PHILADELPHIA – It is tempting to dismiss Doug Pederson’s contention that the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles have more talent than the 1999 team that Pederson played on.
The ’99 Eagles had a defense with Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Hugh Douglas and Troy Vincent. That alone would give Andy Reid’s team the edge on Pederson’s squad.
One area that is hard to argue, though, is the offensive line. If the 1999 offense doesn’t look as good, either in the passing game or the running game, that is largely because of the line. Tra Thomas was in his second season at left tackle, but Steve Everitt was at center and the right tackle was journeyman Lonnie Palelei.
The current Eagles have had an inconsistent offensive line in recent years. In 2013, it protected Nick Foles and paved the way for LeSean McCoy to lead the NFL in rushing. In 2014, injuries caused a drop in effectiveness. Last year, Chip Kelly’s decision to dismiss starting guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, plus the physical problems endured by left tackle Jason Peters, turned the line into a real problem area.
But what now? The pieces appear to be in place for a pretty good offensive line. And that could make the difference as Pederson tries to get his offense off the ground in 2016.
Here are the issues and upgrades, from left to right.
Left tackle Jason Peters. The perennial Pro Bowler was not himself last year, as back problems led to nerve issues. One possibility: Kelly’s uptempo offense was part of Peters’ problem. Eliminating that will allow Peters to catch his breath and keep his balance.
Right tackle Lane Johnson said he was worn down by the end of the season. Johnson is 25 years old, nine years younger than Peters. If he’s looking forward to running a normal offense, imagine how much it will help Peters.
If Peters can’t get through the season, Johnson would be the first alternative. He could move to left tackle while the Eagles figure out who could play on the right side.
Left guard Stefen Wisniewski or Isaac Seumalo or Malcolm Bunche or Allen Barbre. This will be perhaps the position most open to training-camp competition, at least on the offensive side. Barbre was the starter last year, but that will hurt him more than it helps him.
The Eagles signed Wisniewski in free agency. He could earn the job out of camp while one of the younger players works his way up from the second team.
Bunche was on the practice squad last year and spent a full season learning from offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. He’s a big, physical lineman who would make a nice complement to right guard Brandon Brooks.
Seumalo will have a chance to win the job as a rookie. Other than Carson Wentz, Seumalo is the Eagles’ only pick from the first two days of the draft. They considered that a very important pick and they used it on Seumalo.
Center Jason Kelce. There seems to be a lot of noise about Kelce this offseason. Yes, Wisniewski can play center. And yes, Pederson made a passing comment about Kelce possibly moving to guard.
But the feeling here is that Kelce’s subpar 2015 season had more to do with the guard play on either side of him than with Kelce himself. He fell into the trap of trying to do too much and wound up creating further problems.
If the guards play well – as they did in 2013 and 2014 – Kelce should be fine.
Right guard Brandon Brooks. He is perhaps the most certain player on the line. The Eagles signed the former Houston Texan to a five-year contract worth $40 million. They planned to put him at right guard, where he played with the Texans.
There are questions about Peters (age and injury), Kelce (rebounding from 2015), Johnson (moving to left tackle) and the uncertain left guard. There are no such questions about the 6-foot-5, 335-pound Brooks.
If Brooks gets hurt, Andrew Gardner or Matt Tobin would likely replace him. That’s the improvement. Last year, Gardner and Tobin were first and second on the depth chart. This year, they’re second and third.
Right tackle Lane Johnson. The Eagles signed Johnson to a new, five-year, $63 million contract. It is a contract that makes Johnson a very well-paid right tackle or a well-paid left tackle, depending on what happens.
Johnson said he feels ready to make the move to the left side. He doesn’t want to rush it, though, because that would mean the end of Peters’ reign on the left side. And Johnson knows the Eagles are better with two premium tackles than just one.
If Johnson does go to the left side, right tackle becomes the challenge. Gardner or Dennis Kelly could fill in over there in a pinch. Brett Boyko was on the practice squad last year. Fifth-round draft pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai could step in, ideally after getting some more seasoning.