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Year One, A.D.: After Donovan

Forgive me for swiping the Philadelphia Daily News headline, but honestly, that's exactly what this upcoming NFL season is for Philadelphia and the die-hard Eagles fans. For the first time since 1998, Donovan McNabb won't be reporting to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, for training camp, won't be under center or manning the huddle for the Eagles, won't be attached at the hip to Andy Reid.

I can go on and on and on about how much I hated the trade, especially to division rival Washington, and how much Donovan McNabb has accomplished and meant to the Philadelphia Eagles franchise. I have been and always will be a McNabb guy. I own only two Eagles jerseys — a No. 5 Donovan McNabb and No. 99 Jerome Brown. I loved watching him take a moribund franchise and turning it into a perennial contender, even if the team always came up just a little bit too short. I appreciate everything he's done here, and always will. But this isn't about Donovan McNabb. Not anymore, for better or worse.

Now the reigns belong to Kevin Kolb and a young core looking to establish its own identity. And frankly, it's the most excited I've been, the most excited the city has been about this team since Terrell Owens came strutting into town and the Eagles made it all the way to the Super Bowl. It's a different kind of excited, a different kind of anticipation. With McNabb — and Brian Westbrook and Brian Dawkins and Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard, Tra Thomas, Jon Runyan (all guys long gone) — every year started out exactly the same. The Eagles were always contenders for at worst the NFC East, at best the Super Bowl, playoffs damn near a lock. And every year, you just knew they'd find a way to tear out your heart. It was like clockwork — each summer the team would report with high expectations, often fulfill them during the regular season and then fizzle. We knew what to expect.

This year? No one knows. Can Kevin Kolb fill the considerable shoes left by Donovan McNabb? Can the offensive line hold up for what equates to a rookie starter? Can the secondary play at all? And the entire defense for that matter? We don't know. It's all new. Everything. And that's exciting. For the first time in forever, we have absolutely no idea what to expect from the Philadelphia Eagles. At all. They could easily fall to the cellar of the division, or surprise everyone with a playoff berth. Personally, I'd guess this is an 8-8 team at best … but I really have no clue.

Really, there are only a few certains heading into the season. No. 1, DeSean Jackson is a flat-out stud, a star in the making if he isn't one already. No need to worry about him, and more than likely, no need to worry about the wide receiver position. Jeremy Maclin showed a lot of promise as a rookie once he started seeing the field, and he looks to have all the tools to be a perfect complement to Jackson. Jason Avant is everything you want in a slot, possession receiver, easily the best hands on the team and most reliable over the middle. And with guys like rookie Riley Cooper and Hank Baskett providing size while competing for the fourth wideout spot, things look good there.

No. 2, Brent Celek is the real deal. The man was a beast last season, emerging truly as one of the best tight ends in football. His blocking improved greatly, and he showed he can be every bit the load to cover and tackle as Jason Witten is in Dallas. He didn't make the Pro Bowl in 2009 (he should have), but with his buddy now controlling where the football goes, expect an even greater season from Celek in 2010.

No. 3, Trent Cole is a beast. I was of the thought that when he first got here, Trent Cole was never going to be anything special. Sure, he could rush the passer on obvious passing downs, but he was too small to play against the run and nothing more than a speed rusher. I was dead wrong. Each and every season, Cole gets better and better and better. He was unquestionably the team's best defensive player in 2009, and he just keeps getting better — sacks, deflections, tackles, you name it. He can now play the run and pass equally well, fighting double teams regularly and still wreaking havoc. Trent Cole gets praise, but he still might be underrated.

No. 4, Asante Samuel will get his. As in interceptions, but there's no doubt he must improve his tackling and leadership. With Sheldon Brown — the emotional leader and most reliable tackler from a season ago — now in Cleveland, it's up to Samuel to prove he can do more than just gamble on the ball and get picks. He has to improved his tackling, be smarter on his decisions for when to go and not go for the pick, and help take the lead on coverage assignments. It remains to be seen whether or not he can do all of those things.

Beyond that, there are way more questions than answers. How will they use Michael Vick in year two? How will Kolb perform finally being the man? Will the Eagles run the ball more, especially with the talented 2nd-year back LeSean McCoy, Pro Bowler Leonard Weaver at fullback and Super Bowl champion Mike Bell brought in as well?

