The Eagles must get better in the offseason. The focus will be on free agency, trades, and the draft, but young players already on the team can be the primary source of improvement. Let's take a look.
The 2011 season ended just a few weeks ago, but the focus already is on 2012 and what the Eagles must do to get back on track. Any good red-blooded fan (or should I say green-blooded?) already has a plan. "Draft this guy. Trade that guy. Go sign that player and he'll be the answer the Eagles need. It's so clear. Why the heck can't Andy, Howie, and Joe see it? Idiots."
The offseason is a great time for many of us. It really is a lot of fun to play armchair GM and figure out which moves the team should make. A team that makes the right moves in March and April has a good chance of making it to the postseason. Notice I said "right moves". The Eagles got a ton of praise for signing Nnamdi Asomugha. The Niners addition of Carlos Rogers flew under the radar. Rogers had a great year in San Francisco and is a big part of the reason that the Niners might just be headed to the Super Bowl.
Another huge key for the Niners was the development of their young guys. Navorro Bowman was a rookie in 2010. He had 46 tackles and showed some talent. In 2011 he had a great year and might have outplayed stud linebacker Patrick Willis. Receiver Kyle Williams went from one catch to 20 receptions and three touchdowns. Offensive linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis started all 16 games for the second straight season. Their play improved. Davis didn't have a holding penalty all year and cut down on his sacks allowed.
Player development is critical for teams. The Eagles are no different. This team needs to add talent via pro personnel moves as well as the draft, but the biggest improvement heading into 2012 needs to come from incumbent players.
The area where I think there is the most potential is safety. Some people just dropped their bag of Funyuns and
spit PBR all over the computer screen. "Lawlor, you idiot, have you lost your mind?" Fair question. Here's the thing about safety. That is possibly the strangest position in all of football. On one play the safety might be up at the line of scrimmage taking on Brandon Jacobs. On the next snap he might be 40 yards downfield covering Hakeem Nicks or Victor Cruz. No other position is quite like that. Cornerbacks are coverage specialists who help with run defense (right Asante?). Linebackers are built for run defense and have limited coverage responsibilities. Safeties are expected to do both and do them equally well.
Safety is a position where most players are developed. There are freaks like Ed Reed who shine from day one, but most guys take time. Brian Dawkins wasn't a true impact player until his fourth year (the arrival of Jim Johnson). Rodney Harrison didn't start until his third year. Troy Polamalu didn't start until year two. Those guys became Hall of Fame type players.
Dashon Goldson after two years had played in 19 games. He had no interceptions or forced fumbles. He broke up three passes and had 30 solo tackles. Now he's emerging as one of the best safeties in the NFL. Ryan Clark of the Steelers is a guy I've liked since his days at LSU. It took him years to finally find a home and become an outstanding player.
The Eagles have talented safeties. Nate Allen has been inconsistent, but there are times when he looks very good. Kurt Coleman got off to a terrible start in 2011. That led to his benching. Once he got back into the lineup, Coleman played well. Not great, but well. Jaiquawn Jarrett is a true mystery man. The Eagles liked him enough to spend a second round pick on him. Before you go into a rant about the Eagles, remember that Greg Cosell of NFL Films loved Jarrett and that a couple of other teams were prepared to spend early third round picks on him. Was he a reach in the second round? Yes. Was it likely he would last to the third? No. If you want him (and the Eagles did), go get him.
The key now is for the players to have that talent show up each week in the NFL. For Allen, that means getting healthy. He hurt his knee in December of 2010 and it gave him problems at various times in 2011. He will be completely healthy by the time the spring rolls around. Not all of Allen's 2011 troubles were related to his knee. He must study his own film and learn from his mistakes. Jarrett's first order of business is getting in the weight room. Strength coach Barry Rubin has had good success with young players. He needs to help Jarrett bulk up and get stronger. Jarrett is at his best as a physical safety and run defender. He won't thrive in that role in the NFL at his current size/build.
Coleman ended the season on injured reserve, but it wasn't a serious injury. He'll be all ready to go when the spring gets here. Coleman already has built his body into NFL shape. I'm sure Rubin will have some ideas on how Coleman can tweak things, but there isn't a glaring need to get stronger. It would be great if he could get faster, but I think Coleman is out of luck there. He'll never be a speedy player. The thing he needs to work on is the mental side of things.
I've compared Coleman to Ryan Clark. Both guys were very good players at major colleges. Clark was undrafted and Coleman a seventh round pick because they weren't big and/or fast enough. Both guys started off as special teams players. It took Clark several years to become a regular starter. Players who are not physically gifted must perfect the mental side of things. They need to know their scheme inside-out. They need to know the opposing offense almost as well. They need to be able to read formations and anticipate plays. This allows them to be in the right spot based on thinking rather than just running.
It could be that Coleman is as good as he'll ever get. If so, he's an adequate starter, but probably best suited to being the number three guy. I hope he can become a flat out good safety as he learns the nuances of the game. He must attack this offseason like he would an errant Rex Grossman pass over the middle.
