One of the biggest disappointments for the 2012 Eagles is the poor play of the offensive line. The line took some time to come together in 2011 as they adjusted to Howard Mudd's system and all the new faces in the group. Evan Mathis was new at left guard. Todd Herremans shifted over to right tackle. Rookies Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins had the normal ups and downs of young players learning to play. By the end of the season, the line was playing really well and that set expectations for 2012 to a sky high level.
Everything changed when Jason Peters ruptured his Achilles tendon in the offseason. Peters was arguably the best left tackle in the entire NFL in 2011. Replacing him would be very difficult, but the Eagles were lucky that free agent Demetress Bell was still on the market. He had the size, athletic ability, and experience to be a good replacement for Peters. Unfortunately, plans don't always come to fruition. Bell turned out to be an enormous disappointment. For whatever reason, he never got comfortable in Mudd's system and also struggled with the mental side of things. He missed a ton of assignments.
Left tackle is the most important position on the line, whether the quarterback is left-handed or right-handed. The left tackle generally faces the most talented pass rusher on the other team. Blocking that rusher is the foundation for pass plays. The coaches must know if they need to give the left tackle extra help. Do they double team to that side? Do they chip block with a running back? The coaches need to know if they can count on the tackle controlling his rusher so that the quarterback can throw deeper stuff. If the tackle can't win his battles, the coaches must call pass plays that get the ball out quicker and the quarterback must be very cognizant of getting the ball out on time.
Not having Peters as the foundation for the line really hurt. Mudd and the other coaches talked about business as usual, but I think that was them trying to paint a rosy picture and not really an accurate assessment of the situation. You can't lose a great player without it hurting. You can't lose the left tackle without it hurting. The fact that they lost the best lineman and the guy who played the most critical position was going to cause problems. That's just reality.
One of the biggest factors for success on the line is continuity. Bell was struggling mightily and that led to King Dunlap getting snaps with the starters in the preseason. Things took a turn for the worse in the second game when Dunlap and Kelce got hurt. That forced Bell and Dallas Reynolds into action. Both guys had a lot of ups and downs. Reynolds really struggled at Arizona. The Cardinals attacked him all game long (it was his first NFL start) and he was more of a speed bump than a blocker.
Incumbent players like Watkins and Herremans weren't helping matters. Watkins did fine as a run blocker, but his pass protection was very erratic. He really struggled with athletic rushers. Herremans had stretches of games where he was outstanding, but then would make a handful of critical mistakes (often at key moments) and that really hurt the offense.
More changes occurred. Rookie Dennis Kelly took over for Watkins for a couple of games. That didn't work so well. Herremans got hurt against the Saints and Dunlap slid to the right side while Bell got back on the field at left tackle. That was a disaster and Michael Vick paid the price for that. Kelly was then shifted to right tackle. Dunlap went back to his normal left side. Free agent Jake Scott was signed to man the right guard spot. This lineup has produced the best line play of the year.
You won't mistake the current line for the 2002 or 2006 lines any time soon. The current lineup might be the best of the season, but that is somewhat of a backhanded compliment. That's kinda like talking about Tony Hunt's best run or Jerome McDougle's biggest sack. We're talking about the best of bad choices. While the current group isn't anything special, let's talk about them. Reynolds has improved a great deal and is now a serviceable center. Mathis is playing at a Pro Bowl level at left guard. Scott started off well, but was more up and down in the last two games. Athletic tackles have given him some issues (Gerald McCoy, Geno Atkins). Dunlap is what he is. At his best, Dunlap is an adequate pass blocker. He struggles in the run game. Kelly is a typical rookie. He has moments where he looks pretty good, but there are other plays where you can see his limitations. Kelly must get stronger. That shows in run and pass blocking.
What will happen in 2013?
Getting healthy will solve a lot of problems. The question there is who you can trust to be all the way back. Will Peters, Kelce, or Herremans have any lingering issues? Peters should be all the way back. An Achilles injury isn't like an ACL. If the Achilles heals properly the player usually is able to get back close to his previous level. Kelce has the toughest situation. He is coming back from a knee injury. Also, his game is all about mobility and athleticism. If he loses any quickness, agility, or speed, that could really hurt him. Herremans just had an ankle injury, but there were some complications so you have to hope he's able to get past all of that.
Before we can really talk too much about specifics we need to mention that all of the offensive line plans will be greatly affected by changes to the coaching staff and offense. It seems very likely that there will be a new head coach. Mudd already said he is retiring. What style of blocking will the new coaches want? Will the new offense be based more on running or passing?
I think it is safe to project Peters back as the left tackle. The team is closely monitoring his recovery. If they have any concerns about his status the team will act accordingly in the offseason and look for help at that spot. Peters will turn 31 in January. Tra Thomas played with the Eagles until he was 34. Based on that, Peters would have four more years. Thomas never suffered a major injury so that has to be factored in as well. Maybe you plan for Peters to be good for the next two years.
