Since his arrival as Eagles General Manager in 2010, one thing was clear when it came to the building process implemented by Howie Roseman. He believed Football is won and lost in the trenches. As we stand on the brink of a 2017 season where the Eagles are locked and loaded once again on the offensive front, it’s easy to forget the way in which that line was built from the ground up…and how it very almost imploded beyond repair.
When Chip Kelly signed as the new Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he inherited a 4-12 team. Talent aside, the unit had failed to make any kind of progress under Andy Reid in the previous season…but one thing that carried over was the abundance of strength on the offensive line. While all the headlines that year focused on the explosive Chip Kelly Offense, the astonishing 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio of Nick Foles, and LeSean McCoy’s rushing title, the real diamonds on that roster were along the offensive front.
The team started all five of the same offensive linemen in each regular season game that year and even in the team’s lone playoff matchup. A total of 98.3% of offensive snaps saw the same group of linemen on the field, paving the way for McCoy’s north-west dominance and plenty of time for Nick Foles to make his mark. What’s even more impressive, is that Jason Peters, Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce, Matt Tobin, and Allen Barbre are still on that roster today.
It seemed like everything was coming together for the Eagles offensively…until the next season. With Evan Mathis injured and Lane Johnson suspended for the first time, the line didn’t enter the season on hind legs. Depth was at a minimum and it showed from the first snap of the year. That depth would be tested as the season progressed, surely acting as a sign that the team need to add some bodies during the offseason.
Jason Kelce would suffer a sports hernia in week 3…with Jason Peters ejected in the latter stages of that game. Interestingly, it would be Andrew Gardner who lined up against a certain Redskins pass rusher, Ryan Kerrigan, who then plagued the debut of Halapoulivaati Vaitai five years later.
As the team entered week 4, they had two players making their first career starts in Matt Tobin and backup center, David Molk, while Dennis Kelly was moved to right guard for the first time and Todd Herremans resumed previous duty at left tackle. The Eagles would lose that game against San Francisco, 26-21…but that doesn’t tell the whole story. LeSean McCoy rushed for a shockingly low 17 yards, with the team gaining a single rushing first down all game. Nick Foles passed for 195 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The signs were crystal clear. A hot start came to an abrupt halt…and although the team finished with a 10-6 record, the pace of Kelly’s offense proved too much without the athleticism of vital cogs on the offensive line at times.
Mathis, Kelce, and Allen Barbre all suffered huge drops in playing time that season, and after the team elected to hand power over to Chip Kelly, it was assumed that they would bolster the line with talent following a year without doing so. Fans would be left puzzled however, as for the second time in a row, the team failed to draft an offensive lineman, much to the disgruntlement of a recently displaced Howie Roseman.
What was once one of the most intimidating offensive lines in the league had began falling apart from within. The starters looked as poised as ever, but with injury and an average age of 30 creeping up on them, it was clear that there was no contingency plan in place. For Roseman, shades of a 2011 season were beginning to unfold.
In the 2010 offseason, the Eagles used nine picks on players on the other side of the ball, refusing to draft a single lineman. The infamous Danny Watkins draft that followed would haunt the Eagles for years to come, again shaping the future direction of the team. But it was Jason Kelce that year who would make the biggest impact.
Fast forward back to the present day and Chip Kelly was coming under scrutiny. Jason Peters was known to be battling a degenerative injury, Jason Kelce endured plantar fasciitis, and the linemen were known to be anything but fans of the speed and intensity Kelly demanded both on and off the field for a position craving stability.
Sam Bradford would be sacked 37 times that season and despite a gross misuse of DeMarco Murray, the backfield never really got going either. The less said about the year in which the wheels came off the Wagon, the better…but it’s safe to say that after Kelly was flung out of the NovaCare Complex and Roseman returned to power…he knew what had to change.
It didn’t take long for Howie to re-assert his fingerprint on the team either. With intentions of finding a franchise quarterback becoming ever clearer, Roseman began to bolster the front that would keep him upright. Having seen enough of the likes of Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis cast aside, Roseman not only penned Lane Johnson to a long-term extension, but bought in a new long-term option at right guard in former Texan, Brandon Brooks. Stefen Wisniewski was bought in as a versatile backup to Jason Kelce, and after drafting Wentz, Roseman selected Isaac Seumalo and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. All of a sudden, the Eagles had an offensive line again. Not just one of strength, but one of depth without staggering numbers of backups.
The secret ingredient was versatility. As opposed to drafting and signing 5-6 guys who would have to be dissipated throughout the practice squad or struggle to see snaps, Roseman took it upon himself to re-focus on athleticism and versatility. Meaning guys can contribute at more than one position, opening more optionality and leverage come the start of the season.
The best example of a “Roseman lineman” would be Stefen Wisniewski. The former Raiders lineman would go on to play in 54% of the team’s offensive snaps, proving to be instrumental in the success and continuity of the line, playing at every interior spot. One year later, Wis would sign a three-year extension with the team..but his true role still remains a mystery. Is he a backup to Jason Kelce, or a competitor for the starting spot at left guard? We will find out soon enough, but it’s that kind of mentality Roseman wanted.
Having learned from the days of Danny Watkins, Roseman turned to the heart of the draft and beyond. After a 2016 season which showed just how crucial depth along the offensive front was, with Seumalo and Vaitai both having big roles to play, an infusion of youth was followed with a strong class of UDFA’s and free agents on prove-it deals.
A former first round pick and pupil of Jeff Stoutland, Chance Warmack, was signed by the team this past offseason with the intent of heightening the competition at left guard. With Barbre and Seumalo his main rivals when it comes to earning that spot, it will be interesting to see whether or not Warmack can rekindle a fire that burned out after entering the NFL…providing the Eagles with a low-risk, high-reward talent. Spending high on new faces along the trenches just doesn’t fit the Eagles new persona. Earning that loyalty and continuity as they did before the arrival of Chip Kelly seems to be the motive, and so far, it’s working perfectly.
Once the roster purge had begun to chase out the remnants of an aging line under Chip Kelly, it would once again fall on Howie Roseman to rebuild it. Having seen his Castle collapse under the rigors of NFL pass rushes and Chip Kelly only aid that siege, Roseman’s vision along the line was more important than ever.
If we’re to now look at all of the offensive linemen currently on the Eagles roster, it’s stunning to see just how talented it really is. In fact, the second unit could start in the NFL without much in the way of doubting ability or potential. The starting LG is still widely up for debate, but if we even assume Barbre is to keep his current spot, the Eagles would have two young talents on the second units who can be plugged in at either position at a moments notice.
After building one of the finest units in the NFL only to see it teeter on the edge of destruction, it’s safe to say Howie Roseman has pushed the Eagles back in the right direction when it comes to the offensive front….but now the question is, can they perform to the level as they did in the team’s last 10-6 run under Andy Reid? Can the new outside playmakers and quarterback Carson Wentz reap the rewards that such a strong unit can provide? 2017 will be an extremely exciting year for the Philadelphia Eagles, but if, like 2013 they set the league alight and turn heads…don’t forget that it all starts in the trenches.