Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 7, Offensive Line

Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 7, Offensive Line

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the previous installments on quarterbacks, tight ends and  running backs.

Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans made triumphant returns from season-ending injuries in 2013, and while there were certainly other factors at work, it’s not at all coincidental the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense—not to mention the club’s record—bounced back. Along with Evan Mathis and rookie Lane Johnson, all five starting offensive linemen appeared in all 17 games this season.

O-line play is once again a strength in Philly—but for how long?

With three starters into their 30s, it’s one of the few areas on the roster where the Eagles are old. How much longer will Peters and Mathis play at their current All-Pro level? How much longer will Herremans be a viable starter in the NFL?

[PHOTO GALLERY: What Linc upgrades will look like]

Now that everybody is back healthy, the front office is tasked with knowing when to replace these aging veterans and making a seamless transition in the process. It won’t be easy—offensive line continuity is often a delicate attribute—but it’s doable if the team begins setting plans in motion. Here’s a closer look at where the Birds stand at each position.

Left Tackle

Overview: Peters wasn’t quite as dominant in 2013 as his stellar ’11 campaign, but in addition to returning from a ruptured Achilles, he battled nagging injuries all season and still managed to earn first-team All-Pro honors. He could be even better in ’14.

Journeyman veteran Allen Barbre is signed through next season to be the backup and was excellent in relief appearances.

Why the Eagles must think about the future: Peters is scheduled to become a free agent next year when he’ll be 33 years old.

What they should do: Peters’ eventual replacement is already on the roster in the form of Lane Johnson. However, as long as Peters is playing at an All-Pro level, efforts should be made to retain him. A two- or three-year extension would be perfect, but if nothing else, they can get one more season out of him on the franchise tag.

Left Guard

Overview: Mathis was finally recognized as the best at his craft in 2013, earning All-Pro honors for the first time in his career. Since signing with the club in ‘11, left guard has been a rock for the Eagles.

Mathis did not miss a single snap last season. Barbre is listed as No. 2 on the depth chart.

Why the Eagles must think about the future: Although Mathis is signed through ’16 and has shown no signs of slowing down, he is 32 and his cap hit jumps this season.

What they should do: Nothing, for now. Mathis hasn’t given the team any indication that he’s going to be anything less than a top-notch guard, and he’s under contract. Continue developing talent behind him, but from what we can tell, there needn't be any hurry to find a replacement.

Center

Overview: While he was not recognized as an All-Pro or even so much as earned a nod to the Pro Bowl, Kelce graded as the best all-around center in the league in ’13 according to metrics site Pro Football Focus. His play merits more attention for such accolades going forward.

Julian Vandervelde served as Kelce’s backup last year, but the team already signed former San Diego Charger David Molk to a futures contract this offseason. Competition for the roster spot appears likely.

Why the Eagles must think about the future: Kelce is only 26 and can become a free agent next season. They wouldn’t want to let him get away.

What they should do: Sign Kelce to an extension this offseason. Nick Foles, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin are among the names that could be seeking extensions next year. The Eagles have an estimated $20 million in cap space right now, and using some of that to front-load some of Kelce’s new deal wouldn’t be a bad idea.

A new deal for Kelce could cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million per year.

Right Guard

Overview: It took a little time getting used to another new position, and playing alongside a rookie undoubtedly did not help, but Herremans finished the year strong. That being said, he’s clearly the weak link on this line.

Herremans did not miss so much as a snap this past season. Barbre is listed as No. 2 on the depth chart, and 2012 fifth-round pick Dennis Kelly has also tried right guard for the Birds.

Why the Eagles must think about the future: Herremans will turn 32 this year, and his cap hit is set to jump next season. He’s a solid hand who can play multiple spots, but looks like he might be starting to slow down a little. The team has to at least consider whether they can do better, and for less $5.2 million per year.

What they should do: Herremans is signed through 2016, and it might not make much sense to release him any earlier than that (unless he stinks) because of the dead money against the salary cap—$2.4M in ’15, $1.2M in ‘16. The logical thing to do is use a mid-round draft pick in the upcoming draft and start grooming somebody to take over in a year or two’s time.

Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland previously held the same position at the University of Alabama, and therefore would have added insight about a prospect like Anthony Steen. If Steen (6’2”, 310 lbs) is still available in the fourth round, he could be a perfect stash for the Birds.

Right Tackle

Overview: It was a little rocky at first, but Johnson held his own as a rookie. Chip Kelly raved about Johnson improving every week, and by the end of the season, it was easy to forget there was a rookie starting on the offensive line.

Johnson came out for just one snap all season and was replaced by Barbre. However, Dennis Kelly is listed as No. 2 on the depth chart, and inactive for that game due to injury.

Why the Eagles must think about the future: Because they didn’t use the fourth-overall pick on the kid to stick him at right tackle forever. The plan is for Johnson to eventually replace Peters on the left side, which in theory could be as early as next season.

What they should do: Thanks to the franchise tag, the Eagles likely have another year at least to sort this out, and that’s if Peters doesn’t agree to an extension. It’s not good to let the situation linger much longer without putting a backup plan in place.

Unless the coaching staff is confident in Kelly’s ability to take over at right tackle, they may want to consider taking another developmental tackle at some point in the draft as well. Best case scenario, Peters is sticking around for a little while longer, but you never know, he may want to test free agency as well.

Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs:

No. 10, Running Back
No. 9, Tight End
No. 8, Quarterback

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”