It was bound to happen sooner or later, but the lack of attention to the offensive line finally caught up with the Eagles in 2015. A 34-year-old Jason Peters, the line's anchor, battled injuries and age-related decline all season. The unit's depth was further stressed by the releases of guards Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis. Lane Johnson bounced back and forth between left and right tackle while center Jason Kelce tried to hold it together despite playing in between a journeyman and a first-time starter.
The sort of collapse the O-line experienced wasn't at all surprising given the Eagles hadn't used a draft pick on the position since taking Johnson fourth overall in 2013. That was 22 consecutive rounds until the front office broke that streak in the third this year, selecting Isaac Seumalo, and then another in the fifth. Nor had the Eagles added an experienced free agent to the group since Mathis in '12, another trend broken this offseason by the signings of Brandon Brooks and Stefan Wisniewski.
Spoiler alert: this is a better group. It would seem already there's far more talent in the mix, not to mention getting away from a constant uptempo offense should allow for more productive play. The real question is how could it get any worse?
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The Eagles replaced one guard for sure. Brooks takes over for Matt Tobin on the right side, who often looked completely overmatched. The job actually belonged to Andrew Gardner, who was at least adequate prior to suffering a season-ending injury in Week 3, but Brooks is a huge upgrade — literally and figuratively. At 6'5", 335 pounds, he's a massive man, and the fifth-year veteran was beginning to show Pro Bowl potential as a member of the Houston Texans. Installed between Johnson and Kelce, Brooks could take his game to the next level here.
The left side is still open to competition, which isn't a bad thing. Barbre was far from the Eagles' most noticeable problem up front, but can be upgraded. Wisniewski hasn't lined up at guard in years, but has played a quality center, and the former second-round pick makes for excellent depth at the very least. Seumalo could get a shot right away as well, although the Oregon State product is a little behind the curve after missing several weeks of OTAs.
The feeling is Wisniewski is the favorite. Regardless of who comes out on top though, the guard position has been improved immensely.
This always feels like a cop out, but there's almost no way the offensive line could take another step back. Even the worst case scenario isn't as scary as it was last season.
In 2015, if/when Peters got hurt, Johnson would go over to the left and replacing him on the right would be Dennis Kelly. Kelly remains, but this year, the Eagles at least have options. Brooks also dabbled at right tackle for the Texans and in fact may replace Johnson there when he takes over for Peters permanently. Given all the additions at guard, such a move wouldn't cripple the interior. A fifth-round pick was also used on Halapoulivaati Vaitai, so there's even competition on the outside. Everything about the line screams better.
But is that good or bad? Two years ago, Jason Kelce was a Pro Bowler, perhaps even the best center in the league. Last season, he was poop. Which Kelce are the Eagles getting in 2016?
Perhaps this should've been filed under the unknown. The good news is we can make excuses for Kelce's performance. Having below average line-mates to either side of him certainly didn't help, nor did a lingering mid-season knee injury. Plus, if we're being honest, it's not like he was the only member of the unit to struggle. Kelce is only 28, and while critics call him undersized, he's played at a high level in the past. As long as the sixth-year veteran is healthy and the issues around him are corrected, he'll be fine.
Whether the Eagles' offensive line is going to be merely acceptable or restored to one of the top units in the NFL depends largely on whether Peters can rebound from a rough season. Nobody expects him to return all the way to the form that made him one of the most dominant players in the league, but even 75 percent of that is still better than probably 90 percent of left tackles.
It's not unreasonable to think Peters can continue to be serviceable. Yes, evidence of decline dates back two seasons now, but much of his issues in 2015 can be traced back to the numerous injuries he battled through. The uptempo offense did him no favors at his age either, and the change to a more traditional pace could prolong his career. How good can Peters be at this stage? It's tough to say, and there's a chance 13 seasons of pro football have finally caught up to him. Then again, I wouldn't leave the eight-time Pro Bowler for dead just yet.
BETTER OR WORSE?
We essentially answered this at the top and challenge anybody to disagree. The talent is upgraded. The scheme is friendlier — they have snap counts now! When the Eagles went from 4-12 in 2012 to 10-6 and division champions in 2013, it was on the strength of an offensive line that both fixed its weaknesses and finally got healthy. In 2016, the group is improved, now they need to get a little lucky on the injury front. If that happens, don't be surprised when the team makes a similar jump. BETTER