Eagles' lack of O-line depth makes Jason Peters that much more important

If there were a scientific way to measure a player’s overall contribution to the greater good, Jason Peters might have been the highest-scoring Eagle on last year’s roster. Call it whatever you want: Best player, most valuable player, most important player … there’s a strong argument to be made that Peters’ ability to bounce back from a concerning 2015 campaign was the difference between the Eagles keeping things interesting and finishing 3-13 or 4-12. There’s also a strong argument to be made that the stakes are just as high this season.

When Howie Roseman declared on Saturday that the Eagles’ roster was unquestionably better now than it was heading into Week 1 of last season, he was speaking an incontestable truth. Position by position, roster slot by roster slot, the 53-man roster Roseman and Co. unveiled over the weekend is far more capable than the one they were finalizing at this time last year. The additions of cornerback Ronald Darby, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, and defensive end Derek Barnett added significant new variables to the three positions that arguably gave them the least amount of starting-caliber NFL production last season.

Yet while the Eagles managed to upgrade the top of the depth chart at some key positions, the situation at tackle is a good example of what is perhaps the most pertinent question looming over the upcoming season.

Are they deep enough?

One of the more curious aspects of the 53-man roster the Eagles unveiled after their final preseason game was their decision to carry just eight offensive linemen: not so much the decision itself — there’s little sense in keeping a player who is unlikely to contribute at a position over a more capable player at another position — but what it implies. Namely, that the Eagles couldn’t find (or, at least, identify) more than eight players capable of contributing at the most important position group on the field (outside of quarterback, of course). In three of the last five seasons, including 2016, the Eagles have used at least nine offensive linemen for 100-plus snaps. If they need a ninth this year, it will be somebody who isn’t good enough to make the current 53.

At tackle, there’s little question that the Eagles’ first-team offensive line is in a better position now than it was at this time last year, when Lane Johnson was staring down the barrel of a 10-game suspension. Assuming health, a full season of their franchise right tackle gives the Eagles a dramatic upgrade. On the interior of the line, there’s an argument to be made that the Eagles aren’t significantly worse off here than they were last year, but I’m not sure there’s one to be made that they are significantly better … at least, not until we get a longer look at Isaac Seumalo, who is stepping in for Allen Barbre. The presence of Chance Warmack gives the Eagles some insurance in case Seumalo struggles. Otherwise, the situation is largely what it was last year, with  Brandon Brooks still in his prime, and Jason Kelce trending downward.

But depth could be an issue, particularly at tackle. Peters isn’t going to play until he’s 100, nor is he going to play until he is 60, nor 50 . . . question is, when will that final season reveal itself? If it’s somewhere beyond 35 years old, Carson Wentz’s body should be in much better shape by the end of this season than it was at the end of last season. The Eagles’ decision to cut or trade veterans like Matt Tobin, Barbre and Dallas Thomas seems a clear vote of confidence for Halapoulivaati Vaitai, the second-year player out of TCU. Still, the notion that Vaitai improved from his rough start to become a competent starting NFL tackle last season is flawed … he became less of a liability, but the Eagles were still forced to spend much of the season game-planning him into a position where he could best succeed. To put it another way: The Eagles are just as ill-equipped to deal with an absence at tackle as they were last season. Perhaps even more so, given that they no longer have the option of Tobin or Barbre in addition to Vaitai.

In that regard, second-year player Dillon Gordon’s relegation to the practice squad is a significant wrinkle, given that he was their best developmental prospect at tackle. That they deemed a fifth running back, a fifth safety and a sixth linebacker as more deserving of a roster spot speaks volumes about the former blocking tight end’s failure to develop over the last year.

Recent history suggests the Eagles are far more likely to need the services of a ninth offensive lineman: Not once in the last five seasons have they used even four running backs for 100-plus snaps. In three of those seasons, they didn’t even have three players at the position reach 100 snaps. Last year, Kenjon Barner logged 99 snaps as the Eagles’ fourth running back. At safety, the Eagles had only three players log more than three snaps last season. Only once in the last five seasons have they needed more than seven defensive backs to play 100-plus snaps. They currently have 10 on the roster.

 

Pos ’16 Player ’16 snaps ’17 player
DB1 Malcolm Jenkins 1018 Malcolm Jenkins
DB2 Rodney McLeod 1013 Rodney McLeod
DB3 Nolan Carroll 910 Ronald Darby
DB4 Jalen Mills 662 Jalen Mills
DB5 Leodis McKelvin 586 Patrick Robinson
DB6 Jaylen Watkins 387 Corey Graham
DB7 Ron Brooks 235 Dexter McDougle
OTHERS 3 Rasul Douglas
Jaylen Warkins
Chris Maragos

They are using one of those extra spots to accommodate a special-teams player (Chris Maragos), and another to accommodate a developmental player (Rasul Douglas). But it speaks volumes about their options elsewhere that they decided Jaylen Watkins offered them more utility even with the presence of Corey Graham as a third safety and Patrick Robinson and Dexter McDougle as options in the slot.

Don’t mistake any of this for an indictment of the roster decisions themselves. Rather, it’s a preview of some of the challenges the Eagles will face beyond 2016. With Peters and Kelce nearing the end of their careers, the’ offensive line could require some heavy remodeling in the not-too-distant future. Nevertheless, they’ve opted for developmental players at running back (Donnel Pumphrey), wide receiver (Shelton Gibson) and linebacker (Joe Walker), plus an extra special-teams/depth piece at defensive back (Jaylen Watkins), over any such player along the offensive line. Roseman said he feels they have eight starting-caliber linemen at the position, an opinion that would seem to differ from the consensus of the free-agent market, which valued Warmack and Stefen Wisniewski at a price point considerably less the last couple of offseasons. And, keep in mind, two other members of that eight are second-year players who have combined for a total of 10 NFL starts.

The order of the names might be different this season, but getting 16 Pro Bowl-caliber games out of Peters and Johnson might be even more important.