The Eagles exit empty-handed once more

Perhaps the Eagles’ most memorable and exciting season ever has come to yet another heart wrenching close with a 21-16 wild card round loss to the Green Bay Packers. Neither team played their best game, and a few plays here or there and the Eagles could have pulled out yet another thrilling comeback. Still, the Eagles have nobody to blame but themselves as the officiating was, for once, reasonable and the players simply did not make plays when the occasions presented themselves. However, the season was a pleasure to watch and nobody will ever forget it. There is no team I would have rather spent my Sundays watching.

The Eagles really did not do a bad job overall, but a few areas really hurt their chances of winning. First of all, the red zone defense allowed Green Bay to score touchdowns on every trip inside the twenty. Hold them to a field goal just once and the game becomes much easier to win. Secondly, the reliable run defense was very poor and did not force the Packers to become one-dimensional. Their performance was uncharacteristic and unacceptable considering that the Packers really are not a powerful running team. Akers missed two critical field goals, one of which was an unforgivable miss for the pro bowler. Avant dropped a key pass, and the Eagles could not capitalize off of four Packer fumbles. I also had a qualm with Michael Vick, who gets way too antsy in the pocket against the blitz, even if is picked up adequately. He needs to settle down and go through his progression like a regular pocket passer would. But oh well, there’s always next year…unless a new CBA can’t be reached.

I’m ready to look forward to next season regardless, so over the next couple days or so I will be analyzing the decisions the Eagle organization will have to make in order for Philly to finally bring home the Super Bowl in 2011…or 2012. Let’s start by a position-by-position assessment of the team.

Quarterback: Michael Vick is the answer, period. He needs to work on remaining calm in the pocket and trusting his reads before taking off to become an elite and consistent player, but there is no doubt that he will be leading the Eagles next season. A lengthy extension should be reached, but even if it doesn’t work out, the Eagles will pin him with the franchise tag. Kevin Kolb is more of a question. He wants to start, so presumably that means a trade is imminent. However, the Eagles seem unwilling to part with him without two first round picks. Nobody will give up two firsts for Kolb, but a compromise may be reached. A likely scenario could be trading a third rounder and Kevin Kolb to Miami for Chad Henne and a first rounder (14th overall). Mike Kafka seems entrenched as a third stringer with upside but who needs time to develop. The Eagles do see something in him, though.

Backfield: LeSean McCoy led the NFC in scrimmage yards this year, and Jerome Harrison has been very effective in spot duty in Cleveland. I am perfectly happy with this one-two punch, and the backfield will welcome Leonard Weaver back, who can also shoulder some carries should McCoy go down. The third running back spot should be a battle between Eldra Buckley, Martell Mallett, and some undrafted free agents. I would keep Owen Schmitt in the lineup as the fullback and move Leonard Weaver around. He could play some tailback or even be the second tight end (he was a division II all-american tight end in college) as well as line up at fullback.

Wide receivers: Jeremy Maclin is the traditional #1 wide out. DeSean Jackson is your x-factor who can line up wide, in the slot, go in motion, or in the backfield. He does need a new contract, but he deserves the money. Get it done. As a complement to those two, allow Jason Avant and Riley Cooper to battle for snaps. Avant is a great route runner but has had an unacceptable amount of drops this season. Maybe the younger, more talented Cooper is the way to go. Chad Hall and Sinorice Moss will battle for the fifth and final slot. Count this area as a definite strength for this squad.

Tight end: Brent Celek is back, and Clay Harbor deserves the first crack at backing him up, but Cornelius Ingram may be tough to keep off the roster. However, since Vick has taken control under center, tight ends have not been as big a factor in the passing game as they were in the McNabb era. The Eagles should consider using a fourth or fifth round selection on a good in-line blocking tight end who can help pick up those blitzes off the edge. NC State’s George Bryan could be a nice selection in round five or six.

