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

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews experienced something new on Sunday. Something he hoped he’d never have to experience. 

He was relegated to spectator.  

After never missing a game dating back to little league – through high school, college, and into his third season in the NFL – a right ankle injury kept him out of Sunday’s 32-14 loss in Cincinnati. 

“It’s definitely not fun,” Matthews said. “But it’s one of those things where I try not to dwell on it or be like ‘woe is me.’ There’s people going through way worse things in America than me missing a football game.”

The Eagles certainly could have used Matthews on Sunday. But they should get him back this weekend when the Birds host Washington for a 1 p.m. kickoff at the Linc. Along with Ryan Mathews and Dorial Green-Beckham, Matthews is listed as questionable. 

But he seems confident he’ll be good to go. 

“I think one game is definitely going to be enough for me,” Matthews said. “I’m definitely going to try to get back out there Sunday.” 

On Friday, during his first media availability in two weeks, Matthews said he chose to find the positives in his absence from Sunday’s game. Namely that Paul Turner and Trey Burton got some extra reps. 

Burton had five catches for 53 yards and Turner, in just his second NFL game, had six catches for 80 yards. 

“I try to see the positives,” Matthews said. “I liked seeing what PT was able to go out there and do. I was happy for him and his first live-game action, being able to go out there and make plays. I was also proud of Trey. His role got to expand with me being out and I think he played extremely well. He got to show what he can do and show how he can help this team. We just have to continue to utilize him moving forward. There’s always a positive in it. 

“We might not see it now, in a loss, but just think, some of those guys are going to be weapons for us in the future. And we saw they can go out and perform well without me in there, so I think it’s going to end up being a positive. But I definitely can’t wait to get back out there.”

Earlier in the week, head coach Doug Pederson said that even with Matthews’ returning, the team would still try to get Turner involved. Since the team sees Turner primarily as a slot receiver, that means Matthews could see time outside this weekend. There’s an even better chance when taking Green-Beckham’s injury into account. 

Before the season, Pederson talked a lot about wanting to play Matthews both inside and outside, but this season, Matthews has been in the slot for 74 percent of his snaps. Forty-four of his 57 catches have come from the slot too. 

On the play where Matthews hurt his ankle against the Packers, he was actually lined up outside and caught a back-shoulder throw from Wentz. 

“I was actually joking with Carson,” Matthews said, “I was like ‘bro, the reason I got hurt was because our back shoulder was better than Jordy [Nelson] and Aaron [Rodgers’]. So it didn’t mesh well with the universe. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way on Monday night for everybody to see, so the football gods took my ankle. So it’s all good. … That’s a joke.”

Matthews, despite being in his third season, is clearly one of the Eagles’ leaders on offense, especially in a very young receivers room. He’s looking forward to playing Washington after he thinks they were the first team that “actually came out and beat” them earlier in the year. 

With four games left in the regular season, the Eagles’ playoff chances are extremely slim. But Matthews thinks it’s important for the team to finish strong, especially with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. 

With Wentz, Matthews thinks the Eagles have already taken the first step toward building something special. 

“He’s the guy,” Matthews said. “He looks like the guy, he walks like the guy, he talks like it. And he goes out there and plays like it. It’s more we have to continue to ride around him and coach Pederson and be positive and go out there and produce.”

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles (5-7) vs. Redskins (6-5-1)
Sunday, 1 p.m. on Fox
Redskins favored by 2; over/under 47

When the Eagles went into FedEx Field in Week 6, they had an opportunity to leave 4-1 and in great position in the NFC East. Instead, what ensued was a stretch of three divisional losses in four weeks by a combined 18 points.

Two months later, the Eagles are out of the race at 5-7 while the 6-5-1 Redskins are still battling for an NFC wild-card spot. The 'Skins would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today — they currently hold the seventh spot in the NFC, behind the Bucs (7-5) but ahead of the Vikings and Packers (6-6).

This is obviously a crucial game for Washington, but the Eagles are just as desperate after losing by 11, 14 and 18 points the last three weeks. Don't underestimate the role desperation and a few weeks of embarrassment can have on a team's ability to bounce back. It was partly why I cautioned in these scouting reports the last two weeks not to count out either Green Bay or Cincinnati, teams that had more talent and stability than a few weeks of midseason losses indicated.

Cousins and Reed
The next time the Eagles limit Kirk Cousins will be the first time. In four games against them, he's completed 63 percent of his passes, averaged 336 yards, thrown 10 TDs and two interceptions and rushed for another score. Washington has averaged 31 points and won three of the four contests.

