The Eagles open the regular season exactly a month from today.
Here are five thoughts on the Birds as they prepare for their first preseason game Friday night against the Jaguars:
1. If there's one group I feel better about now than I did a few weeks ago, it's the linebackers. Barring injuries, this group is pretty much set. Stewart Bradley in the middle, Ernie Sims at the weak side and Akeem Jordan at the strong side. The nickel package will keep Bradley and Sims on the field. Sean McDermott and the defense are placing a lot of expectations on Bradley's shoulders. He looks healthy. He looks hungry. And he looks ready to lead. Take a second, and think about what little production the Eagles got from the middle linebacker position last year. Even if Bradley doesn't play at a Pro Bowl level, if he just is above average, it will provide a major upgrade. Bradley's size should help in the passing game, especially in the middle of the field, where the Eagles were so soft in 2009. And while Jeremiah Trotter had his moments against the run last season, Bradley presents a major upgrade there as well.
He's taken Sims under his wing, and the Eagles' weak-side linebacker has been impressive. He's fast and physical. Maybe more importantly, he is playing with something to prove and has a mean streak, something this defense has lacked. This really is a second chance for Sims after spending the first four seasons of his career in Detroit.
And finally, Jordan. Before he got injured last season, Jordan was one of this defense's best playmakers. He will have to show he can play a new position, but Jordan should benefit from playing alongside Bradley and Sims. Those three linebackers should really be able to cover.
2. I have no clue how the center situation is going to play out, and that is extremely worrisome. I thought Nick Cole would benefit from an offseason of reps, but he's had issues. As I've mentioned, center is a difficult position to evaluate in practice, and the coaches just tell you everyone is doing fine. Cole has missed practice this week with a knee injury, which brings us to Mike McGlynn. McGlynn's chances of starting in Week 1 have imroved dramatically this week. He's getting a lot of practice directing protections with the Eagles' defense showing different blitz looks, and he's had no problems with the snap. But he will have to show he's good enough in just physically blocking his opponent. That's the one area where Cole showed he could be effective in the two games against the Cowboys.
And then there's Jamaal Jackson. We have no idea how close he is to returning, but we know he's been running and working out every day. And Andy Reid said he's ahead of schedule. Could Jackson be ready sooner than we all expect? Is that why the Eagles seem to be unconcerned about the center situation? Tough to say. But if I had to put money on it, I'd say he won't be put on the PUP list to start the season.
3. I wonder if expectations are too high for Kevin Kolb. Kolb is very good with the media. National reporters stop by at Lehigh all the time and come away impressed with him. He gives the local media his time every day after practice and seems to do his best to deliver honest answers. On the field, he's directing teammates in terms of where to line up and what adjustments to make. In other words, it has not felt like training camp with a first-year starting quarterback. Jeremy Maclin has said that repeatedly, and he's right. It feels like Kolb has been doing this for years.
But the reality is, he hasn't been. He's attempted 130 passes in his career and has started two games. He turns 26 next week.
And so, regardless of how well the Eagles prepare Kolb or how quick of a learner he is, there are going to be ups and downs. There are going to be interceptions. There are going to be plays where he checks down to LeSean McCoy and misses a wide open DeSean Jackson down the field. There are going to be games where he is the reason the Eagles lose.
On the other hand, there will be games when he looks like a veteran, moments when the Eagles will look like geniuses for selecting him in the second round of the 2007 draft. Times when he keeps them in games.
That's the point. There will be ups and downs. I just hope everyone is ready for both.
4. Last year, the Eagles expected their rookies to be quick learners and make an instant impact on offense. I would say McCoy met expectations, and Maclin exceeded them. Now, move to the other side of the ball, and it's a similar situation on defense. Brandon Graham and Nate Allen are real X-factors. Those two players have the potential to make the difference between an OK defense and a very good defense. The Eagles had 38 takeaways in 2009, good enough for third in the NFL. Can Allen help them match that total or even add to it?
As for Graham, no one is expecting him to be Trent Cole in his first season, but based on the last two weeks, he's going to make an immediate impact. The Eagles' offseason focus was to improve their pass rush. They might have taken a big step towards doing that just by adding Graham to the mix.
5. The conventional wisdom on the 2010 version of the Philadelphia Eagles is that the offense will be just fine. With young talent all around Kolb, he's in a great position to succeed in his first year as a starter. The conventional wisdom on the defense is that they have too many holes and question marks. The overall numbers in 2009 were not bad, but the Birds allowed 27.2 points in their final five games.
I'm wondering if we might be in for a surprise. I haven't completely talked myself into it, but I wonder if this defense can be much better than it was a year ago. Think about it. It would be almost impossible for the Eagles to get less production at middle linebacker and free safety. I think Quintin Mikell is going to bounce back. I think Graham is going to be good. And I think Sean McDermott will be helped by having a year of experience under his belt.
And maybe the offense won't be as far along as expected. If the passing game is going to be all about timing, maybe that will take some time to develop. Maybe Kolb will see looks he's not prepared for. Maybe the offensive line, which everyone seems to forget was pretty good for much of last season, takes a step back. Maybe they'll turn the ball over too much.
Like I said, I haven't completely talked myself into this one yet, but maybe the personality of the 2010 Eagles will be much different than what we expect.
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