Doug Pederson expects competition at LG for Eagles, Kelce to be on team

Doug Pederson expects competition at LG for Eagles, Kelce to be on team

PHOENIX -- Get ready for the great left guard competition of 2017.

While the Eagles still have all five members of their 2016 starting offensive line on the roster as of Wednesday morning at the league's annual meetings, it seems very possible the starting O-line won't look the same next year.

At the NFC coaches breakfast at the Biltmore Hotel, Pederson said he still expects center Jason Kelce to be on the roster when the season starts in September. With a few options to replace him, the team has reportedly been trying to trade Kelce, which would help their salary cap situation.

But even if Kelce is the team's starting center in 2017, there's no guarantee that last year's starting left guard, Allen Barbre, will be lining up next to him.

At first, Pederson, when asked about keeping the same starting O-line, said, "You'd hope so," but then talked about the competition for that left guard spot.

"Well, going into OTAs, Isaac (Seumalo) has showed he played on a moment's notice," Pederson said. "He's a guy that we want to get into the mix and Allen (Barbre) is a veteran player that obviously has a wealth of experience, obviously a lot of starts in the National Football League, so there's going to be some good competition going into this season."

And it's not just Seumalo and Barbre in contention to win the starting left guard spot. The team also brought in free agent and former first-round pick Chance Warmack and re-signed Stefen Wisniewski to a multi-year deal. Pederson mentioned both of them by name.

That leaves four players, with 171 combined career starts (Wisniewski 83, Warmack 48, Barbre 36, Seumalo 4), fighting for one starting gig.

"It just creates some of that competition that we're always looking for, trying to find the best five going into the season," Pederson said.

Barbre will be 33 by the time the season starts, Warmack is on a one-year deal, and Seumalo appears to be the center of the future, so any of these three taking backup roles makes sense for now.

The more unique situation is with Wisniewski. The 28-year-old guard/center came to the Eagles on a one-year deal last season and wasn't shy about his desire to become a starter. Then the Eagles signed him to a three-year deal this offseason.

"Again, it's another opportunity for him to compete and compete on our roster," Pederson said. "He had six starts last year and he filled a role that we needed last year. Going into this season, the beauty of having guys like that, whether they're starters, backups, role players, whatever you want to call them, it just gives you depth at the position and gives you competition in training camp. It's a great thing to have veteran players as backups or role players that compete and want to start."

While there will still be question marks at the left guard and even center positions when the Eagles get together for spring workouts, there aren't questions at the other three spots on the offensive line. Jason Peters is the left tackle, Brandon Brooks is the right guard and Lane Johnson is the right tackle.

It seems very possible, however, that this will be Peters' last season, at least with the Eagles. The team asked him to restructure his contract this offseason but eventually decided to keep him at his $11.7 million cap hit. That number would go up even more in 2018, the last year of his contract.

The Eagles already have a solid succession plan already in place. When Peters retires or moves on, Johnson will slide over from right tackle to left and protect Carson Wentz's blind side.

But do the Eagles have a replacement ready for Johnson?

Pederson thinks they might have an answer in Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a fifth-round pick last year, who will enter his second season in 2017. He's just not sure yet.

"It's hard to just say, pin me down and say he's a starter," Pederson said. "I think what he did last year, talk about incremental improvement, that kid improved every week and I think there's a chance. I think there's a chance he could be a dynamic starting tackle in his future. And, again, it's a credit to Jeff Stoutland and Howie (Roseman) and the guys for finding him and looking at him. He was one of the guys watching on tape last year that really stood out a little bit. You saw from the Washington game on, how well he improved. If he continues to do that, I think he could be a starter in this league."

2017 Eagles Cost Analysis, OG: An embarrassment of riches

2017 Eagles Cost Analysis, OG: An embarrassment of riches

Two offseasons ago, starting offensive guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans were cut by the Eagles in the same offseason, with no real plan to replace either one of them. After years of neglecting the position in the draft, the club was down to a couple of journeymen and some projects that weren't really working out. Allen Barbre. Andrew Gardner. Dennis Kelly. Matt Tobin.

Yet remarkably enough, guard has rapidly become an area of great strength for the Eagles, thanks to a renewed interest in the position. Barbre surprisingly panned out, which certainly helped speed up the rebuild, while the front office went out and signed veterans Brandon Brooks and Stefan Wisniewski, then invested a third-round draft pick in Isaac Seumoalo.

The best part: three of those four players are under contract for 2017, and two of them carry a cap hit under $2 million. Even if the Eagles do nothing, they are in great shape here.