The Eagles' margin of error on defense is extremely small in this game. To win, they'll need a better effort against a Redskins' ground game that gashed them for 230 yards last time, they'll need to generate consistent pressure on Cousins and they'll need Jordan Reed to not be himself.

Reed, the NFC's most dangerous tight end, is questionable with a Grade 3 AC joint separation suffered on Thanksgiving. Reed was a warrior on Turkey Day, leaving the game in the second quarter, standing on the sideline in a sling, probably receiving a little (ahem) help at halftime, and then dominating in the second half in Dallas. Reed finished that game with 12 catches for 95 yards and two TDs, but was hurt badly enough to miss last week's game.

The Eagles were fortunate to avoid Reed in the season's earlier matchup. Fortunate because he destroyed them last December, catching nine passes for 129 yards and two TDs in a 14-point win. Washington uses its tight ends more than any offense in the league, and Reed is a mismatch even for an Eagles team that has allowed the fewest catches (31) and receiving yards (327) to tight ends. 

With Reed out in October, backup Vernon Davis burned the Eagles for two catches, 50 yards and a TD. But it sounds like Reed will play Sunday after telling reporters that his range of motion is back.

The issue in stopping Washington is the Eagles just don't have enough defensive backs to defend everything. It's why they need Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham to get consistent pressure and keep Cousins out of a rhythm. They haven't been able to do that. They had no sacks in Washington in Week 6 and have failed to sack Cousins in two of the last three meetings.

Without forcing Cousins to get off his spot and get the ball out quickly, the Eagles' secondary hasn't shown anything to inspire confidence they can stop DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, Reed and Davis at the same time.

To make matters worse, this is the first week Washington's All-Pro left tackle, Trent Williams, is back from a four-game substance abuse suspension. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has allowed just three sacks in his last eight games against the Eagles.

Which Wentz will show?
Last week was Carson Wentz's worst game as an NFL quarterback. He missed wide-open throws, threw three interceptions and could have thrown more and barely exceeded 300 yards despite throwing the ball 60 times. 

He didn't look like the guy we saw the first four games of the season, and quite frankly he hasn't looked like a top-20 QB since October. 

The lack of weapons and occasionally poor protection are major reasons why, but Wentz isn't void of blame — he's simply missed some makeable throws.

Against Washington back on Oct. 16, Wentz was just 11 of 22 for 179 yards as the Eagles lost the time of possession battle. The best days belonged to Ryan Mathews (9 carries, 60 yards) and Jordan Matthews (three catches, 75 yards). Both are questionable heading into this one. 

Wentz didn't throw a single pass at Josh Norman in the first meeting. At times, Norman has followed the opposing team's top receiver, but don't expect him to do so this Sunday. Norman has lined up on the left side 64 percent of the time this season and in the slot just nine percent. 

Slot matchup
Matthews has run 73 percent of his routes from the slot and should draw third-round pick Kendall Fuller. As long as Matthews is sufficiently recovered from his ankle injury, this should be a good matchup for the Eagles. 

Fuller has been beaten repeatedly this season, allowing 42 catches (on 53 targets) for 542 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterbacks have a 123.9 rating against him, third-worst among all slot corners. (Malcolm Jenkins is actually worst in this category with a 137.9 QB rating allowed in the slot.)

Fuller has also struggled to wrap receivers up after the catch, allowing an NFL-high 213 yards after the catch. Picking up yards after a reception is something the Eagles have struggled to do all year.

Run game
The Eagles were shutting running backs down until they played the Redskins in October. Since-demoted RB Matt Jones rushed for 135 yards, current starter Rob Kelley rushed for 59, and both had a run of 45-plus yards.

Cox, Barwin and LB Nigel Bradham had awful games that afternoon against the run. It also didn't help that the Eagles were credited with 12 missed tackles. 

Run-stuffer Bennie Logan left that game early with a groin injury and missed the next three weeks. Since returning, however, Logan hasn't been himself, struggling to rush the passer and stop the run.

The Kerrigan factor
The Eagles always have trouble containing Redskins pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who had three sacks in the first meeting. 

Kerrigan has been a force in 2016 with 44 QB hurries, which is three more than Kahlil Mack and second-most among outside linebackers to Von Miller.

Kerrigan has nine sacks in 11 career games against the Eagles, and Washington is 5-1 when he has at least one against them.

Prediction
Close game, better performance from Wentz and an awakening in the run game, but not enough defensive talent to shut down what Washington will try to do deep with Jackson and Crowder, over the middle with Reed and short with Garcon.

Redskins 31, Eagles 27