Mathis is fine at left guard. Some have questioned whether he can function outside of the Mudd blocking system. The Ravens strongly pursued him in the offseason and they do not run Mudd's blocking scheme. If you study his play, you can see Mathis is legitimately good. He isn't huge, but plays strong. He plays with good leverage and that allows him to anchor well. He has excellent feet. Mathis is very good on the move and out in space.
Center is more up in the air. If the new coaches prefer big guys, that could lead to change. Kelce lists at about 300 pounds. I'm not sure he is that heavy. He has skinny legs and struggles to anchor at times. He can get stronger, but he will never be a massive mauler. Kelce needs coaches who will embrace his skill set. He is great at pulling and blocking out in space. It is possible the new staff will want a different center. I think Kelce's tape is strong enough that the staff will decide he's worth keeping.
Moving to the right side, let's start at tackle. Herremans should be healthy. Do you keep him at tackle, even after an up and down season? I think a new coach could make a world of difference with him. Herremans' sloppy play wasn't due to lack of talent. A new coach could get Herremans to re-focus and get back to playing high level football consistently. He could be a good right tackle.
There is also the option of moving Herremans to right guard and making Dennis Kelly the right tackle. Kelly has shown good potential this year. Herremans started four games as a rookie in 2005. He looked about like Kelly, maybe a bit better. The next season Herremans was a full-time starter at left guard (the only open spot on the line at that time). The current coaches are very high on Kelly. I think he has shown starting potential.
If you prefer to keep Herremans at tackle and Kelly as the top backup, right guard is up in the air. Danny Watkins has been a disappointment so far. There is some hope for him. If the new coach believes in the run game, Watkins has a chance to succeed. It doesn't look like he'll ever thrive as a guy who is pass blocking 40 times a game consistently. Watkins has the raw talent to be a good starter. It isn't translating to his play on the field. He is another player that could possibly benefit from a new coach coming in and shaking things up. Watkins needs to know that you perform at a certain level or you get cut. Period. Either he starts playing up to his potential or he's out looking for a job as a fireman again.
There is no clear answer beyond him. The team could bring back Jake Scott. Rookie Nate Menkin could be a player to watch. The new staff would have to study practice tapes since Menkin hasn't played a down this year. I don't think you count on such an unknown commodity. Right guard could once again be a spot to fill.
Let's talk about the return of some of the current players. Reynolds could actually come back as the backup center. He was a mess early on, but has gotten a lot better. He's not someone you ideally want starting, but has been effective. He's actually a solid run blocker. King Dunlap should not be brought back. He's gotten a lot of playing time this year and has been disappointing. Demetress Bell should be banished to Siberia. Matt Tennant hasn't played enough to have a good opinion on. He could be brought back to fight for a backup role. Matt Kopa was recently added to the roster as a backup tackle. He hasn't played yet and shouldn't factor into any plans. Matt Reynolds and Julian Vandervelde are on the practice squad. They could be brought back to challenge for backup spots, but won't be counted on for anything.
If you shift Herremans to guard and start Kelly at right tackle, no starting player needs to be added. Depth is still a major concern. You need a backup tackle and a backup guard. If you don't like Reynolds as the backup center, then that would also need to be addressed. You could draft the backup tackle as early as the second round or as late as the fourth. I don't think you'd want to go for a late round player and count on him.
If you keep Herremans at tackle and Kelly as the top backup, there is a hole at right guard. The new staff could give Watkins another chance there, but would need serious competition for him. This would not require a first rounder, but would need somewhat of an early pick. Right guard has become an important spot on the line. You can't just put any player in that spot. You also would want someone who could seriously challenge Watkins. That should drive Watkins to play better football or reveal him as a guy that lacks the competitive drive to succeed in the NFL.
There is also the possibility of shifting Herremans to guard and then drafting a player with the first round pick to come in and start at right tackle right away. That would keep Kelly as the top backup. It would strengthen right guard and put a very talented player at right tackle. Depending on where the Eagles pick and who is likely to be available, this is a very interesting option.
For my money the two best lines of the Reid era were in 2002 and 2006. Those lines had the ability to dominate at times. Notice anything about those seasons? Donovan McNabb was hurt in both of them and backup quarterbacks had to finish the season. That led to the coaches running a more balanced attack. Running the ball built up the confidence of the linemen. It helped them to play at a high level. There have been five games this year when the quarterback dropped back to pass 50 or more times. There is no way a group of backup linemen can play well in that setting. It is possible that despite so many backup linemen and a rookie quarterback playing the last several weeks, the 2012 Eagles will finish with fewer rushing attempts by the running backs than the 2011 Eagles. Crazy.
The biggest improvement the line can have in 2013 is adding a coaching staff that will truly embrace the running game and the importance of a more balanced offense. That helps linemen to become more cohesive. It helps their confidence. It helps them to play better. If the Eagles make the right hires, make a couple of moves, and get some players healthy, the line can go back to being a strength.