The Inquirer is previewing the Eagles’ offseason. NFL free agency will begin on March 9, and the draft will be April 27-29.
Schedule of previews:
Monday, Feb. 13: Quarterbacks
Tuesday, Feb. 14: Running backs
Wednesday, Feb. 15: Wide receivers
Today: Offensive line
Friday, Feb. 17: Tight ends
Monday, Feb. 20: Defensive ends
Tuesday, Feb. 21: Defensive tackles
Wednesday, Feb. 22: Linebackers
Thursday, Feb. 23: Cornerbacks
Friday, Feb. 24: Safeties
Josh Andrews, Allen Barbre, Brandon Brooks, Dillon Gordon, Darrell Greene, Taylor Hart, Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce, Josh LeRibeus, Aaron Neary, Jason Peters, Isaac Seumalo, Dallas Thomas, Matt Tobin, Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
The Eagles’ offensive line could look markedly different next season, or it could look exactly as it did when last season opened. How’s that for a nebulous prediction? More than likely, the changes or lack thereof will fall somewhere between both ends of that spectrum. Yes, of course, the Eagles are considering the possibility of moving on from center Jason Kelce. And, naturally, they approached the 35-year-old left tackle Jason Peters about restructuring his contract. Does that mean both will happen? No. But based on my discussions with various NFL people over the last month - some connected to both players – I wouldn’t be surprised if the Eagles parted with Kelce, and Peters accepted what would essentially be a pay cut for 2017.
Kelce carries a $6.2 million salary-cap number. If the Eagles were to release or trade him, they would save $3.8 million and eat $2.4 million in dead money. That isn’t exactly a no-brainer contract to abolish. Kelce started slow last season, and he will probably always struggle against big 3-4 nose tackles, but he finished strong and remains one of the more athletic centers in the NFL. He is a dependable leader and has one year with Carson Wentz under his belt. But Kelce will turn 30 in November and the Eagles have Isaac Seumalo waiting in the wings. From my reading of the situation, the decision to cut ties with Kelce would have more to do with Seumalo – and Wentz -- than anything else. The team projects Seumalo to be its starting center for the next span of years. Is he ready to step into Kelce's shoes? Probably not. But center was the position he played most in college, and he’s smart. If the plan is for Wentz-Seumalo to be the quarterback-center combo for the foreseeable future, why not start now while the Eagles are still building?
An argument could easily be made for bringing Kelce back. Do the Eagles want to make a significant change so early into Wentz’s tenure? Why not just slide Seumalo into Allen Barbre’s spot at left guard, and keep every other position intact?
Peters had a very good 2016 at left tackle. He started all 16 games and missed only 33 snaps. Not bad for a guy some thought would either regress or miss significant time to injury. Peters has the Eagles’ highest projected cap number ($11.7 million) for 2017. Right now, he’s the 11th-highest-paid left tackle in the NFL on a per-year basis. He’s better than that, but the Eagles have to account for the likelihood that his play will drop off - hence, the restructure. I can’t see why Peters wouldn’t lower his cap number as long as the Eagles gave him a little more guaranteed money up front. He does have some leverage. But are there really other teams willing to pay for his services at this age, and would he be willing to pass up millions to retire? My guess is no to both questions.
One of the issues with bringing Peters back is that Lane Johnson’s contract starts to escalate to account for his expected eventual move from right to left tackle. Johnson’s $9,843,750 cap number is second to only Peters on the Eagles. It is also significantly more than any other right tackle in the league earns. The Eagles are likely willing to take that hit, assuming Peters returns, but it represents poor accounting on the team’s part. When Johnson was in the lineup, the Eagles went 5-1. He played well before his 10-game suspension and fairly well upon his return considering the layoff. He’s probably ready to switch sides, but if the Eagles can eke one more year out of Peters, why mess with Wentz’s protection on the edges?
Barbre still has one year left on a contract that pays him like a reserve ($2.25 million cap number), so it wouldn’t cost a heck of a lot to bring him back as the sixth man in case the Eagles want to slide Seumalo over to left guard, or even if they want to start Barbre again. He might have had his best season with the team, at least before his move to right tackle and various injuries. But Barbre will turn 33 in June. The team has youth on the roster that has been groomed to play eventually. Halapoulivaati Vaitai had his baptism by fire, but he settled some before a season-ending knee injury. Did he do enough to secure a starting spot should Peters retire? No. But he gives the Eagles a young backup with some experience.
Dillon Gordon made the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie, but was inactive for most of the season. The Eagles kept him around for a reason - they like his potential. Darrell Greene was stowed on the practice squad. He’ll get another opportunity to make the team. Josh Andrews could stick as the backup center if Kelce were to go. Matt Tobin remains under contract through 2017. His future could hinge on what the Eagles do in free agency and the draft.
Josh LeRibeus and Dallas Thomas, both guards, were signed to the expanded roster last month. Roseman confirmed in January that Taylor Hart has agreed to move from defensive tackle to the offensive line. Hart displayed a knack for blocking as a scout-team tackle – some colleges recruited him to play on offense – and the Eagles broached the idea of a switch. I bumped into Hart at the Super Bowl and when I asked him why he would move, he said something to the effect of “why not?”
