How Can The Philadelphia Eagles Get Over The Hump?

Chuck Porter JrContributor IJanuary 21, 2009

Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid are going to say the 2009 season was a success, and it is tough to argue with that.

One year removed from finishing last in the NFC East, the Eagles made it all the way to the NFC Championship game. Of course, there are needs that the Eagles will have to address, but Donovan's job seems to be safe, at least until the next time he throws an untimely interception, so the question becomes, "What does this Eagles team need to do to get over the hump?" 

The maturity of the defense will be a key factor next season. It was obvious that the defense struggled to focus in a hostile Arizona environment, committing several uncharacteristic mistakes.

Much has been said about McNabb's inability to get it done in big situations, and I get it. He's not John Elway. He is, however, a very capable quarterback.

One thing is clear. If the Eagles are going to win a championship during the Reid/McNabb era, it will be because of their defense and not because of their offense. 

The 2008 offseason was a good one for Philadelphia and they'll need to do even better in 2009 if they hope to have a chance at playing for a ring.

Their success or failure will be determined by their offseason decisions, decisions that will include signing their own unrestricted free agents, drafting players that will contribute now and in the future along with potential free-agent moves. 

In hindsight, their 2008 draft-day decision to trade away their first round pick, which was highly criticized by the media pundits, turned out to be a good one. 

Second-round pick DeSean Jackson has emerged as a valid downfield target and a much-needed spark in the return game and the Eagles will have two much-needed first round picks in 2009.

Before they even get to the draft, they'll need to address key unrestricted free agents Jon Runyan (OL), Tra Thomas (OL), LJ Smith (TE), Correll Buckhalter (RB) and Brian Dawkins (SS). 

It is widely believed that Smith has played his last game as an Eagle. Brent Celek's 10 catch, two TD performance against the Cardinals makes this decision easier to make.  The Eagles might look for a TE in the draft but Celek seems to be capable, for now. 

Oft-injured Buckhalter might be persuaded to return at a discount. His experience and knowledge of the Eagles playbook certainly carries some value as a backup RB. If he feels like he can start somewhere else he could test the market, but he should be back in 2009. 

Dawkins, Runyan and Thomas have become household names in Philadelphia.

Dawkins is the all-time leader in games played as an Eagle and is the only player in the NFL since 1994 to record 30 interceptions and 30 forced fumbles.

He showed some signs of aging in 2008 but when you consider what he has accomplished over his 13-year career, it would be difficult to envision Dawkins playing with any other team.

Furthermore, there aren't many "sure-thing" strong safeties in this year's draft, so finding a replacement for the veteran will be a difficult task in 2009.

Jon Runyan took a pay cut to remain an Eagle in 2005 and will likely be asked to do the same in 2009.

Known for his mean streak, Runyan has done the dirty work for 13 years as an Eagle and has quietly logged 192 consecutive starts (third most among active players). Runyan's veteran leadership will be required to groom the next generation of linemen. 

Three-time Pro Bowler Tra Thomas is probably the most underrated player on the roster and, unfortunately, might be the odd man out.

Protecting McNabb's blindside, Thomas anchored an Eagles line that only allowed a remarkable 23 sacks in 606 passing attempts in 2008. Thomas will be offered big money to play for other teams and I highly doubt that the cap-minded Eagles will match.

Shawn Andrews' injury in 2008 gave Max Jean-Gilles and Nick Cole the opportunity to prove themselves, and they came through. With those three, the Eagles should be able to field a respectable offensive line but offensive line depth will certainly be a top priority in the draft.

The Eagles have two first-round picks, one second-round pick, one fourth-round pick and five picks in rounds 5-7.

The key focus of the draft will be adding immediate depth on the offensive line and securing their plans for the future at running back.  They will also be taking a close look at some guys in the later rounds that might be able to compete for a starting position on defense. 

Thus far, OL Winston Justice has been a disappointment and I suspect that both of the Eagles' first round picks will be spent on offensive linemen. 

Versatile OT Jason Smith (Baylor) could be a player that Andy Reid will be coveting. He has durability issues so he could fall lower than the scouts project.  If the converted TE remains on the board, he could be an Eagle in 2009.

Another name that has been coming up quite a bit is OT Eben Britton (Arizona). Britton is an athletic linemen with a lot of upside. He might go higher than projected, but he is certainly a name to keep an eye on. 

If either one of those names are off the board, the Eagles could go in a different direction and look for a lineman in the later rounds.

OG Ray Feinga (BYU) will likely be on Andy Reid's radar throughout draft day. Reid has been known to select players from the Mountain West Conference and Feinga (an All-Mountain West first team selection) is big and fast. 

The Eagles will also be looking to draft at least one running back and a versatile fullback. One of those two will be specifically groomed to take over for seven-year veteran, Brian Westbrook.

Westbrook, who has vocally criticized the Eagles' front-office for being cheap, will be a free-agent following the 2010 season.

The Eagles, known for making things harder than they have to be, will be looking to add a bona fide fullback to replace Dan Klecko. The process of converting Dan Klecko from a defensive lineman to fullback was undertaken this year with failed results.

Midway through the season, they signed former New England Patriot, Kyle Eckel, and he turned out to be a nice compliment to Klecko but the realization is that things would have been easier had they drafted a fullback.

For the most part, the defense was good this season but it was the defense that did not show up when it mattered and that has to resonate throughout the offseason.

The talent is there but there is definitely a lack of focus at times.  As Reid and company sit down to review the 2008 season, they'll be taking a close look at the outside linebacker positions as well as the weak side DE.

Guys like Akeem Jordan and Chris Gocong will likely face competition during camp. 

The last offseason component will be free agent additions. As they have done in the past, the Eagles could actively pursue a third wide receiver to compliment Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson. 

The Eagles have shown that their formula for success is to build through the draft and compliment with one or two free agent WRs.

It would be safe to say that, if released, T.O. will not on Andy Reid's wish list, however, there are some interesting names available.

Cincinnati is going to do everything they can to keep T.J. Houshmandzadeh but the lure of playing with Donovan McNabb (and getting the heck out of Cincinnati) will sound very tempting.

Devery Henderson is another name that jumps out at me.  If the Eagles have the cap space, this could be a good move.


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