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Eagles OL Must Be Better in 2011

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What went wrong with the Eagles OL in 2010? How can it improve in 2011?

The Eagles have as good a set of skill players as any team in the NFL.  Maybe the best, actually.  Mike Vick is a franchise quarterback.  LeSean McCoy looks like a franchise running back.  DeSean Jackson is a major playmaker and Jeremy Maclin quietly puts up big numbers.  Add in guys like Brent Celek and Jason Avant and you see a lot of firepower.  The offense does have one area that needs help - the line. 

The offensive line was a major strength in 2006 and 2007.  Things went a little downhill in 2008 as Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan started to show their age.  That was also the last time we saw Shawn Andrews do anything useful in an Eagles uniform. 

2009 was a mixed year.  Jason Peters took over at left tackle and didn't play up to his potential.  He missed time with minor injuries and just didn't consistently play like a star left tackle.  Winston Justice took over the right side and actually surprised everyone with a good season.  Todd Herremans was good at left guard.  Jamaal Jackson had a terrific year in the middle.  Right guard was mostly split between Nick Cole and Max Jean-Gilles.  They combined to do a good enough job.  The spot was supposed to belong to Stacy Andrews, but his recovery from a knee injury derailed that idea.  Jay Ratliff ate him alive in one game and I think the coaches knew that experiment had to end. 

There was hope that 2010 would be much better.  Peters had experience in the system and got comfortable playing beside Herremans.  Justice was only going to get better on the right side.  Jamaal Jackson was recovering from a knee injury, but told everyone he would be back.  If not, Mike McGlynn was ready to man the middle.  That left Cole and Jean-Gilles to handle right guard once again.  They split the job in the past two years.  Maybe this time one guy would emerge as a good starter. 

Oops. 

The line play in 2010 was highly inconsistent.  Peters started off the year as he finished 2009, very up and down.  He missed a couple of games around midseason.  Once Peters returned to action he finally played like the elite left tackle we expected him to be.  He was dominant as a run blocker in the first Dallas game.  He killed the Cowboys in the last four minutes.  It was a beautiful thing to behold.  Peters was good in pass protection.  Osi Umenyiora was really held in check, especially in the second game.  Herremans was up and down all year.  He had to deal with some nagging injuries.  Maybe that bothered him more than we knew.  He was never a weak spot, but he didn't play up to his previous level.  All of this said, the left side was the strength of the line. 

Jackson did start the year at center, but got hurt in the opener and missed the rest of the year.  McGlynn took his place and started the rest of the way.  There were times when he was really good.  McGlynn has a nasty streak.  He likes to finish his blocks.  You can tell he learned a thing or two from his one year behind Runyan.  Most of the mistakes that McGlynn made were mental or due to lack of experience.  You have to live with those when a guy is adjusting to being a starter for the first time.  The one guy who did give him problems was Barry Cofield of the Giants.  He beat McGlynn with a quick burst and good swim move.  McGlynn has to work on being quicker in his transition from snap to block.  That should come with practice now that he's got a season under his belt. 

Right guard was a major issue.  Nick Cole stunk most of the year.  I'm not sure why.  He played well for us down the stretch in 2008 and did okay for parts of 2009.  He did have some injury issues that caused him to miss a lot of time during training camp.  That would be all well and good if most of his mistakes were due to physical problems.  You try not to pick on a guy for playing through an injury.  The frustrating thing with Cole is that a lot of his mistakes were mental mistakes.  Delay blitzes gave him fits.  You'd think they were just invented in August and he'd never seen that before.  There were a few times this year when Cole would turn his guy loose, as if he expected someone else to make the block.  Juan Castillo had to be pulling his hair out for a veteran starter to be having those kinds of issues.  That is simply unacceptable.  Other times Cole just got beat.  There were times when he was more speed bump than true obstacle to pass rushers.  Cole only started seven games, but he was credited with giving up five sacks.  Ouch. 

Cole wasn't always bad.  He had some moments when you thought the light had gone on and we were going to see the player from the past.  Cole isn't physically gifted, but he plays hard and can be a solid starter when he's at his best.  Those moments were few and far between.  That helped get Max Jean-Gilles back into the lineup.  He had lap band surgery in the offseason and dropped about 60 pounds.  He got down to around 340 pounds, which was a good weight for him.  Jean-Gilles looked like a new man.  You would see him 30 yards downfield on a screen pass.  That didn't happen in the past.  He was more mobile and energetic this year. He was still big and strong enough to be stout in the run game.  Max made his share of mistakes, but overall I was pleased with his play.  It's really too bad he didn't have the surgery a year or two ago.  He might have developed into a pretty good player by this point. 

As for Justice, the season began with such optimism, but ended with him on the bench.  Crazy.  He had a good season in 2009 and the hope was that he might develop into a Pro Bowl candidate this year.  That did not happen.  Justice went up against Clay Matthews in the opener and struggled.  Matthews beat him with speed and then countered with a bull rush.  He overpowered the bigger, stronger Justice.  That game might have affected him all year.  Hard to say.  Justice never got in a groove like Peters did.  To be fair, Justice did get hurt late in the year.  He missed a couple of starts.  Playing with a knee at less than 100 percent can have a big effect on guys who have to block explosive edge rushers.  That could partially explain the struggles he had in the playoff game. 

Back to the big picture, Justice not only struggled with the rushers in front of him throughout the season, he didn't handle the blitz well and at times looked completely lost when dealing with stunts/twists/loops.  There was terrible communication between Justice and Cole.  It was a little better with him and Jean-Gilles, but still not good enough.  Teams running stunts ate up the right side of the line. 

