NFL

2009 team preview: Philadelphia Eagles

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Inside Slant
The last four weeks have raised more questions for the Eagles than they've answered.

The death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the season-ending knee injury to middle linebacker Stewart Bradley and injuries to their renovated offensive line prompted red flags to be raised about this team's ability to make it back to the NFC Championship Game for the sixth time in nine years.

Johnson, who lost a seven-month battle with cancer, was replaced by 35-year-old Sean McDermott, who was the team's secondary coach under Johnson. While McDermott seems capable enough, it's not going to be easy filling the shoes of Johnson, who was one of the best defensive coaches in the game.

McDermott also needs find replacements for Bradley and departed free safety Brian Dawkins, who signed with Denver in March. The 6-4, 255-pound Bradley was an emerging star. His likely replacement, Omar Gaither, is a technically sound player, but doesn't possess the athleticism that Bradley brought to the position.

At 35, Dawkins wasn't the player he was five years ago. But he still was an integral part of the Eagles' defensive success last season. Prior to training camp, the Eagles expressed confidence in second-year man Quintin Demps' ability to replace Dawkins. But he's been very inconsistent in the preseason.

Then there's the offensive line. With the additions of left tackle Jason Peters and right guard Stacy Andrews, it's more talented than last year's group. But injuries have prevented them from getting a chance to play together.

Right tackle Shawn Andrews missed all of training camp and the first three preseason games with a back injury and just returned to practice this week. Left guard Todd Herremans needed foot surgery and probably will miss the first three or four games of the season. Stacy Andrews is coming off ACL surgery. And Peters missed a lot of practice time with a quad injury.

"I like the talent on this team as much as any team that I've had," said coach Andy Reid. "But this is a team sport and we've got to make sure that we bring that talent together."

The good news for the Eagles is that the front end of their schedule appears much easier than the back end, which should give the line a little time to get acquainted.

"You'd like to get that group some time together," Reid said. "But that didn't happen. At least with Shawn back now, we've got four of the five on the field together. So that helps. And we've got a lot of confidence in Nick (Cole) and Max (Jean-Gilles) as far as their ability to step in until Todd gets back.

COACHING: Andy Reid, 11th year, 11th with Eagles (107-69-1)

REMEMBERING: 2008 RECORD: 9-6-1 (2nd in NFC East); lost in NFC Championship Game to Arizona Cardinals, 32-25.

PREDICTING: 2009 regular-season record: 10-6 (2nd in NFC East); lose in NFC title game.


Notes and Quotes
--Quarterback A.J. Feeley suspects that his days as an Eagles are numbered. With the addition of Michael Vick, the Eagles currently have four quarterbacks on their roster. While Vick is going to be used mainly as a slash-type weapon, it still is unlikely that the team will keep four QBs around. "I kind of know where I stand," said Feeley, who has been with the Eagles for seven of his nine NFL seasons. "I understand. Michael is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. (Having him) helps our team out. How it affects me, I don't know. That's yet to be determined. We'll see how it plays out." Vick is still facing a regular-season suspension for the first two games of the season. So it's possible the Eagles will hang on to Feeley until they can activate Vick. Several teams already have contacted the Eagles about a possible trade for Feeley.

--The starting free safety job was Quintin Demps' to lose when training camp opened. With the season-opener less than two weeks away, that may very well happen. He's had an inconsistent preseason and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said the other day that free safety is now "an open competition." The candidates besides Demps are Sean Jones and rookie Victor Harris. Said a frustrated Demps, who clearly feels he's played well enough to win the job: "I just wish something would happen here. Name the starter and that's the starter and take it from there."

--Last year, the Eagles traded a fourth-round pick on draft day for running back Lorenzo Booker. But Booker ended up getting just 26 touches. Now, he's in jeopardy of getting cut. Free agent Eldra Buckley appears to have the upper hand over Booker in the battle for the Eagles' third and final running back spot. "It's a battle," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "And they're both quite different players. Special teams may end up having some effect on that situation, I would think."

