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

Best of MLB: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

Best of MLB: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

NEW YORK -- Yoenis Cespedes homered with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the New York Mets a 2-1 victory over the Miami Marlins in the first game of a pivotal series between National League playoff contenders Monday night.

Jose Reyes dashed home to score the tying run in the eighth on a dangerous collision at the plate, and the Mets pulled even with Miami for second place in the NL East. With its seventh victory in nine games, New York remained 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the league's second wild card.

It was an exhilarating win for the Mets, who appeared to be at a major disadvantage on the mound in the opener of a four-game set. New York was shut out for six innings by Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, but Mets starter Rafael Montero also put up zeros in his first major league start since April 2015 (see full recap).

Martinez's 13 K's, throwing error give Cards win
MILWAUKEE -- Stephen Piscotty scored on a throwing error in the ninth inning after Carlos Martinez struck out a career-high 13, leading the St. Louis Cardinals over the Milwaukee Brewers 6-5 on Monday night.

With two on and nobody out in the ninth, Yadier Molina dropped down a bunt. Reliever Tyler Thornburg (5-5) threw to third base for a force out, but Jonathan Villar's throw to first was wild, allowing Piscotty to score.

After Martinez held Milwaukee to one run over six innings, the Brewers scored four runs in the seventh to take a 5-3 lead. St. Louis tied it in the eighth on a two-run homer by Randal Grichuk off Corey Knebel.

Seung Hwan Oh pitched a perfect ninth for his 14th save. Miguel Socolovich (1-0) pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings to pick up his first win.

Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong each hit solo home runs for the Cardinals (see full recap).

Royals keep rolling, take down Yankees
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dillon Gee kept the Royals' momentum going with six sharp innings, Alcides Escobar hit a three-run homer and Kansas City beat the New York Yankees 8-5 on Monday night to open their three-game set.

Gee (6-7) allowed only four hits and a run in the latest impressive start by the Royals' staff, helping the reigning World Series champions win for the 18th time in 22 games.

Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales and Alex Gordon drove in runs off Michael Pineda (6-11) during a five-hit salvo in the first inning. Pineda then retired 15 straight before getting into a two-on, no-outs jam in the seventh that led to Escobar's homer off reliever Blake Parker.

Starlin Castro drove in two runs for the Yankees, the second in a four-run eighth inning that forced Kansas City manager Ned Yost to summon fill-in closer Kelvin Herrera (see full recap).

Jake Thompson tweaks delivery, offers ray of light on a dark night for Phillies

Jake Thompson tweaks delivery, offers ray of light on a dark night for Phillies

BOX SCORE

On the surface, this was not a very positive night at the ballpark for the Phillies. They had just four hits and lost, 4-0, to the Washington Nationals in front of the smallest crowd of the season – 16,056, announced – at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay).
 
But lest we forget, this is a rebuilding season and in a rebuilding season the final score isn’t always paramount. So on an otherwise dark Monday night there was a ray of light for the Phillies.
 
Jake Thompson had the kind of start those who traded for him a year ago and those who watched him pitch this season in Triple A said he was capable of having.
 
“It was great to see,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “That’s just what he needed. He needed a real positive outing. I think this will do wonders for him down the road.”
 
Thompson held the NL East-leading Nationals to two runs over seven innings, his longest of five outings in the majors.
 
“He looked like the pitcher that was advertised,” Mackanin said.
 
Thompson’s first four outings in the majors were poor. He was tagged for 22 hits and 21 earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. He walked 13 and struck out 13. Those results were starkly different than his last 11 starts in Triple A. He went 8-0 in those 11 starts and recorded a 1.21 ERA while allowing just 10 earned runs in 74 1/3 innings. He gave up just 52 hits and 18 walks over that span while striking out 42.
 
After watching Thompson for four starts, pitching coach Bob McClure decided to suggest some delivery changes to the 22-year-old right-hander.
 
Players are often receptive to making adjustments when they are struggling. Thompson incorporated the changes McClure suggested and found success Monday night.
 
“We just tried to simplify his delivery so he could make better quality pitches,” McClure said.
 
