Losing to the Cowboys is always the antithesis of fun, a fate that typically tortures my soul and ruins my week. However, seeing as how I gave up on the season a long time ago, I'm now viewing games through the prism of preparing for next year and beyond. With that in mind, I saw reasons for optimism Sunday night. Nick Foles put forth by far his best performance to date. While he still missed open opportunities and was fortunate not to throw a pick-six to Danny McCray, the rookie showed encouraging signs of progression. He was poised and stood tall in the pocket, unafraid to take a hit to make a play. While Foles remains a project, for the first time I started to earnestly warm up to the idea of him being the Eagles starting quarterback in 2013. Whether I remain warm to that idea will be determined over the final four games.
Aside from Foles's performance, Dennis Kelly showed flashes of being an NFL-caliber right tackle, a position he held at Purdue his entire four-year college career. It didn't take long for the experiment of trying him at guard to be deemed a failure -- with good reason, since he looked utterly lost and served as little more than a matador. Kelly, able to narrow his focus and utilize his size and athleticism to neutralize pass rushers, looked comfortable and competent with more space to operate. With the caveat in mind that the Eagles will be getting back three starters from injury in 2013, offensive line doesn't appear to be as dire a need as it was a month ago. In fact, when you consider how Jake Scott's addition has seemingly stabilized the unit, the Eagles suddenly have considerable depth there. Who knows if Scott will be offered a contract for next season with Howard Mudd retiring, but there's no denying the impact he's had since signing. Had you asked me a few weeks ago who the Eagles should target with their first round pick, I'd have said Luke Joeckel. Now I'm not so sure and lean more towards the best defensive player available. The Eagles need a rock solid performer, emotional leader and playmaker on that side of the ball. I know DeMeco Ryans has been one of the few bright spots on defense this season, but if Chuck Bednarik and Maxwell Award winner Manti Te'o is on the board, I think the Eagles should take him and go from there.
Don't worry, I didn't forget about Bryce Brown, who continued to show he's a unique package of physical ability with superstar talent. Know this: His potential is limitless. I'd venture to say there are few running backs in the league who can rival his skill set. I'm not even lathering this in hyperbole sauce, I really believe it. Of course, Brown has to learn to better protect the football and curb his fumblitis, or none of that immense promise will mean a damn thing. Luckily, you can teach ball security; you can't teach how he runs. An offense built around a tandem of LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown carrying the ball 30-40 times per game can absolutely win in an NFL that's become tilted in favor of the passing attack. You know why? Because football is still, at its core, about lining up, putting a hat on a hat and beating the guy in front of you. Hopefully Jason Peters can be 100% healthy and back to form for next season because the thought of him clearing the way for McCoy and Brown is positively boner-inducing. Step back for a second and think about what the Eagles starting offensive line could look like next season: LT - Jason Peters; LG - Evan Mathis; C - Jason Kelce; RG - Todd Herremans; RT - Dennis Kelly. I could dig it.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mentioned Brandon Graham, Riley Cooper and Damaris Johnson, all of whom made their presence felt against the Cowboys. Graham, for reasons that might have helped contribute to Jim Washburn's firing, only played 31 snaps against Dallas despite owning Doug Free (then again, it appears everyone owns Doug Free these days). He was a terror in the first half, recording numerous pressures and 1.5 sacks, before slowing down a bit in the second half. As for Riley Cooper, I'll continue to sing his praises until I'm blue in the face. I think Cooper is a legit weapon, especially down in the red zone, and he's exactly what the Eagles desperately need. That touchdown catch was a fantastic, NFL-caliber grab (credit to Foles for trusting his receiver to make a play) -- his second one-handed snag in as many games versus Dallas. I've been a Damaris Johnson advocate for going on two years and will continue to lobby he get the ball more on offense. He's got a bona fide niche in this league as an offensive gadget player, waiting to be exploited. Against the Cowboys, however, Johnson made his mark at the end with a slick, electrifying 98-yard punt return that gave the Eagles a brief glimmer of hope.
At this point, I'd like to link my season preview article, where I posited the Eagles had to change their identity and forge a certain toughness on both sides of the ball. Part of this, to me, meant building the offense around its most dangerous weapon, LeSean McCoy. I was skewered at the time for romanticizing the power rushing attack and being antiquated, but I will not waver. The thing is, I'm not asking for a power rushing attack, I just want an offense where the best players touch the ball as much as possible. Like Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg stubbornly believe you win in this league by passing the ball ad nauseum, I stubbornly believe the next era of Eagles football must be constructed around a running game that has the potential to be dominant. Shit, I thought that before the emergence of Bryce Brown. As you might imagine, his play the past two games -- he won me my fantasy matchup again! -- has only strengthened my conviction.
What I really want to do in this article is get a head start on the offseason and assess the roster. I'll open up the forum to you, the readers. Those of you who wish to share your opinion and have your voice heard, this is your chance: Which of the current players should be part of the Eagles' plans in 2013, and which should be given their walking papers?
I'll throw a few ideas to get things started...