BY THE NUMBERS: 11 -- The total number of touchdown catches by the Eagles' entire wide receiver corps last season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's really an open competition for that second safety position. There are quite a few guys in line for that job." -- Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott when asked if Quintin Demps still is the frontrunner to be the season-opening starting free safety


Strategy and Personnel
PLAYER NOTES

--LB Omar Gaither has been taking the bulk of the reps at middle linebacker this week, replacing Joe Mays, who had been running No. 1 at the position since Stewart Bradley got hurt.

--S Quintin Demps has been unable to lock up the starting free safety job because of inconsistent play. He now is in a battle with Sean Jones and rookie Victor Harris for the job.

--RT Shawn Andrews finally seems to be over the back problems that sidelined him for all of training camp and the first three preseason games. He has been able to practice for the past four days and says he should be able to play in the season-opener against Carolina.

--QB A.J. Feeley will be the odd man out when Michael Vick is added to the regular-season roster. The Eagles are expected to trade him at some point.

--QB Michael Vick will get a lot of work in Thursday's preseason finale, both in the Wildcat and, in the second half, behind center.

--WR Kevin Curtis has been slowed by swelling in his knee, which could affect his readiness for the Eagles' season-opener against Carolina.

--WR Reggie Brown, who caught 150 passes his first three seasons with the Eagles, right now appears to be no better than the team's fifth or sixth wideout. He is a possible trade candidate.

With the start of the regular-season just a week and change away, the Eagles still haven't decided who will be their starting middle linebacker or starting free safety.

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott plugged in second-year man Joe Mays at middle linebacker after Stewart Bradley suffered a season-ending knee injury early in training camp. But Mays was replaced by Omar Gaither this week.

The free safety job was Quintin Demps' to lose, and he just may do that. He's been inconsistent and too-often out of position, which has opened the door for Sean Jones and rookie Victor Harris.

PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Eldra Buckley. Waived by San Diego after two seasons on the Chargers practice squad, the 5-9, 215-pounder has moved ahead of Lorenzo Booker and Kyle Eckel and probably will earn the team's fourth and final RB job behind Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy and RB/FB Leonard Weaver. Buckley is a tough runner who has proven to the coaches that he can catch the football out of the backfield. Unlike Booker, he also can play on special teams.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/19, WR Jeremy Maclin, Missouri -- Maclin had to play catch-up in camp after an eight-day contract holdout, but will be used in many of their three- and four-wide receiver packages. He also will return kickoffs, and probably punts as well.

Rd. 2/53, RB LeSean McCoy, Pitt -- McCoy was brought in to help lighten Brian Westbrook's workload, and he proved in training camp and the preseason that he's ready to do that. Tough enough to run inside, fast enough to get around the edge, and an excellent pass-catcher, which is essential in this offense.

Rd. 5/153, TE Cornelius Ingram, Florida -- With his 4.6 speed and excellent hands, he would've been the team's No. 2 tight end, but tore his ACL again and will spend his first NFL season on injured reserve.

Rd. 5/157, S/CB Victor Harris, Virginia Tech -- Harris probably doesn't have quite enough speed to play corner, but is a smart, tough player who is in the mix for the starting free safety job. At the least, he'll see action in some of their nickel and dime packages.

Rd. 6/194, WR Brandon Gibson, Washington State -- A solid possession-type receiver who held his own in camp and the preseason. He's in the mix for the fifth or sixth receiver spot on the roster. Worst case scenario: he opens the season on the practice squad.

Rd. 7/230, LB Moise Fokou, Maryland -- A draft-day afterthought, he had a solid training camp, and as recently as last week, was getting reps with the No. 1 defense at middle linebacker, even though he never played the position in college. He should be an effective special teams player for them this season.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Donovan McNabb. Backups -- Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick, A.J. Feeley.

The 32-year-old McNabb is one of the game's seven or eight best quarterbacks. He has the second lowest interception percentage in NFL history and still is plenty mobile enough to side-step pass rushers and buy extra time in the pocket. Kolb remains the team's No. 2 quarterback, even with the addition of Vick, who will be used as a slash-type weapon.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Brian Westbrook, FB Leonard Weaver. Backups -- LeSean McCoy, Eldra Buckley, Lorenzo Booker, FB Kyle Eckel.