Offensive tackle: Once again, analysts love to call Jason Peters the most overrated player in the league, but he has been solid. Did he deserve his pro bowl selection? Maybe, but the Eagles wouldn’t be able to upgrade that position without breaking the bank again. Winston Justice overall had an average year, but was awful against Green Bay. I would have liked to see him improve more, especially since he is protecting Vick’s blind side. I would perhaps experiment with moving Todd Herremans to right tackle or allowing King Dunlap, who was quietly a very reliable swing tackle, to fight for snaps there. I also love Austin Howard, the undrafted rookie who dominated in the preseason but was routinely beaten by DeMarcus Ware, though he was always one-on-one against him. No offensive tackles have really impressed me this year, and I wouldn’t draft any.

Interior offensive line: Todd Herremans and Max Jean-Gilles had their moments at guard, but were pretty pedestrian overall. Mike McGlynn simply looked lost at center, a position he had never played before, and should be a reserve center/guard. This is a group that struggled mightily but will get their leader, Jamaal Jackson, back from injured reserve. I would allow Jean-Gilles to walk in free agency, leaving the Eagles with Jackson, Herremans, Nick Cole, McGlynn, and former Penn State standout A.Q. Shipley. I would use a second or third round selection in this area, where I like Miami’s Orlando Franklin, TCU’s Marcus Cannon, and Ohio State’s Justin Boren. Mike Pouncey in the first round would also be a tempting option.

Defensive end: This is a group without any superstars, but they form a good rotation and they all have great motors. Trent Cole is a double-digit sack guy, Brandon Graham has the potential to be even better, Juqua Parker is a high energy player who understands the scheme well, and Darryl Tapp has been excellent in his small role. The Eagles will also have to choose one of the rookies (Daniel Te’o-Nesheim or Ricky Sapp) to bring back or at least place on the practice squad. No additional reinforcements will be necessary.

Defensive tackle: Up until the final game, Antonio Dixon and Mike Patterson formed one of the stouter interior combos in the league to fill in for Brodrick Bunkley. Those three players should continue to push each other for playing time. The fourth tackle would be either Trevor Laws or Jeff Owens. Overall, the defensive line is very deep despite not having any elite players and does not need to be altered.

Linebacker: Ernie Sims, Stewart Bradley, Omar Gaither, and Akeem Jordan are all slated to be unrestricted free agents, leaving only Jamar Chaney, Moise Fokou, and Keenan Clayton on the roster. There is no question that Ernie Sims needs to be released after a very poor season. Bradley should only brought back if he agrees to an affordable contract with his injury history and now the play of his backup Jamar Chaney working against him. Gaither is a cheap, versatile, and tough special teams player. Bring him back. I would also retain Akeem Jordan. This group needs help in the draft and, more than anything, competition. I would look at UNC’s Bruce Carter in the second round or LSU’s Kelvin Sheppard in the third. I don’t view the linebacker position as especially important, and I would be willing to try to get away with a starting lineup of Moise Fokou, Jamar Chaney, and Akeem Jordan in order to fix the secondary and offensive line.

Cornerback: Asante Samuel is one of the top five corners in the league, but other than him, the Eagles don’t have much at all. Trevard Lindley and Joselio Hanson seem like quality reserves, but don’t fix the problem at right corner. I also believe that Dimitri Patterson should transition to free safety, where his lack of speed will be masked but his instincts and sure tackling will be used to the fullest. The draft’s elite corners will be gone by our first selection, so I would look strongly into the free agent class. Everybody will be gunning for Nnamdi Asomugha. I would love to get him, but I doubt it will happen. Instead, I have my sights set on Richard Marshall, the corner formerly of Carolina who just turned 26 last month. I would also look at Kendric Burney of UNC, Virginia Tech’s Rashad Carmichael, or Ohio State’s Chimdi Checkwa in the third round. The fifth and final spot should be awarded to a good special team player such as Jorrick Calvin, Gerard Lawson, or a late round pick.

Safety: Kurt Coleman and Quintin Mikell weren’t bad, and they’ll be joined by Nate Allen, Marlin Jackson, and hopefully Dimitri Patterson next season. Any two of those five players could end up starting and doing well, so we’ll just have to hope that competition brings out the best in these players. The one rookie that has jumped out at me is Florida’s Ahmad Black, who can also play some corner. He deserves a look in round four if he’s still there.

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