In his old delivery, Thompson started off facing home plate. He pulled his arms over his head, turned and lifted his front leg before delivering the ball. McClure eliminated many of the moving parts. No more lifting the arms above the head. No more body turn. Thompson started his delivery with his body already turned, like a modified stretch. He simply lifted his leg, let his body go down the slope and fired. The new delivery slowed everything down for him. He looked poised, especially after the first couple of innings, and started attacking hitters with first-pitch strikes like a confident pitcher does.
 
Considering he only worked on the new delivery in two short bullpen sessions Saturday and Sunday in New York, Thompson was a pretty quick study.
 
“It was huge,” he said of the new delivery. “Just on the physical side of things, I’m in a better position to make pitches. I took away some moving parts to make it easier on myself.”
 
Thompson allowed seven hits, walked one and struck out three. All three strikeouts came in his final inning of work. He struck out leadoff man Trea Turner with two men on base with a slider to end the inning.
 
That’s another adjustment McClure made. He had Thompson stop throwing his curveball and focus on his fastball, slider, cutter and changeup.
 
Both of the runs that Thompson allowed came in the first inning on a solo homer by Jayson Werth and an RBI single by Anthony Rondon. After that, Thompson recorded six straight shutout innings. His teammates didn’t support him offensively. Washington right-hander Tanner Roark pitched seven shutout innings. He is 3-0 and has allowed just two runs in 28 innings in four starts against the Phils this season.
 
Thompson needed a start like this for a couple of reasons. First, if he had been pounded again, Phillies officials might have had to consider taking him out of the rotation just so his confidence didn’t get ruined.
 
And second, with Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin out with injuries, the team needed to know something was going right for one of the young pitchers being groomed for the future. Vince Velasquez, another young arm, had three poor outings before pitching well in New York on Sunday.
 
“This will help his confidence a lot,” McClure said.
 
McClure then offered a little glimpse into Thompson’s competitive character.
 
“He seemed pissed that he wasn't pitching well,” McClure said. “But he wasn't deflated. We felt like we should keep starting him because he didn't seem beaten. He seems like a tough kid mentally. We felt like once he started making better quality pitches, he'd get better results.”
 
It happened Monday, a ray of light on an otherwise dark night.

Instant Replay: Nationals 4, Phillies 0

Instant Replay: Nationals 4, Phillies 0

BOX SCORE

The Phillies were beaten, 4-0, by the Washington Nationals on Monday night, but wins and losses don’t matter as much as development in a rebuilding season, so there was a bright spot: Rookie right-hander Jake Thompson finally broke through with a good start in holding the Nats to two runs over seven innings.
 
The Phillies’ offense was not good. It produced just four hits on the night.
 
Washington got all the offense it needed when Jayson Werth, the second batter of the game, homered off Thompson in the first inning.

The Nats lead the NL East at 76-55. The Phils are 60-71.
 
The crowd of 16,056 was the smallest of the season at Citizens Bank Park.
 
Starting pitching report
Thompson had struggled in four starts — 9.78 ERA — since arriving from Triple A and there were questions whether he’d even make this start. But he put together a nice outing. After giving up two runs in the first inning, he pitched six straight scoreless innings, finishing his outing with three strikeouts, the last of which came on his 111th pitch when he froze Trea Turner with a breaking ball with two men on base. Thompson allowed seven hits — four in the first three innings — and walked one.
 
Washington right-hander Tanner Roark pitched seven shutout innings to improve to 14-7. He held the Phils to four hits and a walk and struck out five.

Roark is 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA (two earned runs in 28 innings) in four starts against the Phillies this season. The Nats are 15-4 in his last 19 starts.

Bullpen report
Frank Herrmann gave up two runs in the ninth.
 
At the plate
Odubel Herrera had two of the Phillies’ four hits.
 
Werth’s homer in the top of the first was his 19th. Anthony Rendon drove in a run with a two-out single in that inning. Clint Robinson and Turner had RBI singles in the ninth to push the Nats’ lead to 4-0.
 
ICYMI
Herrera is staying in center field for the remainder of the season, Pete Mackanin said (see story).
 
Up next
The series continues on Tuesday night. Jerad Eickhoff (9-12, 3.87) pitches against Washington right-hander Max Scherzer (14-7, 2.92).