Westbrook is one of the most versatile running backs in the league. Two years ago, he led the league in yards from scrimmage. But he turned 30 in early September and needed surgeries to repair both a knee and ankle. McCoy, a rookie second-rounder with similar versatility to Westbrook's, was brought in to lighten Westbrook's load.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Brent Celek. Backups -- Rob Myers, Eugene Bright, Matt Schobel.

Celek came on strong late in the season, catching 19 passes in the postseason, including 10 in the Eagles' NFC title game loss to Arizona. Doesn't have great speed, but has good hands, can find holes in a zone and is tough to bring down. The Eagles had high hopes for rookie Cornelius Ingram, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp. They may end up trading for a backup, because none of the on-site candidates are all that appealing.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis. Backups -- Jason Avant, Jeremy Maclin, Hank Baskett, Reggie Brown, Brandon Gibson.

This is as good a group of wideouts as the Eagles have had in the Andy Reid era. Jackson had 62 catches as a rookie and he should be even better this season with the addition of first-rounder Maclin. Curtis had 1,100-plus receiving yards two years ago, but missed seven games with a sports hernia last year and now is battling swelling in one of his knees. Avant has turned into a tough, dependable slot receiver who has earned the trust of the quarterback.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jason Peters, LG Todd Herremans, C Jamaal Jackson, RG Stacy Andrews, RT Shawn Andrews. Backups -- Winston Justice, Nick Cole, Max Jean-Gilles, King Dunlap, Mike McGlynn.

With the additions of Peters and Stacy Andrews, this is a more athletic unit than last year's group, which gave up a franchise-record 23 sacks. But injuries prevented them from getting any preseason work together. Herremans probably will miss the first 3-4 games after having surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot, and Shawn Andrews, who is moving from RG to RT, missed all of training camp and most of the preseason with a back injury.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Victor Abiamiri, LT Mike Patterson, RT Brodrick Bunkley, RE Trent Cole. Backups -- Trevor Laws, Darren Howard, Juqua Parker, Dan Klecko, Chris Clemons, Jason Babin.

The Eagles rotated eight players up front last season, and hope to do the same again this year. Patterson and Bunkley, who are used primarily on first- and second-down, are one of the league's better run-stopping tackle tandems. Cole has 29.5 sacks over the last three seasons, but the key to their pass rush could be the oft-injured Abiamiri, who will be used much like the Giants use Justin Tuck, moving inside to tackle on passing downs.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- MLB Omar Gaither, SLB Chris Gocong, WLB Akeem Jordan. Backups -- Joe Mays, Moise Fokou, Tracy White, Matt Wilhelm, Tank Daniels.

This unit suffered a major blow early in training camp when MLB Stewart Bradley went down with a season-ending knee injury. Gaither, who has started at both MIKE and WILL during his career, doesn't bring the physicality or athleticism to the position that Bradley did. But he's technically sound player who always will be where he's supposed to be. Gocong, a converted defensive end, was a big reason for the Eagles' success against the run last season. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is expected to use him more this season as a blitzer, as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Asante Samuel, RCB Sheldon Brown, SS Quintin Mikell, FS Quintin Demps. Backups -- Ellis Hobbs, Joselio Hanson, Jack Ikegwuonu, Sean Jones, Victor Harris.

With the offseason addition of Hobbs, the Eagles have as much quality depth at cornerback as any team in the league. Samuel is one of the league's top ballhawks, and Brown is a tough, smart, dependable veteran who hasn't missed a start in five years. Hanson has developed into one of the league's best nickel corners. Mikell came into his own last season and was selected a second-team All-Pro. Biggest challenge in the secondary is finding a replacement for seven-time Pro Bowl FS Brian Dawkins. Demps has 4.3 speed, but too often is out of position.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK David Akers, P Sav Rocca, LS Jon Dorenbos, PR DeSean Jackson, KR Ellis Hobbs.

The 34-year-old Akers still is one of the league's better kickers. He hit 33 of 40 field goal attempts last season, including 10 of 15 from 40-plus yards. Rocca finished 19th in the league in punting, 13th in net average. He's developed into an excellent inside-the-20 punter, but needs to improve his consistency. Hobbs finished second in the league in kickoff returns last season with New England.

Tagged: Eagles

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