Step by step, for better or worse
Quarterback - Step Ahead
2008: Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, A.J. Feeley.
2009: McNabb, Kolb, Michael Vick.
You have a healthy, happy Donovan McNabb, who got the offseason contract reworking he'd sought. You've added three-time Pro Bowler Michael Vick. Though Kevin Kolb, the team's top pick in 2007, has become something of a whipping boy for McNabb defenders, that's no more rational than the other side of the coin, the "McNabb's the root of all evil'' camp. Late in the Jacksonville preseason game, and again against the Jets, Kolb shook off the rust and showed the aplomb that made him an attractive prospect.
Running Back - Step Ahead
2008: Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter, Lorenzo Booker, Kyle Eckel.
2009: Westbrook, LeSean McCoy, Eldra Buckley.
We're making the very hazardous assumption that Brian Westbrook is going to be healthier this year than he was last season, when Westbrook posted a 4.0 yards-per-carry average, his lowest since 2005. His 54 receptions for 402 yards were his lowest totals since 2003, when B-West was splitting time with Duce Staley. But if the knee and ankle cleanouts really worked, and Westbrook really is sound at age 30, the Eagles have a potentially more dynamic complement for him than they've fielded since Staley left — rookie LeSean McCoy. Fullback Leonard Weaver also can run the ball, and Eldra Buckley looks like a competent backup who can gain a tough yard — though the equipment guys really set the bar high for Buckley when they gave him Reno Mahe's No. 34 jersey.
Fullback - Step Ahead
2008: Dan Klecko, Tony Hunt, Kyle Eckel.
2009: Leonard Weaver.
Because this year, they actually have one.
Tight End - Same
2008: L.J. Smith, Brent Celek, Matt Schobel.
2009: Celek, Alex Smith.
If Brent Celek didn't seem really focused on proving himself, this would be a "step backward'' grade. The Eagles went into the offseason bidding farewell to L.J. Smith and knowing this position was a huge priority. They congratulated themselves for nabbing an amazing athlete, Cornelius Ingram, in the fifth round of the draft, then had no Plan B when Ingram tore his ACL again. Compounding the oversight, NFL sources told the Daily News that other teams thought there might be a problem with Ingram's initial repair and didn't select him for that reason. Now, if something happens to Celek, tight end can be this year's version of the 2008 fullback follies, or the 2007 punt-return puzzler.
Offensive Line - Same
2008: Tra Thomas, Todd Herremans, Jamaal Jackson, Nick Cole, Jon Runyan, Max Jean-Gilles, Winston Justice, Chris Patrick, Mike McGlynn, Shawn Andrews.
2009: Jason Peters, Herremans, Jackson, Stacy Andrews, Shawn Andrews, Cole, Jean-Gilles, Justice, McGlynn, King Dunlap.
This ought to be a big "step ahead" grade, and maybe by midseason it will be. But there is no way, with all the setbacks this group encountered in training camp, to be sure right now that it's all going to come together. Athletically, Shawn Andrews is a big upgrade over Jon Runyan at right tackle. But you knew Big Jon was going to be there, every week. Don't know that about Shawn. Likewise, Jason Peters is stronger and quicker than Tra Thomas, at this point in Tra's career. But Tra never had any trouble with Donovan McNabb's cadence, and in recent years his conditioning was impeccable. Peters seems to be struggling in both areas. Stacy Andrews is a clear upgrade over Nick Cole at right guard, but Cole will be starting on the left, at least for the first few weeks, where he is a step down from injured Todd Herremans.
Wide Receivers - Step Ahead
2008: Kevin Curtis, DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant, Reggie Brown, Hank Baskett, Greg Lewis.
2009: Curtis, Jackson, Avant, Brown, Baskett, Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Gibson.
DeSean Jackson might be the Eagles' most lethal weapon; far from showing signs of a sophomore slump, he seems driven to improve on his excellent rookie numbers. Jeremy Maclin ought to make an impact as a rookie. Not sure what's up with Kevin Curtis, but Jason Avant is as steady a slot guy as there is in the league, and Hank Baskett provides good depth. This is the deepest the Andy Reid Era Eagles have been at wideout.
Defensive Line - Same
2008: Trent Cole, Brodrick Bunkley, Mike Patterson, Dan Klecko, Trevor Laws, Darren Howard, Juqua Parker, Victor Abiamiri, Chris Clemons, Bryan Smith.
