|A more-careful Vick and a happier DeSean Jackson could be part of a big season in Philly. (AP)|
The "dream" is over. Now, the Philadelphia Eagles wake up to face reality, and the reality is that they absolutely, positively must reach the playoffs to avoid wholesale changes.
A year ago they were "The Dream Team" that was supposed to lap the field. Only they didn't. They lost eight of their first 12 starts, committed a raft of turnovers, couldn't keep their quarterback on the field and failed to protect fourth-quarter leads.
"This was," owner Jeff Lurie said afterward, "without question the most disappointing season since I've owned the team."
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Lurie made it clear he wouldn't tolerate an encore performance, but let's face it: Last year's Eagles were doomed from the start. With so many newcomers there was little continuity, especially early, and with so much money paid to incoming free agents there was disenchantment among deserving holdovers.
Result: A house divided against itself. The Eagles fizzled early and often, not pulling together until it was too late. But then, suddenly and inexplicably, they were unbeatable -- winning their last four by an average of 19.9 points each.
The question, of course, is: Who exactly are this year's Eagles? The club that couldn't get out of its own way or the team that pulverized opponents down the stretch? And, perhaps starting with this NFL Draft, we'll start finding out.
QB: It's not just recurring injuries that are a problem with Michael Vick; it's recurring mistakes, and there were a lot of them in 2011. He committed 21 turnovers by himself, including six in the red zone, while the Eagles had more turnovers than everyone but Tampa Bay, a club that lost its final 10 starts. But Vick's turnovers are related to the hits he absorbs, and both must be addressed -- because if the Eagles are to return to the top of the division, it will be with Michael Vick, not Mike Kafka, at quarterback. Vick missed three more games last season, and he hasn't played a complete schedule since 2006 when he was with Atlanta. Maybe that's why coach Andy Reid is talking about how to protect the guy, reminding Vick that the four teams that made it to last year's conference championship games had quarterbacks who didn't miss a start. Vick wasn't nearly as effective last season as he was in 2010, and part of that was due to injuries and part was due to his offensive line. It wasn't bad. In fact, it was pretty decent. But Vick wasn't familiar with its blocking patterns and often ran into unnecessary sacks and, worse, costly mistakes. But look what happened those last four games: Vick ran less, remarkably less, and he committed fewer turnovers -- with twice as many touchdown passes (7) as interceptions (3). There's a lesson there.
RB: LeSean McCoy is a bigger and maybe, just maybe, better version of Brian Westbrook -- long a fixture of successful Philadelphia teams. McCoy was one of the game's most productive players in 2011 and the Eagles' MVP, rushing for a career-best 1,309 yards and scoring more touchdowns (20) than anyone out there. The Eagles are fortunate he's theirs, and they know it -- one reason they're already talking about a contract extension. But they woule be wise to use the draft to find McCoy some relief. Injuries drove Westbrook from the game, and they'll do the same with McCoy if the Eagles can't find a suitable backup to assume some of his carries. They have Dion Lewis, but stay tuned. It's liable to change ... and it should.
WR: Look for a big season from DeSean Jackson. I do, and I'll tell you why: The guy's happy. He's happy because he just hit the lottery, signing a five-year, $51 million contract extension that makes him a rich young man. A new deal was an issue with Jackson last season and, by his admission, it affected his play -- with the star wide receiver sulking and dropping passes he shouldn't drop. That shouldn't happen again -- not as long as Jackson stays healthy. At his best, he's one of the most dangerous receivers in the game, and I expect him to be at his best now that he's been rewarded. Jeremy Maclin is an ideal No. 2, a guy with sure hands and the right attitude, while Jason Avant and Riley Cooper provide depth at a position that is top heavy in talent. Avant is a perfect slot receiver, coming off his best season (52 catches) as a pro.
TE: Brent Celek and Clay Harbor are talented, reliable and trouble for opposing defenses. Both can catch. Both can block. And both were factors in McCoy's breakout season. Celek is one of the game's most underrated players, with 53 receptions in his last 11 starts, while Harbor is a rising star who should make more of an impact this season than he did last.
OL: With the loss of left tackle Jason Peters, the Eagles subtracted one of the top offensive linemen in the game. That's a substantial setback, especially when we're talking about keeping Michael Vick in the lineup. But it didn't take Philadelphia long to fill the position, with the Eagles signing free-agent Demetrees Bell to replace Peters. If the name sounds familiar it should. He replaced Peters in Buffalo, only then he was known as Demetrius Bell. With a change of address comes a change of name, and maybe that's the start of something good for Bell. The guy is talented but raw and has a history of injuries that shortened his career with the Bills. Nevertheless, he should be an upgrade over King Dunlap, who looked like the next best option until Bell showed up. Retaining left guard Evan Mathis was important for continuity, with Mathis this close to going to Baltimore before the Eagles came to the rescue. He, center Jason Kelce, guard Danny Watkins and tackle Todd Herremans comprise four-fifths of an offensive line that starred last season under the direction of coach Howard Mudd. But drafting for some depth wouldn't hurt.
DL: There aren't many better pass-rushing tandems than Jason Babin and Trent Cole. The two combined for 29 of the team's league-high 50 sacks. In fact, the defensive line was responsible for 46 of the club's total, an indication of how productive line coach Jim Washburn's pass rush was. But the problem with Philadelphia's defensive line wasn't producing sacks. It was stopping the run. The Eagles couldn't do it until they tinkered with Washburn's "Wide-Nine" setup, with the coach moving defensive ends closer to the interior to close gaps and help linebackers. That's when tackles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson began to make an impact, and it's one reason why the club looks better now than it did at the beginning of last season. The Eagles are so solid across the defensive line that there aren't many front fours I'd take over this one. Pass rusher Brandon Graham could be a force off the bench, but injuries have kept him off the field, so drafting depth at this position would be a wise move.
LB: This is the greatest area of need, a position where Philadelphia has been deficient for years. The addition of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans could change all that. Ryans was a tackling machine when he was with Houston, consistently leading the Texans in tackles until he suffered a torn Achilles and until the Texans went to the 3-4. He is better suited to a 4-3, one reason Philadelphia made the deal. Ryans also is a strong presence in the locker room, another reason the Eagles need him. There weren't playmakers at this position last season, but there's at least one now. Ryans' addition means Jamar Chaney can settle in at outside linebacker spot, while Brian Rolle or Akeem Jorden takes over at the other. Even though there is depth (Casey Matthews and Moise Fokou in the mix) here, this team changes linebackers like most people change TV channels, so drafting more would be a good idea.
DB: Once upon a time the Eagles had Brian Dawkins at safety. But they let him go in free agency, and they never should have. He not only continued to be productive for Denver; the Eagles never found a suitable replacement -- on the field or in the locker room. And they are still looking, with safety an urgent need entering this month's draft. The club is loaded at cornerback, but there's a feeling that sooner or later it moves Asante Samuel. Of course, that was the feeling a year ago, but the talk has serious legs now, and I'd be surprised if something doesn't happen by the draft. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are stable at the corners, provided the Eagles don't play Asomugha off receivers as they did at times last season. If and when Samuels is moved, the Eagles might be able to make better use of two cornerbacks who too often played out of familiar positions last season. Nate Allen is a promising safety, but he struggled to recover from a serious injury in 2010, while Kurt Coleman is little more than serviceable at strong safety.