The Eagles inked Stefen Wisniewski to a one-year deal last offseason. He couldn’t supplant Barbre, but he ended up playing 607 snaps at guard because of Johnson’s suspension and various injuries. He was OK. Wisniewski’s best spot is at center. He signed hoping to parlay a show-me deal into a long-term one in which he will have the opportunity to start, but that remains to be seen. One thing that could be in his favor – and Kelce’s, too – is that there shouldn’t be many quality free-agent centers on the market in March. The Eagles could retain Wisniewski as a backup center if they opt to let Kelce go, but the guess here is that they allow him to walk.
The Eagles spent a fair amount last offseason when they signed guard Brandon Brooks to a five-year, $40 million contract. He proved to be a solid addition and helped secure the interior part of the line, an area that was in shambles in 2015. Brooks missed two games because of his struggles with anxiety, but he identified the issue, got help and seemingly put the condition past him, at least enough to play in the final three games of the season. Brooks’ mental illness does bear monitoring.
The Eagles aren’t likely to spend as much in free agency this offseason. They drafted two offensive linemen and kept another undrafted rookie last year, and are likely to address the position further in this year’s draft. They could sign a veteran interior lineman from the bargain bin, especially if both Kelce and Barbre were to leave. If Peters were to retire or go elsewhere, maybe the Eagles would consider signing the Bengals’ Andrew Whitworth to a short-term deal. The 35-year-old left tackle performed at a high level last season. There aren’t many attractive tackles on the market. The Ravens’ Ricky Wagner, 27, might be the best of the younger set.
A handful of starting guards are expected to be available, and many of the best are in the 25- to 27-year-old range. Kevin Zeitler (26) of the Bengals and T.J. Lang (29) of the Packers might cost a pretty penny, though. Ronald Leary (27) isn’t considered one of the powerhouses of the Cowboys’ offensive line, but he’s more than capable. Larry Warford (25) of the Lions isn’t flashy, but he’s a road grader.
All the aforementioned guards could be out of the Eagles’ price range, especially if they don’t plan on making many changes to the line. They could be in the market for a swing backup, sort of like Wisniewski. Tim Lelito (27) of the Saints could qualify. J.C. Tretter (25) of the Packers has more experience as a center, and the Eagles will have to make sure his knee is healthy, but he could be a backup option.
There isn’t believed to be as much depth in this class as there was in last year's, so I’m not sure if the Eagles will come away with more than one offensive lineman. But they do need to start preparing for Peters’ eventual end – should he return – and that could warrant spending an early-round pick on the position. A first rounder? Not likely, but it’s hard to say at this point in the offseason. Ryan Ramczyk (6-foot-5, 314 pounds) of Wisconsin seems to be the top-ranked tackle, but even he has some question marks. He started only one season at the Division I-A level after transferring from Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Garrett Bolles (6-5, 296) of Utah had only one year as a starter in college, as well. But he has the raw tools.
Troy’s Antonio Garcia (6-6, 293) fared well against Clemson’s pass rush. He’s probably a Day 2 prospect. Roderick Johnson (6-6, 308) of Florida State, Taylor Moton (6-5, 330) of Western Michigan, Jermaine Eluemunor (6-4, 325) of Texas A&M, Adam Bisnowaty (6-6, 307) of Pittsburgh, Chad Wheeler (6-6, 310) of Southern Cal, and Erik Magnuson (6-4, 303) of Michigan will probably fall somewhere in that range or could slip to Day 3. Bucknell’s Julien Davenport (6-6, 310) could be a developmental prospect to take a flyer on. The Camden native has an 87.5-inch wing span.
The Eagles could draft a tackle early only to start him at guard in preparation for an eventual move outside. Or they could draft a prospect who is strictly a guard, start him there from Day 1, and leave him there for 8-10 years. That would be the expectation if the Eagles were to select, say, Forest Lamp (6-4, 305) of Western Kentucky. He’s another Division I-AA talent who jumped out for evaluators when pitted against a Division I-A power (Alabama). The Crimson Tide had a highly rated offensive lineman of their own – 6-6, 310-pound Cam Robinson. Indiana’s Dan Feeney (6-4, 304) might have been the best interior lineman at the Senior Bowl last month. He has the makeup of a mauling Midwestern run blocker. Dion Dawkins (6-4, 317) made waves in Mobile. The Temple tackle projects as a guard. Dorian Johnson (6-5, 300) of Pittsburgh, Isaac Asiata (6-3, 323) of Utah and Nico Siragusa (6-4, 326) of San Diego State could slip to Day 3.
Zach Banner (6-8, 361) of Southern Cal, Jordan Morgan (6-3, 313) of Kutztown and Sean Harlow (6-4, 310) of Oregon State are potential Day 3 projects. Harlow played alongside Seumalo in college and, like his former teammate, played a bunch of positions. At this point in the draft, versatility would be a bonus.
The Eagles aren’t likely in the market for a center, but Ethan Pocic (6-6, 307) of LSU and Pat Elflein (6-2, 300) of Ohio State will probably be the first two drafted.