2009: Cole, Bunkley, Patterson, Laws, Howard, Parker, Abiamiri, Clemons, Jason Babin, Antonio Dixon.
The quest for a defensive-end complement to Trent Cole continues, no long-term relief in sight, just a combination of role guys. Darren Howard's preseason groin troubles are alarming — he led the team with 10 sacks last season, despite never starting a game, which is quite a trick. Howard was the Birds' interior pass rush, as he usually lined up at tackle despite being listed as an end. The tackles do play the run well, but not having injured middle linebacker Stewart Bradley behind them is going to be a problem. Wouldn't be a shocker if Chris Clemons ended up getting most of those snaps opposite Cole. A healthy Victor Abiamiri might add some muscle to the grouping.
Linebackers - Step Back
2008: Chris Gocong, Stewart Bradley, Akeem Jordan, Omar Gaither, Tank Daniels, Tracy White, Joe Mays.
2009: Gocong, Jordan, Gaither, White, Mays, Moise Fokou.
Make that, step way back. Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley was the fulcrum, the guy who made Chris Gocong and Akeem Jordan more than marginal starters. As the opener approached, the Eagles still were sliding and shifting. If Sean McDermott really wanted to start Omar Gaither again, he would have named Gaither to the spot right away. Instead, Gaither seems to have won the job by default. Without Bradley, Gocong and Jordan will have to step way up. Maybe rookie Moise Fokou can help somewhere? More moves still possible here as the season progresses.
Defensive Backs - Same
2008: Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard, Joselio Hanson, Quintin Mikell, Quintin Demps, Brian Dawkins, Sean Considine.
2009: Samuel, Brown, Ellis Hobbs, Hanson, Dimitri Patterson, Mikell, Demps, Sean Jones, Macho Harris.
You've replaced Lito Sheppard with Ellis Hobbs, which is a gain, given Lito's level of play last season, but you've subtracted Brian Dawkins and replaced him with some sort of Macho Harris-Quintin Demps-Sean Jones combo, with rookie Harris coming out of the preseason as the starter. (The absence of Dawk's leadership is made even more profound by the loss of Stewart Bradley to injury, though that's not a defensive-backfield observation, in the strictest sense.) I think Quintin Mikell will blossom as a spokesman and a leader. Excellent depth here.
Special Teams - Step Ahead
2008: Sav Rocca, Jon Dorenbos, David Akers, DeSean Jackson, Quintin Demps.
2009: Rocca, Dorenbos, Akers, Jackson, Ellis Hobbs, Jeremy Maclin.
A little more training-camp competition might have been in order for punter Sav Rocca, after he marred a strong first half by struggling with cold-weather punting down the stretch. Similarly, kicker David Akers soured a strong comeback year with a terrible NFC Championship Game performance. Akers still ought to still land near the top of the NFC heap. Rocca will settle around the middle, as usual. The Eagles ought to have a strong return game this year, with Ellis Hobbs and Jeremy Maclin added to the mix. Coverage ought to be more consistent, under experienced new special-teams coordinator Ted Daisher. Many of the mixups in the preseason were from units of deep subs who didn't make the team.
Coaching Staff - Step Back
2008: Andy Reid, Marty Mornhinweg, Jim Johnson, Rory Segrest, Juan Castillo, David Culley, Pete Jenkins, Sean McDermott, Tom Melvin, Jeff Nixon, Bill Shuey, Pat Shurmur, James Urban, Ted Williams, Mike Wolf, Otis Smith, Mark Whipple, Mike Caldwell, Jay Merlino, Barry Rubin.
2009: Reid, Mornhinweg, McDermott, Ted Daisher, Segrest, Castillo, Culley, Melvin, Doug Pederson, Brian Stewart, Urban, Shuey, Nixon, Williams, Wolf, Caldwell, Merlino, Rubin, Michael Zordich.
Sean McDermott might be a prodigy, but there is no way, for the 2009 season, the Eagles wouldn't have been better off with the late Jim Johnson in charge of their defense. McDermott also presides over an inexperienced staff. Pete Jenkins, who retired after last season, really helped the d-line. Rory Segrest takes Jenkins' job off an uneven tenure with special teams. Former quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur's move to become the offensive coordinator in St. Louis also hurts the group. Not sure Brian Stewart's work as the defensive coordinator in Dallas makes him an obvious upgrade over McDermott, working with the d-backs. Otis Smith's unexplained springtime departure was especially puzzling, given the lack of experience on the defensive side.