- The Eagles defense is an affront to what a real NFL defense should be. Remember how DRC essentially branded the unit as soft and intimated they were a joke around the league? Yeah, that wasn't emasculating or anything. We've heard the term "cancer" associated with the Eagles way too much the past two seasons. That influence has to be eradicated and the mindset of the defense has to be overhauled. In addition to a proven coach, the defense needs a real, demonstrative leader on the field. Someone whose presence and play can have a ripple effect and fundamentally change the defense's identity. Someone who's a playmaker, who can turn the game's momentum and come through in the clutch.
- Should the Eagles trade Jeremy Maclin? I know I'd shop him around the league to gauge value. I get a feeling the best offer might be a third or fourth round pick. If it's a third, I do it. Why? Because I don't think he has value to the Eagles beyond next season. Get what you can for Maclin now because it doesn't make sense to give him the contract he'll demand. DeSean Jackson is already making big money, and Jeremy has shown nothing to indicate he's more than a redundant, fairly "blah" complement. His (lack of) effort as a blocker has also been appalling and off-putting. I don't expect Jackson to do much more than just get in the way as a blocker due to his size, but Maclin has no excuse for playing like a bitch.
- Do the Eagles have to replace the entire secondary this offseason? I'm serious. Is that going to happen? The most dumbfounding, bizarre development this season is by far the thorough implosion of the pass defense. What the fuck happened? John Lynch, in an interview with Jome Rome, decried the secondary's effort as "disrespectful... to the game." Wow. We all know the video game numbers opposing quarterbacks have put up since Juan Castillo got shit-canned and Todd Bowles was elevated from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator. The whole thing is simply mind-numbing. Talk about your all-time backfires, right, Andy? Speaking of Andy, I'm not buying the feared notion that he could be coming back next year, but I'm also in I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it mode.*
*I just feel sympathy for Reid at this point. He is a captain going down with the ship, doing his martyr schtick to the bitter end. After 14 seasons and the most successful era in team history, the man deserves to go out with his dignity in tact. I've had my disagreements with Andy -- mainly pertaining to his obstinate offensive philosophy -- and directed some expletives his way over the years, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate what he has done for the Eagles. The hard truth is his opportunity to win a Super Bowl in Philadelphia has long since expired. It's simply time for us to go our separate ways. Whenever Andy retires from coaching, he'll be brought back and inducted into the Eagles' Ring of Honor, the fans will cheer and celebrate him, it'll be happy feelings all around. The hollowness of not achieving the ultimate goal will never go away, but life is full of disappointments. I was fortunate to have Andy Reid as the Eagles' coach during my adolescent years. I got to watch relevant, competitive, winning football more often than not. Now it's time to move on and see if there's someone else out there who can help the Eagles win that elusive, almost mythical Super Bowl.
I'll devote a future post to free agency, but for the sake of discussion, here's a very early Eagles' mock draft:
Player - Position - School - Height / Weight - 40-Yard Dash Time (estimated)
1 (5): Manti Te'o - ILB - Notre Dame - 6015 / 255 - 4.75
I know, I know, DeMeco Ryans has earned the right to be the Eagles starting middle linebacker in 2013. I don't think this pick necessarily changes that right now, but given his age (29 in July) and contract -- Ryans is due $6.6M in '13; $6.8M in '14 and '15 -- finding his successor would be a prudent move. Te'o has been in the spotlight since his senior year of high school, when he was ESPN's second-ranked overall recruit. In addition to serving as the face of Notre Dame's resurgence under Brian Kelly, Te'o has established himself as a college football icon. A player whose mere nomination for the Heisman Trophy is a remarkable feat, a player who screams impact pro. The Eagles need a fiery leader and game-changing playmaker on defense. Manti Te'o has always been a fiery leader, but this season he's proven he can be that game-changing playmaker as well. The intangibles, solid tackling (most of the time), instincts and recognition skills have never been in question, and Te'o's coverage skills have improved. While his seven interceptions in 2012 are impressive, don't forget he had a grand total of zero his first three seasons. Interceptions or not, Te'o still profiles as a player who can dutifully and dependably lead an NFL defense for a decade.
Now, do I actually think Te'o will be the Eagles' first pick? Let's just say it would really surprise me. Then again, maybe such a selection would signify a shift in philosophy. A lot of the decision will depend on who's the next coach. More than anything, I want Howie Roseman -- of whom I am a supporter, and who I think deserves a chance to create his own legacy independent of Andy (his actions this past offseason sold me on him as a GM) -- to stick to the board and pick the best player available. You know, like the Eagles did in 2012 after Roseman admitted they had strayed in recent years. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion of Howie. Some will never be able to see past the fact that he made his bones on the business end of operations and thus label him an "outsider" unfit for talent evaluation. Some will crucify him for the mistakes of 2010 and 2011. I'm over that. I want to see if Roseman can build upon his most recent momentum and continue to improve. How he's handled himself to this point, and how he's progressed along the way, makes me optimistic that his best is yet to come.
