn't played nearly as much as him, but has looked sharp. What is Mudd thinking?
Mudd wants the best fits for his system on the field. Kelce is an infinitely better fit. He is one of the most athletic interior blockers the Eagles have ever had. He runs more like a tight end than an offensive lineman. Kelce put up about the same three-cone time as former Eagle Matt Ware. The difference is that Kelce did it at 280 pounds, while Ware was a 209-pound corner/safety tweener. Kecle has great agility for an offensive lineman. Put simply, Kelce can do things that Jackson can't.
The downside of Kelce is that he's a rookie and is learning the scheme, the offense, and how to play at the NFL level. Jackson is a proven veteran. He knows the playbook like the back of his hand. He's adjusting to the new scheme, but has enough experience that he should be fine in that area. There is no question that Jackson is the safer pick. He will make fewer mistakes. He has ideal size and strength. If the season came down to one game, Jackson would be the choice.
This isn't about one game. Mudd is looking at the big picture. I'm not talking about 2012 or 2013, but rather the whole 2011 season. Kelce will have a learning curve, but by October he should be completely comfortable. That's when his talent can really shine. By the time you get to December, it may be clear that Kelce is the better player. Jackson's advantage is knowledge and experience, but Kelce can close that gap as he plays and learns. Kelce's advantage is athletic ability. Jackson can't do anything to catch up in that area.
Don't think this is simply Mudd choosing the guy he drafted over an incumbent player. If Jackson was younger and more athletic, he'd most likely keep the starting job. This move is about choosing the player with more natural talent and who is the better fit. Think about some of the plays we've seen from Kelce in the preseason so far. He's been able to get to the second level and do some really impressive things. That is ideal for the screen game, which is a huge part of the Eagles offense.
Think about the fourth and one play from the Browns game where Clay Harbor was used on an end around. Kelce fought off the defensive tackle who made initial penetration. Kelce then moved left and acted as a lead blocker. Harbor was able to get six yards on the play because of Kelce's block. Jackson has no chance to make that play. He likely would not have given up as much initial penetration, but there's no chance Jackson has the quickness, speed, and agility to get out wide and be the lead blocker.
Don't think of Kelce as an undersized center. Think of him as an athletic center who lacks ideal size. That may sound trite, but it is the truth. Kelce can add size and strength as he works with strength coach Barry Rubin, but his movement skills are rare. Not every 285-pound center can do the things Kelce does. Hank Fraley was 290 pounds and moved well, but couldn't do the things Kelce can.
Kelce has a big upside. The question is whether he's got functional size and strength right now. Based on the preseason, it sure looks that way. Kelce has gotten pushed around a few times, but has won his share of battles with bigger guys. Kelce plays with good leverage and he's tenacious. Defenders might get the best of him initially, but Kelce isn't giving up on a play until he hears the whistle, or maybe the echo of the whistle. Effort goes a long way with interior offensive linemen. I do think Kelce will bulk up to the 295 pound range by next year. That's probably the ideal size for a guy with his frame and skill set.
One thing I'm curious about is how much Jackson's durability came into play. He suffered a serious injury to close out the 2009 season and then another to open the 2010 season. It is possible that Mudd strongly considered going with Jackson as the center, but then decided that a better move would be going with Kelce. You could then give Kelce tons of practice snaps and game time to get him ready. If you go with Jackson that is going to limit Kelce's ability to get ready for the season. What then happens if Jackson get hurt? You're out a veteran and the young player isn't as ready to play.
I understand the concerns that people have with Kelce at center. This isn't a slam dunk, no-brainer. There is risk involved. He is light. He is a rookie. His mistakes can lead to bad situations for Mike Vick and the other skill players. I'm able to limit my concerns because of how much I trust Mudd. He's proven over time to be a great offensive line coach. If this was a Rory Segrest type coach making the move, I'd be very nervous. Mudd is a smart coach with a great track record. If he pushes for young players, you have to trust him. Reid brought Mudd in here to run the line. Reid knew that would mean a change in blocking scheme and the type of personnel the team would need. Reid has faith in Mudd and his instincts. I'm willing to trust Reid and Mudd on this.
The Eagles now have their most athletic offensive line combination on the field. That is ideal for Mudd's system. He's got to have the right pieces for his system to succeed. The line is short on stability and experience, but those are things that can be worked on. The line can learn and gel with every game they play. You can't fake athletic ability. You have it or you don't. It is going to be very interesting to see how quickly this unit comes together and if the athletic potential is worth the moves that Mudd made.