At the very least, a decision must be made on Wisniewski, who is set to become a free agent again — that is assuming he doesn't make it for them. Teams weren't exactly beating down Wisniewski's door last offseason, which is why the Eagles were able to swoop in with a one-year deal, but it's a little strange. He's a solid interior lineman that can also play center and has five years of starting experience in the NFL. You would think he can fill a need somewhere.

If the Eagles can have Wisniewski back as a reserve, it might be a no-brainer. He doubles as a high-quality backup to Jason Kelce, plus Barbre has only the upcoming season remaining on his deal and is getting up there in years. Cost becomes an issue, as Wisniewski did not come cheap, but with six starts in 2016, there was some bang for the buck.

Or, if the Eagles really wanted to be competitve, they could accelerate Barbre's demise and entice Wisniewski with the promise of more work. The club stands to save all but $150,000 on the final year of Barbre's contract if he were to get the axe or is traded, money that could be put toward the younger alternative. That potentially opens up a job for Wisniewski at left guard, although Seumalo obviously is in the mix as well.

There's a reasonable possibility Wisniewski generates more interest on the open market this time around, so with Brooks locked in at right guard and Seumalo waiting in the wings, the Eagles wouldn't be a very attractive option. That's a nice problem to have, though.

OFFENSIVE GUARDS UNDER CONTRACT

Brandon Brooks
Age: 28*
Cap Number: $7,200,000

Money well spent. According to Pro Football Focus, Brooks scored the fifth-highest cumulative overall grade of any offensive guard in the NFL in 2016. Yet in terms of money, eight guards currently carry a higher cap hit for next season, so while he came at a high price, Brooks is paying dividends thus far. There is the matter of Brooks unexpectedly missing two games with issues related to anxiety, but he vowed to get that squared away, so hopefully it's not a problem going forward. As long as he's healthy, Brooks was quietly the best free-agent addition by the Eagles in 2016, a 6-foot-5, 335-pound mauler who should be around for a long time.

Allen Barbre
Age: 33*
Cap Number: $1,950,000

Barbre doubles as a swing tackle, starting three games at right tackle in '16, though he's much better inside. Still, that versatility alone might be enough to give the Eagles pause about about trying to save $1.8 million this offseason. As it turns out, Barbre is actually a pretty good guard, too, earning the 22nd-highest cumulative grade from Pro Football Focus for this past season. With all of that in mind, a case could be made the Eagles are getting a steal here. The real question is whether they should think about extending his contract, although that might be unnecessary with Seumalo in the fold.

Isaac Seumalo
Age: 24*
Cap Number: $764,966

Barbre isn't the only person who can kick out to tackle in a pinch. Brooks has done it in the past as a member of the Texans, and Seumalo lined up on the outside just this year. The rookie didn't embarrass himself, either, no matter what position he was playing. There's little question the Eagles view Seumalo as the left guard of the future, which could be 2017 if they let Wisniewski walk and part ways with Barbre as well. One departure might happen, but probably not both, as it would unnecessarily create a depth issue at guard. Still, the franchise has to be thinking very highly of Seumalo right now, so much so that you wonder if he'll get a chance to compete for a starting job even assuming Barbre remains.

Dillon Gordon
Age: 24*
Cap Number: $540,000

An undrafted free agent out of LSU, Gordon initially made the 53-man roster out of training camp, indicating the Eagles really liked him and wanted to protect him from the first run of waiver-wire pickups. He was eventually moved to the practice squad, then reactivated at the end of the season once injuries mounted, seeing the field for a grand total of two snaps. While listed at 6-4, 322 pounds, Gordon seems smaller than that, but maybe that's because he's so agile. Coach Doug Pederson was giving him a look as a part-time fullback during camp.

Darrell Greene
Age: 25*

Greene reportedly received a rather large bonus to sign with the Eagles as a rookie out of San Diego State, though wound up being passed on the depth chart by Gordon. Still, Greene was retained on the scout team and signed a future contract at the conclusion of the season, so he's being viewed as a prospect. Obviously, the front office will add more competition, but between the two of these guys, they can afford to lose a veteran.

EXPIRING CONTRACTS

Stefan Wisniewski
Age: 28*
2016 Cap Number: $2,760,000

Wisniewski had a higher cap hit as a backup in '16 than Barbre did as a starter, which is yet another complicating factor in a potential re-signing. The idea initially was Wisniewski would battle for the job, but a competition never materialized, and he became a highly paid reserve instead. Now if there are injuries, particularly to Kelce at center, he quickly becomes worth every penny, and he was. Regardless, the debate will be taken out of the Eagles' hands if Wisniewski catches on as a starter somewhere. Kind of a shame, but this is a situation where you probably can't keep everybody.