Linebacker is also a complicated situation. The difference there is that I'm not so sure the Eagles do have the talented players in place. Brian Rolle is the player I have the highest hopes for. He showed enough this year to warrant strong consideration as the starting weakside linebacker in 2012. He wasn't so special that you hand him the job. Rolle must work on the mental side of things so that he's more gap sound next year. I'm sure Rubin will have a plan for what Rolle needs to to (get stronger would be my guess).
I don't know what to say about Jamar Chaney. His promising rookie season was flushed down the toilet in 2011. I'm not necessarily ready to give up on him, but I'm also not willing to count on him as a starter. The biggest thing for him is to find one position and focus on it. As a rookie he bounced between the weakside spot and the middle early on. Juan Castillo then moved him to the strong side last summer. Then he finally moved back to the middle when Casey Matthews struggled. I'm sure Chaney's head was spinning, but that is still no excuse for all the missed tackles. Chaney has the physical ability to be a starting linebacker, but he must make great strides this offseason to work on every element of his game.
Matthews never did play well in the base defense. He became a good special teams player by the end of the season and also found a home in the nickel defense. He needs to get better all around. Rubin will work with him on physical changes. Matthews must learn the scheme inside-out. He must study tape. He must work on technique. All of it. Even then, there is no guarantee he'll be starter material. Keenan Clayton is the final linebacker to talk about. He played really well at the end of the year. He needs to get bigger and stronger. That's the area that's holding him back. Right now Clayton can't play in the base defense because he's simply not a good enough run defender. A full offseason with Rubin could change that.
Rookie offsensive linemen Danny Watkins and Jason Kelce should benefit a great deal from the offseason. Watkins needs reps. He needs to be Howard Mudd's shadow, learning everything he can about playing right guard. Watkins has the size and athleticism. He just needs coaching and experience. This spring and summer will be crucial for him. Kelce has a simple task: get bigger and stronger. He has a lot of talent, but got pushed around too much. Kelce and Rubin will spend a lot of time together this offseason.
There are a couple of pass catchers who need this offseason. Riley Cooper has shown flashes of big time talent. He's also looked like Mike Gasperson at times. Cooper is fine physically. He needs reps. He needs to work on route running. He needs to work on his hands. Cooper has good potential, but right now he's not a player you can count on. He'll make some great catches and drop an easy pass. Can't have that. Consistency is the hallmark of good players. Clay Harbor is a guy that is just scratching the surface of his talent. Part of that is on the coaches for not using him more, but Harbor also must do his part. He needs to catch every ball thrown his way and make things happen when he does get the ball. He also needs to shine when the Eagles get creative with him. That will force the coaches to use him more. When you are sitting behind a good player like Brent Celek, you must do special things to take plays away from him.
The defensive line has some young guys who will be looking forward to the offseason. Antonio Dixon had a good year in 2010 so expectations were high in 2011. He got off to a slow start and looked awkward in the wide-nine. Dixon played his best against San Francisco, but unfortunately got hurt in the game and missed the rest of the year. I'm sure Jim Washburn will have Rubin work with Dixon to get in better shape so that he's a better fit for the new attacking style of defense. Dixon has the talent to be a good player. He's just a young guy coming off injury and adjusting to a new system. Rookie Cedric Thornton is a player the team has hopes for. He is a small school guy who will be battling for a roster spot. He's raw so the emphasis for him will be on reps and technique. I'm interested to see what Washburn can do with him.
Brandon Graham is a player who can't wait to put 2011 as far in his rearview mirror as possible. He tore his ACL in December of 2010 and spent most of 2011 on the bench. When he did play, he didn't do much. Graham must get in top shape. He wasn't in good overall shape or football shape this year. Graham is another guy who needs to do whatever Rubin tells him. There isn't much you can do about the ACL other than hope the repair job holds up and the knee gets as close to normal as possible. Phillip Hunt looked very good down the stretch. It will be interesting to see if the coaches ask him to add any weight or if they want him to stay small. In order to start, he would need to get bigger. If they see him purely as a situational rusher, then staying light might just be the way to go.
Finally, Chas Henry and Alex Henery will benefit from an offseason with Bobby April. Both guys did their best kicking late in the season. Henry averaged 50 yards per punt in the finale. Henery banged in a 51-yard field goal in Dallas. These guys had solid rookie years and if they work hard this offseason could quickly become outstanding kickers. The raw leg strength is there. The players need to perfect their technique. That's not something that happens overnight, but both guys are headed in the right direction.
It will be great for these young players to have an offseason, but we do have to keep one thing in mind. The law of averages says that not all of these guys will improve. Could be Watkins or Cooper or Jarrett or Chaney (just as examples), but one or more players will flat line. Quintin Demps got cocky when the Eagles projected him into the starting lineup. That affected his work habits and cost him his job. Ryan Moats never could learn the playbook and that cost him his job. Billy McMullen could never make the transition from guy with potential to consistently good player.
I think it is most critical that the safeties and offensive linemen get better. The safeties can eliminate big plays if they improve. Long touchdown passes in the Dallas, New England, and Giants games all came from safeties making basic mistakes. Those mistakes cost the Eagles in 2011. The hope now is that the players learned from them and won't repeat them. As for the linemen, those guys protect Michael Vick. Keeping him healthy and upright is the biggest key to the 2012 season. If Watkins and Kelce do what they need to, the Eagles could have the best offensive line in the entire NFL.