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Grading the Eagles offseason changes: More ups than downs

Chip Kelly isn't close to finished. But he's already made significant changes, many we detail here and judge on their own merit.

Grading the Eagles offseason changes: More ups than downs

Chip Kelly directs practice at the team´s NFL football training facility, Tuesday, May 28, 2013, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Chip Kelly directs practice at the team's NFL football training facility, Tuesday, May 28, 2013, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Whenever he’s been asked about one of his Eagles’ past on-field issues, Chip Kelly has said that it wouldn’t be fair to judge a player on his performance prior to his arrival. Kelly said that he wanted to make evaluations without preconceived notions and to base it on his coaching.

For some, a clean slate meant a second chance. For others, many of whom are already gone, it meant no longer resting on their past accolades. Kelly had no other way to look at his roster. The former Oregon coach came to Philadelphia and stripped the NovaCare Complex clean as he went about remaking the roster, the coaching staff and the playbook.

Kelly isn’t close to finished. But he’s already made significant changes, many we detail here and judge on their own merit:

LEFT TACKLE

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New: Jason Peters
Former: Demetress Bell / King Dunlap

Asked about Peters not long after he got the Eagles job, Kelly said that even the five-time Pro Bowl left tackle would have to earn his starting position. He wasn’t joking, but it probably took all of one practice for the coach to realize the 31-year-old Peters was his best option, even coming off an Achilles tendon rupture. Peters missed all of 2012 and his absence had a negative trickle down affect on the entire offensive line. Bell and Dunlap took turns at being wretched, so even a less-than-100-percent Peters will be a marked improvement. He played in only one preseason game after being sidelined with a hamstring injury, but Peters didn’t show much rust.

Verdict:

RIGHT TACKLE

New: Lane Johnson
Former: Todd Herremans / Dennis Kelly

Johnson has enough potential to be an anchor on the Eagles line for years to come. It’s possible that he will someday replace Peters at left tackle. He’s protecting the other flank for now and still has plenty to learn. The Eagles’ top draft pick, however, appears to learn from his mistakes. He had a tough time handling Jaguars defensive end Jason Babin early in the third preseason game, but silenced the big-mouth former Eagle the rest of the way. When Johnson was selected fourth overall, it meant that Herremans’ days at tackle were over. Dennis Kelly is the slated backup, but he had back surgery to correct a herniated disk last month and will miss at least the first two games of the season. Veteran Allen Barbre may have stole his job.

Verdict:

RIGHT GUARD

New: Todd Herremans
Former: Danny Watkins / Jake Scott

When Herremans opens the season at right guard he will have started at every position on the offensive line aside from center. His versatility has made him a valuable commodity to the Eagles for nine seasons. But he’s starting to show some wear and tear. Before he broke the cuboid bone in his foot last November, Herremans had an inconsistent first eight games. And he had an up-and-down preseason, although he’s had knee inflammation. Watkins, who opened last season as the starting right guard, was eventually benched and replaced by in-season acquisition Jake Scott. He's been a disappointment since the Eagles drafted the 28-year old in the first round of the 2011 draft and was unceremoniously released last week. Watkins signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins on Tuesday.

Verdict:

WIDE RECEIVER

New: Riley Cooper
Former: Jeremy Maclin

It’s tough to say for certain if Maclin would have had a productive season, but he was entering a contract year and seemingly committed to “proving his worth.” But he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee early in training camp and a position of strength for the Eagles suddenly became a question mark. DeSean Jackson is poised to have a strong year and Jason Avant remains as steady as ever, but Cooper is unproven. The Eagles don’t need the fourth-year receiver to put up remarkable numbers. They have other skill position players to supplement Maclin’s loss. But they do need him to be consistent, to help in the red zone and to be as committed to blocking as he was in the past.

Verdict:

TIGHT END/FULLBACK

New: James Casey
Former: Stanley Havili

Kelly didn’t carry a fullback at Oregon so it was only a matter of time before the Eagles parted with Havili. Rather than cut him, Havili went to the Colts and the Eagles got defensive end Clifton Geathers in return. Casey, acquired as a free agent, played several spots in Houston, fullback among them. But he’ll be more of a tight end – H-back with the Eagles. Casey might not even start. When Kelly went with two-tight end sets in the preseason, Brent Celek and rookie Zach Ertz were his first choices. So it’s possible Casey may not be utilized as much as the Eagles had anticipated. There are plays with three-, even four tight-end sets, but there is only one ball to go around.

Verdict:

DEFENSIVE SCHEME

New: 3-4 hybrid
Former: 4-3

Kelly stated fairly early on that his defensive preference up front was an odd-man alignment. But he and defensive coordinator Bill Davis knew that it would be a struggle transitioning into a two-gap 3-4. The Eagles just didn’t have the personnel for the scheme, even after they added some pieces via free agency and the draft. But they weren’t looking for a get-good quick scheme. They were obviously willing to sacrifice this season on defense at the sake of moving to the more flexible 3-4. So the Eagles will play mostly two-gap football on the defensive line on base downs, but give various looks on passing downs. The last two seasons on defense were poor, but the Eagles could be especially bad early this year.

