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What About the Offensive Line?

May 2, 2011, 12:21 PM EDT

The Eagles’ problems on defense are well documented. They have a new defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo. The unit he takes over gave up a franchise record 31 touchdown passes last season, while sporting a historically pathetic 78% conversion rate inside the red zone. We did  a whole series on what they need to do to fix this thing.

So,  naturally, the first question we got after Monday’s draft preview on  cornerbacks was, “Hey, what about offensive line?”

When we talk about fixing the offensive line, we’re really only talking about a couple of guys. It’s not like the Eagles have to somehow recruit five new offensive linemen this year. In fact, the left side, formed by Jason Peters and Todd Herremans, is actually one of the better duos in the NFL.

Peters was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl last season and  second with the Eagles. While many people felt the honor was a sham in ’09, based on reputation and not actual performance, that  argument hasn’t been heard much this time around. He was a little slow  out of the gate, but after undergoing mid-season knee surgery, he was superb. When on his game, Peters is a lockdown player in man-to-man  situations, and an absolute beast in the running game, especially when he gets to make blocks at the second  level.

Like Peters, the other half of the Eagles’ formidable left  side was recognized for an excellent season as well, with Herremans being named the first alternate at guard in the Pro  Bowl. Those read option runs where Vick hands the ball to McCoy out of  the shotgun have been very successful, and it is typically Herremans making the key block whenever Shady scampers into the end zone. He doubles as a solid pass protector, and has the versatility to slide over to tackle in a jam.

While you’re not likely to see any changes to that configuration for several years because it’s actually working, you probably won’t see a new man in the middle, only for a different set of reasons. With much more glaring needs to fill, the Eagles may simply anticipate the return of Jamaal Jackson, who missed all of last season with a torn bicep muscle. If he returns to the lineup healthy, that should be an immediate improvement over Mike McGlynn, aka Plan B.

Probably the highest complement we can pay  McGlynn is he was capable last season; not great, but not actively bad either. He  doesn’t get a ton of push and occasionally gets driven into the  backfield by defenders, but he generally holds the line. He hasn’t built a case to steal anybody’s job, but if something happens and Jackson has a season-ending injury for a third consecutive year, or can’t go for another reason, McGlynn is an adequate fallback option.

And speaking from a purely historical standpoint, the Eagles under Andy Reid have never looked for centers early in the draft, and only once in awhile do those prospects start to come off the board in the first round anyway.

As we continue right down the line, this is where things start getting dicey. Comprised of Max Jean-Gilles, one in a long, not-so-distinguished line of Eagles who have manned the right guard position over the last three years, and former second round pick/one-time heir apparent Winston Justice, the right side could be due for an upgrade at either spot during tomorrow night’s round one.

MJG surprisingly brought some stability to the scene last season, and perhaps he made a case to fight for the job. After all, he was noticably better in 2010 after off-season lap-band surgery reduced his weight.  Either way, at this point guard looks like more of a second round-or-later need. For one thing, there aren’t a ton of interior linemen pegged as certain first rounders, with only Florida’s Mike Pouncey (6-5,303, and yes, the Steeler’s brother) a sure thing—and he should be off the board before 23. The rest of the bunch are probably available a little later on.

Much more prevalent is right tackle, which is now also responsible for covering the left-handed quarterback’s blindisde by the way. Justice had a much more difficult time in a sort of reversed role with Mike Vick at the helm. Part of that may have been due to a knee injury that finally caused the him to miss games toward the end of the season. You can only polish his campaign so much though, and he was not as solid compared to the previous year. His woes were such that some defenses began flipping their defensive ends to take advantage of the matchup.

A lot of people thought it was interesting Reid would announce Justice would compete for his job with King Dunlap. A couple weeks before the draft, you take that with a grain of salt. Justice regressed last season, but Dunlap didn’t exactly light the world on fire in his own relief appearances. Anybody still listening should view the head coach’s comments as a possible smokescreen, because at least on the surface, simply holding a position battle between two current members of the roster is not enough.

Who the top prospects in the draft are seem to variy depending where you look. There’s no concensus number one guy, and most mocks don’t have the first tackle off the board until the Cowboys choose ninth, at the earliest. That means the Eagles could have their shot at any of a number of players: USC’s Tyron Smith (6-5, 307), BC’s Anthony Castonzo (6-7, 311), Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi (6-7, 314), Colorado’s Nate Solder (6-8, 319), and Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod (6-5, 321). Of the five, the kid most commonly associated with Philadelphia based on their availability at 23 has been Carimi, despite some beliefs the club may have indicated they will pass on O-line in round one.

Ol_top5The front office won’t find much help in free agency either, whenever it opens. Most premiere players have been franchised or will have restricted rights, and much of the remainder of that “top tier” doesn’t look worlds better than what they already have. In a perfect world, the Birds could sign Logan Mankins and watch their unit instantly transform from porous to elite, but the Patriots wisely franchise tagged the All-Pro. Tyson Clabo would be a welcome addition at right tackle, if Atlanta somehow allows him to skip town.

Wouldn’t count on that though. The fact is, while the hole at cornerback may be the more pressing need, the Eagles are more likely to find an alternative way to plug the hole. If the Birds don’t draft a right tackle in the first round however, it really may come down to a camp battle between Justice and Dunlap. We’re not sure there are any winners in that scenario.

AP Photo