The only other lineman who saw significant time in 2010 was King Dunlap.  He started five games.  Dunlap filled in for Peters off the bench and gave up three sacks against the Niners.  That was the low point.  He started the next couple of games at left tackle and showed potential.  Dunlap got a lot of help from backs and other blockers.  The gameplan helped him.  He faced John Abraham of Atlanta and more than held his own.  By the end of the game Dunlap was blocking him by himself.  Dunlap then filled in for Justice late in the year.  He was okay on the right side.  He took over in the playoff game when Justice got benched.  Maybe it was coincidence, but the offense got going when that change happened.  I don't project Dunlap as a future starter, but I do think he can be a good backup. 

So what needs to be done for 2011?  Some people want Justice replaced.  Since Vick is a lefty, the right tackle now blocks the blind side rusher.  That puts extra pressure on the right tackle to be a good pass blocker.  I'm all for replacing Justice...if you have a definite improvement.  Here is where most people talk about Gabe Carimi or some other draft target.  The point lost on them is that Justice was that guy back in 2006.  He was the tackle prospect with size and excellent athletic ability.  He was blocking for a lefty quarterback named Matt Leinart at USC.  The offense put up huge numbers.  Running back Reggie Bush won the Heisman.  USC played for the national title in Justice's final season there. 

Justice hasn't panned out as expected, but there is also no guarantee that Carimi or any other draft prospect would come in and play at a high level.  The Eagles offense is loaded with talent.  2011 is a year to challenge for NFC supremacy (assuming the defense comes up with a red zone stop at least once a month).  Do you want a rookie at right tackle?  Justice did play well in 2009.  He's shown that he can be a good starter on an explosive offense.  I think the wise move is to stick with him and hope for a bounce-back year. 

I would let Dunlap and Austin Howard challenge him for the starting job.  Make Justice earn his spot.  Challenge him.  Justice doesn't lack talent.  He could be a Pro Bowl player if he ever put it all together.  He's got to have talent and potential morph into production and consistency. 

One thing that should help Justice quite a bit is stability and improved play at right guard.  Justice had a revolving door beside him this year.  It wasn't like Cole started and then Jean-Gilles took over.  Because of injuries and ineffective play, they were in and out.  Even Reggie Wells played most of a game at right guard.  The longest stretch with the same right guard and right tackle starting together was just five games.  That constant change and sloppy play had to affect Justice. 

Fixing right guard should help Justice out in 2011.  The Eagles could roll the dice and re-sign Max Jean-Gilles and give him the job full-time.  Max could develop into a good player now that he's in decent shape.  He missed a lot of time last spring and summer due to the surgery.  The Eagles could insert Jamaal Jackson back at center and slide McGlynn to right guard.  McGlynn actually might thrive in that spot.  There has been plenty of speculation about going after Logan Mankins.  I'm not sure how likely that is.  He turns 29 in March.  He plays left guard for the Patriots.  Do you pay him big money as an older player to come in and move to the right side?  Do you put him at left guard and shift Herremans over?  That would mean both tackles have to adjust to new starters beside them.  There is another potential free agent solution.  Davin Joseph started at right guard for Tampa for the last five years.  He's a year younger than Mankins and would likely come at a cheaper salary.  You could plug him in at right guard and leave the rest of the line intact.  Joseph isn't an ideal solution, but might be the better fit.  Mankins is clearly the better player, but is he worth the money he'll demand and is he worth the change he'd bring along?  Remember that Mankins played on a team that runs more and uses a short passing game.  Would he want to come to Philly and pass block for Vick 40 times a game?  I'm sure he would come if the Eagles broke the bank for him.  Again, is it worth it?  Is that the smart move? 

There is another player worth mentioning, Harvey Dahl from the Falcons.  He has a reputation as one of the meanest, nastiest blockers in the NFL.  He is a 3-year starter at right guard.  Dahl is an effective pass blocker, but is at his best mashing guys on run plays.  He could be the kind of presence that Justice needs beside him.  Dahl's nasty streak might rub off.  Runyan was a great addition in 2000 because he stabilized right tackle, but also because he brought personality to the line.  Young guys learned how to play from him.  You wonder if Dahl could have that same effect on the current group. 

The Eagles could look to the draft for a right guard.  There isn't anyone who looks like the next Shawn Andrews.  There are good tackle prospects, but no stud guards.  Ben Ijalana from Villanova could be of serious interest.  Going from small school left tackle to the Eagles starting right guard would be a big challenge.  Danny Watkins from Baylor is a player the Eagles are showing interest in.  I like him, but there is one thing to consider.  He's basically a slightly more athletic version of Mike McGlynn.  Do you draft him or just give McGlynn a chance at right guard? 

The Eagles had great right guard play from Jermaine Mayberry and Andrews from 2000-07.  It would be awesome to find another stud to insert at that spot, but for now I'd settle for a reliable starter.  The safe move might be to re-sign Jean-Gilles and draft someone early.  If the rookie can win the job, so be it.  If not, you're returning a veteran player who knows the offense and that specific position.  Obviously any free agent moves will be limited by what happens in regard to the CBA.  You can't go after Dahl, Joseph, or Mankins until free agency begins, and that could be after the draft this year. 

Watching Vick and Kolb get pounded by defenders all year wasn't a fun experience.  You must be able to protect your quarterback and open holes for the runners.  The offensive line must go from question mark back to being a strength of the team.  No matter how they do it, the Eagles need to add more talent and they need to get better line play in 2011.