* Age as of 12/31/17

Jason Kelce: 'I have to do a better job' or become expendable

Jason Kelce: 'I have to do a better job' or become expendable

He was a Pro Bowler two years ago, and now Jason Kelce faces an uncertain future.

Kelce, the Eagles’ center since 2011, said Thursday he believes he needs to play better the rest of this year or his days in Philadelphia could be coming to an end.

“I think that I quite frankly need to do a better job,” Kelce said at his locker. “That’s what it comes down to.

“I love playing in this city, I love playing in this organization, and if I’m going to keep doing that, I have to do a better job.”

Not that long ago, Kelce was a strength of this team, a smart, athletic center with tremendous technique and leverage.

He made his first Pro Bowl team playing under Chip Kelly in 2014, but struggled last year. He’s played somewhat better this year, but hasn’t found the consistency and dominance he had the three years he played from 2011 through 2014 (he missed most of 2012).

Fans see Kelce getting pushed around by hulking nose tackles and see him committing penalties and see bad center-quarterback exchanges, and Kelce has been an easy target this fall.

Kelce understands the criticisms and thinks they’re fair.

“I think that this is a town and a fan base that’s very passionate about its sports teams and they’re going to let you know when they don’t think you’re playing up to the caliber that you should be playing at, or that the Eagles need you to play at,” Kelce said at his locker.

“I think that’s always been the case here and it always will be. That’s just the type of passion that you deal with in Philly sports.”

Kelce, a sixth-round draft pick out of Cincinnati in 2011, ranks fifth in Eagles history among centers with 70 career starts, but he’s on track to pass Hank Fraley (70) and Jamaal Jackson (71) this month. Then he would trail only Guy Morriss (151) and Dave Alexander (108).

Even missing 14 games in 2012, Kelce trails only five centers league-wide in starts since 2011 for the same team.

But the Eagles have been inconsistent on offense for much of the season. They rank 25th in total offense, 28th in pass offense, 17th in rush offense, 18th in first downs and 30th in third-down percentage.

After a 3-0 start, they take a 4-4 record into Sunday’s game against the Falcons at the Linc.

“I think, obviously, it’s disappointing that we’re 4-4 right now and I certainly think that I can and should have played better up to this point,” Kelce said. “I’m working to do better.”

Kelce graded out well against the Vikings and Cowboys but said he struggled Sunday in the loss to the Giants.

“This last game, I don’t think I played up to the standard that I need to against the Giants, but other than that, I think I’ve gotten better through the season,” he said.

“But last week there were some things … tripped over Steve Wisniewski on that first interception, and they were doing a good job of getting my hands off of them and shedding blocks. We talk about blowing a block, that’s a huge portion of it.

“So I look forward to getting back out there this week and working throughout the work week right now and getting better, and that’s just what I’m trying to do.”

Kelce does lead the Eagles with seven penalties for 50 yards, with one of the seven declined and three having stalled a drive.

That figure ranks first among all NFL centers this year and sixth among offensive linemen and 14th overall.

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has emphasized how important it is to have a cerebral center to work with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz.

And he said he’s happy with the way Kelce has played, especially lately.

“The last couple weeks, he's played well,” Pederson said. “As far as the size, he's probably not the biggest guy in the world, but he gets by with his smarts and athleticism.

“He's a very tough individual. These last couple weeks, he's really settled into playing that center spot.”

What does the future hold for Kelce? Is he right when he says that he won’t be here if he doesn’t improve?

Kelce has four more years left on the six-year, $37.5 million deal he signed after the 2013 season. He’s scheduled to earn $5 million, $6 million, $6.5 million and $7 million in those four years, with minimal cap hits if the Eagles release him — $3.6 million if he’s released after this season, $1.2 million if it’s after next year.

Rookie Isaac Seumalo has practiced mainly at guard this year but Kelce himself has said Seumalo will one day be a Pro Bowl center.

And there’s also Wisniewski, who started 77 games at center for the Raiders and Jaguars over the past five years. Wisniewski is currently starting at left guard in place of injured Allen Barbre.

Kelce isn’t thinking about the future. Just Friday’s practice and the Falcons on Sunday at the Linc.

“All I can do,” he said, “is watch the film, focus on what I need to get better at, go out there and work and do the best I can to improve my technique and improve my assignments, my preparation so I can go out there and be successful.”