Preseason football gets underway for the Birds on Thursday night, as they are hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Linc. The starters generally only play anywhere from a series or two to the end of the first quarter in game one, so this won't be the showcase for a Michael Vick or LeSean McCoy -- though it will be fun to see those guys finally take the field again.
Believe it or not, there is still a lot at stake in these next four games, just not the final score. Mostly you want to see the team walk away from it healthy, but aside from that, here are five Eagles on the offensive side of the ball who we'll be watching closely once we finally reach kickoff.
There aren't many question marks on the starting 11, which looks largely the same as it did a year ago, only with one notable exception: they're missing the best left tackle in football. Andy Reid would say you don't replace a Jason Peters, who is expected to miss the season from a ruptured Achilles tendon, but Demetress Bell was signed to do just that. This will be our first glimpse into how much the offense has lost on their fast ball in the transition.
First, how much will it hamper LeSean McCoy in the running game? Coming off of a stellar sophomore year in which he finished fourth in the NFL in rushing, McCoy was at his best when running off-tackle to the left. According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles averaged 7.1 yards per carry off Peters' outside shoulder in 2011, which is a full two yards more than what the team averaged on all runs combined. Difficult to imagine they are going to get that kind of production on the outside with Bell.
Second, how often will it alter the offense's look in pass protection? Peters was a rock at LT, so much so the coaches were not afraid to let him go one-on-one with the most dominant pass rushers in the league. Expecting Bell to come into a new scheme and instantly lock down the left side might be a bit much. Watch for a tight end or back to help Bell in certain situations, and what the trickle-down effect will be for Todd Herremans on the opposite end of the line of scrimmage.
One more thing. Bell only appeared in seven games for the Bills last season, and missed eight in 2009. Might want to keep an eye on backup King Dunlap as well.
Brent Celek will be held out of the action with a knee sprain, which means Clay Harbor gets the start at tight end. However, it was only a couple of weeks ago when the Eagles were snooping around for the 2010 fourth-round pick's potential replacement. Harbor has the size and athleticism to be a viable target in the passing game, but as the offense has moved to a greater number of single-back sets, his ability as a blocker becomes increasingly important.
The starting fullback is Stanley Havili, the club's seventh-round pick from 2011 who spent last season on the practice squad, but that's not what's interesting. What's interesting is how much we'll see of the fullback position. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Eagles went single back or empty back 81% of the time a year ago. There is a thought process that number could be even higher going forward as we enter offensive line coach Howard Mudd's second season on the job.
All of which has begged the question whether the Eagles will even bother using a roster spot on a traditional fullback, as the Indianapolis Colts often did not with Mudd. We'll be searching for hints in the play calling, such as the offense featuring more two-tight end sets.
Dion Lewis is off the hook for the felony-fire alarm fiasco from a month ago, and standing at the front of the line to seize the job as Shady's spell. A fifth-round pick last year, Lewis didn't get many opportunities as a rookie, but ran for nearly 3,000 yards at Pitt. The Eagles are carrying a couple more young backs they really like in Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, but this being his second season with the team gives Lewis the upper hand. As always though, a lot of it rides on pass blocking.
Michael Vick has spent a healthy portion of the past two seasons, well, not healthy. If he has trouble staying on the field for a third year in a row, at this point the Birds would have no choice but to turn to their relatively unknown understudy, Mike Kafka.
We say relatively unknown because Kafka did see some action early on in 2011. He replaced Vick in Week 2 at Atlanta, and actually conducted himself quite well. The offense mostly relied on quick, easy passes, but Kafka demonstrated poise and nearly led the team on a game-winning drive. He was 7 of 9 for 72 yards. However, when he replaced Vick again the following week against the Giants, they were ready. Kafka went deep on his first throw and was intercepted, essentially sealing their fate. He finished the afternoon 4 of 7 for 35 yards, two picks, and a sack.
It wasn't enough to be impressed, nor enough to write him off as an effective number two. This will be Kafka's third season in the league, so probably the best takeaway from those outings is at least he has some experience, and can maybe put that to good use should the Northwestern product be pressed into another game. The Eagles are probably going to be in trouble should anything happen to Vick long term, but ideally you would like to see something in these exhibitions that makes you feel confident in Kafka for a game or two.