BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- I worry about the Philadelphia Eagles holding up in the NFC East mostly because I worry about their offensive tackles, Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan, holding up against pass rushers like Jason Taylor, DeMarcus Ware, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora.
Thomas is 33 with a history of back injuries, and Runyan is 34, and it just seems as if the Eagles are asking a lot of each when the guy they're protecting -- quarterback Donovan McNabb -- hasn't played an injury-free season since 2004.
And that's when I hear a voice saying, Wake up, jerko, it's the defense that determines what happens to the Philadelphia Eagles, not Runyan and Thomas. The defense wasn't all that great a year ago, and neither were the Eagles. So draw your own conclusions.
|Out of Nowhere Man|
|Safety Quintin Mikell is best known as the guy who stopped the Cowboys’ Marion Barber on fourth down in a Christmas Day 2006 goal-line stand in an upset of the Cowboys. What you may not know is that he produced a career-high 98 tackles last year, tops among the Eagles’ defensive backs, and a team-best 115 special-teams tackles since 2003. Mikell is tough, physical and reliable. He filled in last year when starting safeties Brian Dawkins and Sean Consodine were hurt, and he’s expected to start this season opposite Dawkins.|
|Who is your Out of Nowhere Man?|
"There you go," says the voice.
But it's not someone or something inside my head that I hear. It's someone standing in front of me. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Brian Dawkins, free safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and spokesman for everything that is or could be right with the Eagles.
And what better be right with this year's Eagles is that defense Dawkins leads because a year ago it produced a league-low 19 takeaways, including 11 interceptions. It didn't produce a whole lot of sacks, either. And when you rely on aggressive play to force turnovers and those turnovers don't happen, you're usually in deep kimchi.
Philadelphia was in 2007. Dawkins thinks that changes now, and let him explain.
"First of all," he said, "last year you had two of the members of the secondary, myself and Lito Sheppard, banged up all year. Then, the interceptions would not stay in our hands.
"Anybody can go back and look at our stats, and we dropped at least 10 picks. So the opportunities were there for us to make plays, and we didn't make them. Now you take two of our playmakers off the field, and that's potentially some more turnovers that are gone.
|One man vs. One fan|
Trollatc: "Injuries will tell the tale this year. If we stay healthy and the offense performs, we will see you in the Superbowl."
"But, now, with the addition of some speed that we put up front, the different packages that (defensive coordinator Jim Johnson) can use to utilize that speed in different situations, the secondary being healthy and the addition of Asante Samuel ... "
We're listening ...
"We should be better," Dawkins said.
That means the Eagles in general should be better, with the only question: How much better? They play in the same division with the defending Super Bowl champion and a Dallas club that looks Super Bowl worthy on paper. Plus, they play in the same division with three playoff teams, each of whom made more post-season appearances the past three years than Philadelphia.
None of that is exactly news to Dawkins. Nevertheless, he likes what he sees around him, and what he sees is Samuel at one corner (when he's not sidelined by a hamstring injury) and Sheppard and Sheldon Brown at the other. Sheppard isn't exactly a happy camper, but after dangling him as trade bait in the offseason the club seems determined to keep him.
"We're not trading him," said one insider.
The question, of course, is how much of a difference Samuel makes. He leads the league with 16 interceptions the past two seasons, and he leads the league with six returns (including the playoffs) for touchdowns. But he did that in New England, where he worked in a different defense -- playing off receivers rather than pressing them, which is Philadelphia's style.
"I can adjust to any style," said Samuel, who bowed out of Saturday morning's practice with a sore hamstring. "I can play Cover 2; I can play man; I can play zone. I'm learning everything, and everything is coming together well."
Positives: Curtis proved in several games last year that he can dominate a defense. He had three games with at least 100 yards receiving, including one game with over 200 yards. He has great speed and can stretch the field. McNabb trusts Curtis, having thrown 136 passes in his direction last year.
Negatives: He disappeared at times with five games with three catches or less. The addition of DeSean Jackson and the return of L.J. Smith will cut into Curtis' production, and Reggie Brown should play better in 2008 than he did last year.
Outlook: Curtis is a solid receiver in a pass-happy offense, but he remains inconsistent. He is a good No. 3 Fantasy WR and should start when the matchup is right. Don't plan on drafting Curtis to be a Fantasy starter because then you will be disappointed.
-- Jamey Eisenberg
RB: Brian Westbrook (3rd overall)
QB: Donovan McNabb (57th overall)
WR: Kevin Curtis (97th overall)
TE: L.J. Smith (163rd overall)
|2008 Fantasy Draft Prep|
That's what most people at the Eagles' Lehigh camp keep saying about their team, with none more vocal than Dawkins. But there's a reason for his optimism. He feels better about himself, so he feels better about what he can do for the defense.
A year ago, Dawkins struggled. He and his wife were preoccupied by the premature births of twin daughters. He never really got into shape entering camp. And once the season begun he was beset by injuries; first a stinger, then a sprained foot, with the two sidelining him six games.
Dawkins admits he wondered if it was the beginning of the end of his career.
"During the season I couldn't hold up my head without pain," he said, "and those negative things began to creep into my mind. I had to pray and have faith.
"I couldn't pick up my son. I couldn't be on the floor with my daughter and mess around. That's how much pain I was in.
"But when I was able to come back for a couple of games, and it didn't bother me all that much; when I was able to get in the weight room and get almost a clean bill of health, that's when I said it's time. It's time to rededicate myself.
"I can tell you right now the way I feel, my legs, the power I have, I feel great. I feel like I've done right by my teammates this offseason."
If Dawkins is, in fact, right, the Eagles' defense will be improved. Johnson thinks it will be. So does coach Andy Reid, who waved off concerns about his offensive tackles by saying, "We should be all right there. We'll see, but I'm not too worried."
Let's assume they're correct, and that Philly's defense starts scaring the bejeezus out of opponents again. Well, then the Eagles should be back on the NFC map. Remember, this is a team that went to four consecutive conference championship games but hasn't reached the playoffs in two of the past three years.
In 2004, the year the Eagles reached the Super Bowl, they had 28 takeaways and 47 sacks. Both totals were off significantly last season when they won five fewer regular-season games, and Dawkins -- an All-Pro choice in 2004 -- thinks that's no coincidence.
"If you're not giving up points, turning the ball over to your offense and starting them on the 40," he said, "that's a whole different ballgame."
That's why he likes the Eagles' chances to return to the playoffs. They have speed at linebacker. He believers they should be better with their pass rush, with newcomer Chris Clemons a factor. And they're as deep and talented in the secondary as they've been since the Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent, Al Harris days.
But the biggest difference may be at safety, where they have a healthy, happy and determined Brian Dawkins.
"Do I something to prove?" he said. "Definitely. When last year happened, and my productivity dropped, people said I was injury prone. That was after one year, and that's something I can put in my tool belt.
"People are doubting me again, and I love that. People were doubting me when I came into this league. People doubted me when I came to this team. One Pro Bowl was (called) a fluke. It was always something going on.
"Now they're doubting me because I'm 34 years old and coming off an injury. I don't buy into that, and I will not buy into that."
You better not, either -- not because I told you, but because Brian Dawkins did.