One of the biggest downfalls of the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles was the offensive line. This was a porous unit that was decimated with injuries. The shoddy play of the line was directly responsible for the Eagles’ 4-12 record and subsequent last-place finish in the NFC East.
In fact, it could be argued that the Eagles’ season was over before it even started.
All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters sustained an Achilles tear last spring, an injury that would force him to miss the entire 2012 campaign. That was a devastating loss, one from which Philadelphia never recovered.
Center Jason Kelce followed with a knee injury. Right tackle Todd Herremans then dislocated a bone in his foot in a midseason loss to the New Orleans Saints.
This put three starters on injured reserve, forcing backups Dennis Kelly, Dallas Reynolds and King Dunlap into starting spots.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, all three injured players are expected to be at full strength in 2013.
Tim McManus of Philly Mag reports Herremans and Peters are both full participants at spring practices already. Meanwhile, Kelce says he expects to be ready for the start of training camp.
Couple that with outstanding left guard Evan Mathis and first-round offensive tackle Lane Johnson, and there is major improvement on the line. That gives Chip Kelly a unit that will challenge for one of the game's finest.
Peters returning to health is the key. When at his full ability, he possesses the athleticism to get down the field on screen passes. He's an exceptional pass-blocker and worthy of the five Pro Bowl selections he's earned. Peters seems to be the perfect offensive lineman for Kelly's fast-paced offense.
Johnson was drafted fourth overall, and he will have the opportunity to learn from one of the game's finest in Peters. Johnson is extremely raw, having entered college as a quarterback, tight end and defensive end. He spent the last two years blocking for Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. His natural talent and high upside made him a top pick, and his 4.72 40-yard dash didn't hurt.
Johnson will be expected to start at right tackle from day one. From there, he will protect the blind side of veteran quarterback Michael Vick. Johnson's addition will allow Herremans to move inside to right guard. Former first-round pick Danny Watkins will be relegated to the bench if he makes the team at all. Essentially, the draft pick of Johnson upgrades two positions, not just one.
Herremans is a much better guard than tackle, which is why he will be an easy move to right guard. He struggles at handling the quickest defensive ends on the outside. On the inside, he will play a role he's held down since being drafted in 2005.
Mathis was signed prior to the 2011 season simply to offer depth. He's since blossomed into one of the elite guards in the NFL. Mathis has allowed just one sack in 31 games as an Eagle, per Pro Football Focus. He's an exceptional blocker for LeSean McCoy as well.
Kelce was making great strides early in '12 before his injury. He's expected to be the vocal leader of the offensive line when he returns. Kelce is undersized, but he's quick and a much better fit than his predecessor, Jamaal Jackson.
Linemen Dennis Kelly and Reynolds will likely assume their roles as backups. Reynolds gained valuable experience starting for Kelce last season. He showed some growing pains in his debut season as a starter, but he's a fine backup to have.
Meanwhile, Kelly is a fifth-round pick from the 2012 draft. He played both guard and tackle as a rookie. Kelly struggled at guard, which wasn't a good fit for him given his huge frame (6'8"). At tackle, though, he can play on both the left and right side. It's expected that he will take over for either Peters or Johnson should they suffer injuries.
Which player is key to the success of the line?
If this unit plays together like it can, the offensive line will be a strength for the Eagles. Oft-injured Vick will need better protection, especially now that he's 33 years old. Should young quarterbacks Nick Foles or Matt Barkley see snaps, the ideal scenario is that the line offers them a distinct advantage over their counterparts around the league.
Last year, the Eagles rated just 26th in pass-blocking efficiency, per Pro Football Focus. Football Outsiders saw the Eagles as only slightly better, putting them 25th in adjusted sack rate, which is their way of determining the caliber of a team’s pass protection.
It’s difficult to evaluate quarterbacks with a line that grades near the bottom of the league. And it’s extremely difficult to win games with a line that doesn’t protect well.
The offensive line could really be the deciding factor for Kelly's 2013 Eagles.
If Kelly's fast-paced offense is an ideal fit for the line, notably Peters and Johnson, the Eagles will push for a playoff berth next season.