Verdict:

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

New: Isaac Sopoaga / Fletcher Cox / Cedric Thornton
Former: Cullen Jenkins / Fletcher Cox

The move to a 3-4 made having a nose tackle a necessity. The Eagles signed Sopoaga, a nine-year veteran with the 49ers, as a free agent in March. He’ll open the season as the starter, but rookie Bennie Logan could push him to a reserve role at some point. Cox moved from a 4-3 defensive tackle to a 3-4 defensive end. He probably won’t have as many pass rushing opportunities but it will be hard to keep a player as talented as Cox down. Thornton gets a chance to start after a reserve role as a defensive tackle last season. He and Cox will get help from Logan, Geathers, rookie Damion Square and Vinny Curry in the defensive end rotation.

Verdict:

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

New: Connor Barwin
Former: Akeem Jordan

Barwin’s 3-4 outside linebacker is much different than the weak-side spot Jordan played, but the addition of the former Texan shows the value the Eagles placed on a position that Reid sometimes considered an afterthought. The fact that Jordan, a special teams contributor at best, even started tells all anyone needs to know about the Eagles’ past linebacker neglect. Barwin isn’t going to be a savior. He took a step back last season in terms of sacks – going from 11-1/2 in 2011 to just three last season – but he’s versatile and is the lone outside linebacker on the team to previously play in a 3-4. Trent Cole will start out on the other side – he’s the “Predator” and Barwin’s the “Jack” – but it could be a rough ride for the long-time defensive end. The same could be said for backup Brandon Graham.

Verdict:

RIGHT CORNERBACK

New: Cary Williams
Former: Nnamdi Asomugha

When history looks back on Nnamdi Asomugha’s two-year run with the Eagles it will go down as a free agent signing every bad as the Phillies signing catcher Lance Parrish three decades earlier. He wasn’t an embarrassment, but for $12 million a year Asomugha was a disappointment. It wasn’t so much that he failed to shut down receivers as he did in Oakland, it was the effort, or lack thereof, that doomed his days in Philly. Williams is the anti-Asomugha in many ways. He’s an underdog, he’s brash and he’s a sure-tackler. His coverage skills are suspect, and he can be overbearing, but he will give 100 percent.

Verdict:

LEFT CORNERBACK

New: Bradley Fletcher
Former: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Rodgers-Cromartie got off to a strong start last year, but when the season took a turn, he took a nosedive. There were some that thought the Eagles should have brought him back. He’s only 27 and would have come cheap. The Broncos got him for one year at $5 million. But the Eagles were prepared to rid themselves of as many halfhearted players as possible. Fletcher, like Williams, can play press-man defense and is a sure tackler. He has a checkered past with knee injuries, and is competent as long as he stays on the field, but he could get picked apart if the Eagles’ pass rush struggles.

Verdict:

STRONG SAFETY

New: Patrick Chung
Former: Kurt Coleman

As with any free agent signing, there are risks. If Patrick Chung was anything special, wouldn’t the Patriots have done everything to retain the safety? But the writing was on the wall when Chung was benched mid-last season. And in truth, not many expect Chung to be a Brian Dawkins clone. But he should be an upgrade over the sad lot of free agent safeties the Eagles have acquired since Dawkins left in 2009. Chung isn’t going to move mountains, but he has solid instincts and should help partner Nate Allen. Coleman, despite being a punching bag for fan discontent, has given more than the Eagles could have asked for a seventh-round draft pick.

Verdict:

PUNTER

New: Donnie Jones
Former: Matt McBriar

Jones will be a significant upgrade over the Eagles’ last several punters. After a down season with the Rams in 2011, he bounced back with Texans and had a net average of 40.5 yards a punt last year. His booming kicks during training camp became commonplace as he beat out promising rookie Brad Wing. McBriar just wasn’t the same punter that he was with the Cowboys after foot surgery. The Eagles special teams units were incompetent at times last season, but McBriar’s 36.5-yard net was an accurate reflection of his performance.

Verdict:

ASSISTANT COACHES

Reid made some terrible coaching decisions over the last several years of his tenure with the Eagles. Promoting Juan Castillo from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator was probably the most notorious, but it wouldn’t have happened if defensive line coach Jim Washburn wasn’t hired or offensive line coach Howard Mudd came out of retirement. Bobby April was also a ruinous special teams choice. But Reid still had some solid assistants on staff, even if many of the ones he originally brought to Philly went onto loftier positions around the league. Most of Kelly’s staff comprises of former college coaches, save for his coordinators, who have long NFL resumes. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has head coaching experience. Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp assisted with one of the stronger units in Miami. And Davis has been all over the league, although the journeyman coach did not fair well in his first two tries as defensive coordinator.

Verdict:

Jeff McLane Inquirer Staff Writer
About this blog
Birds' Eye View is the Inquirer's blog covering all things Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL.

Jeff McLane Inquirer Staff Writer
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