Other options: Luke Joeckel (OT - Texas A&M), Star Lotulelei (DT - Utah), Bjoern Werner (DE - Florida State)
Edit: I'm switching around the Phillip Thomas and Arthur Brown picks (I struggled with this while writing the article)... though I doubt Arthur lasts until the third round.
2 (37): Phillip Thomas - FS - Fresno State - 6003 / 215 - 4.57
You remember Phillip Thomas, don't you? The undrafted free agent out of Syracuse the Eagles signed, who also fell victim to a weird impersonator? Yeah, this Phillip Thomas is whole hell of a lot better. I don't know where Thomas, who leads the nation in interceptions and is up for the Jim Thorpe Award, is projected to go in the draft, but I currently have him ranked in my top-40. A player who flashed as a freshman and sophomore, he has had an incredible senior campaign after missing all of last season with a devastating broken leg and dislocated ankle. What makes Thomas so appealing is that he's a ball hawk who can cover tight ends and excels playing center field. So athletic, long and talented. A pure free safety, he sometimes struggles when attacking downfield; needs to be more disciplined, as he has a tendency to launch himself or dive at ankles instead of breaking down and exhibiting proper form. That said, Thomas has shown he CAN be a solid tackler, he's just inconsistent. For example, in the Fresno State/Boise State game in October, Thomas shed an offensive lineman at the goal line and stepped up to stuff the running back. That's an impressive, special play. Yet later in the game he had a chance to make a tackle but flew right by the ball carrier, allowing him to pick up extra yards. Thomas loves to lay the wood and is a hitter (different from "tackler") with instincts and a feel for the game to match. Effort has been questioned, will need a coach who stays on him. A true playmaker with some weaknesses, but I think Thomas can be an immediate starter in the NFL.
Other options: Matt Elam (SS - Florida), Desmond Trufant (CB - Washington)
3 (69): Arthur Brown - OLB - Kansas State - 6005 / 228 - 4.62
No, this doesn't mean I've given up on Mychal Kendricks. Best player available, remember? Besides, competition at linebacker isn't a bad thing. Maybe the Eagles will switch to a 3-4 in the offseason, who knows? I'm just telling you right now: Arthur Brown is going to be an excellent pro, and the type of player you find ways to get on the field. Aside from the fact that it would be cool to reunite the Brown brothers as pivotal (re)building blocks for the Eagles, the elder Brown -- only by 11 months! -- served as an adept foil to Robert Griffin III in college, intercepting him once and sacking him 1.5 times (the game tape is glorious). I have a feeling we're going to need players like that going forward. Brown's value is tricky to ascertain. I've read anywhere from late first to third round. Like Lavonte David last draft, Arthur's size will be scrutinized and obscure the fact that it's literally the only negative aspect of his game.
Other options: Quinton Patton (WR - Louisiana Tech), Ra'Shede Hageman (DT/DE - Minnesota - A rare specimen whose size/weight/speed combination is downright Fletcher Coxian)
4: Blidi Wreh-Wilson - CB - Connecticut - 6004 / 190 - 4.48
Wreh-Wilson has jumped out at me in limited viewings this season after missing most of 2011 with a knee injury. Like his athleticism and physical style, will be a player I watch closely if I'm able to make it to the Senior Bowl.
5: Travis Kelce - TE - Cincinnati - 6052 / 260 - 4.68
Yes, Jason's brother. Let's make the Eagles a family affair! Travis is a big dude and legit athlete; strong blocker and sneaky dangerous receiver who came into his own as a redshirt senior. He fits the prototype for the league-wide revolution taking place at the position and is a perfect complement to Brent Celek (better than the relatively forgotten Clay Harbor, at least).
6: Blaize Foltz - OG - Texas Christian - 6036 / 310 - 5.32
Gotta love this guy. First, the name. Too awesome. On the field, Foltz is a true throwback, tough as nails and a mauler. He might also just be the strongest offensive lineman in the country. Seriously, dude is a freak. Going into this season, Foltz was benching 580 pounds, squatting 800, incline benching 530 and had clean jerked 430. And TCU coaches said he could do more if they let him. Um, whoa.
7: Mark Harrison - WR - Rutgers - 6024 / 230 - 4.58
Not a burner but has incredible size and strength, long limbs and makes highlight-reel catches. Harrison's physical skills are overwhelming, and he understands how to use them to his advantage. His development this season, after a breakout 2010 and injury-stunted 2011, really made me take notice. Strikes me as a player coming into his own and represents significant value at this spot.
7 (via DEN, Brodrick Bunkley trade): Cooper Taylor - SS - Richmond - 6034 / 228 - 4.57
Aside from the imposing size and physicality, Taylor, a Georgia Tech transfer whose freshman tape you should definitely watch, has dominated FCS competition the past two seasons. He's up for the Buck Buchanan Award and intrigues the hell out of me. College career was interrupted by rare heart disorder, but Taylor was cleared to play and, having seen his spot in the Yellow Jackets lineup usurped, transferred to Richmond.
Alright, flame away.