Will Cornelius Ingram be healthy and able to contribute, giving Kolb yet another weapon? What the hell can we expect from the offensive line? Stacy Andrews was so awful last year after recovering from offseason surgery that he basically lost his job to Nick Cole and Max Jean-Gilles. Can he be effective this year as the starting right guard, and if not, is Jean-Gilles in good enough shape to finally take over full time? Can Jason Peters be better than he was last season, especially with the task of protecting unproven Kevin Kolb's blind side, a much more arduous task than protecting the mobile McNabb? Sure, Peters made the Pro Bowl, but ask any Eagles fan if he really deserved it and they'd say no. He has to be better, especially pass-blocking.

What about Nick Cole at center? A versatile, valuable career backup, can he really be the man at center, considering he's mostly played guard in his career? Will Jamal Jackson recover and contribute at all this season? And what of Winston Justice? Was last year a fluke, or him finally coming in to his own as the high draft choice who's becoming the player the Eagles expected him to be? Lots of questions on that offensive line, which is never a good thing, especially considering the inexperience under center.

Not that the defense is any better. With the passing a the late, great Jim Johnson, the Eagles struggled mightily under first-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. The team generated no pressure, the blitzes that worked so well under Johnson failed miserably under McDermott, and the tackling was beyond atrocious.
Can McDermott learn from his mistakes and get these guys to turn things around?

How will the Eagles use their 8,000 defensive ends? We know what we'll get from Trent Cole, but what about everyone else? Brandon Graham still isn't signed, but you have think he'll get the chance to see the field quite often if he gets into camp quickly. But then there's still Darryl Tapp, Juqua Parker, Victor Abiamiri and two other rookies that Eagles drafted this year, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Ricky Sapp. One or two, hell maybe even three of those guys aren't going to be on this roster come September. How does that all shake out, and how do the Eagles rotate everyone in with Mike Patterson and Broderick Bunkley? Oh, and is this the end of the line for first-round flop Trevor Laws, taken before the Birds selected DeSean in the 2nd? He's seemed to have lost out to Antonio Dixon.

Then there's the linebackers. Can Stewart Bradley return to form after missing the entire 2009 season? Can Ernie Sims fulfill his potential that he never quite could in Detroit? Who sees the most time at the other linebacker spot — Moise Fokou, Omar Gaither, Akeem Jordan … or rookie Keenan Clayton or Jamar Chaney? No diea. However, I certainly like going into the year with Bradley, Sims and most like Fokou over the debacle that was last season.

And then there's the secondary, probably the biggest question of all defensively. Who starts opposite Asante? The candidates are an Ellis Hobbs coming off a neck injury, undersized Joselio Hanson and second-year defensive back Macho Victor Harris, who flopped mightily at free safety as a rookie. Marlin Jackson is already done for the year, so he's out of the equation. After that, there's Dimitri Patterson, who fits the Joselio Hanson mold, and rookie Trevard Lindley. Can any of those guys come even close to making up for the loss of Sheldon Brown?

Of course, that still leaves the question of safety. Last season, playing for the first time without Brian Dawkins at his side, Quintin Mikell struggled. Mightily. Everyone was sort of looking to Mikell to take over the leadership duties and coverage assignment duties that Dawkins left behind. He didn't. The Eagles blew more coverages last season than they had arguably in the past 10 years, and Mikell was often in the middle of it. His tackling regressed, and he regressed. Can he step it up and become the player he was prior to last season? And even more importantly, can rookie Nate Allen do what no one else could last season, try to fill Dawk's shoes? If not, can Quintin Demps step in, stay healthy and contribute there? Like I said more questions than answers.

This isn't the Eagles we've all grown accustomed to over the past decade, and that's abundantly clear when you look at three areas in particular. In the Andy Reid era, the Eagles have three constants — the offensive line, the quarterback and the secondary. Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan were mainstays at the bookends, giving the Eagles tremendous tackles every year and stabilizing an offensive line that was always one of the best every year. You always knew you could count on them keeping McNabb clean. Now, the offensive line is a gigantic question mark, and the man under center has changed. Donovan McNabb, for all his naysayers, has had one of the best careers ever at quarterback. He was smart, took care of the ball and won games. Lots of them.

Now he's gone, and the ball is in an inexperienced man's hands, a player who has a lot of promise but not a guy we know will lead this team to the playoffs regularly. And the secondary was never a question under Jim Johnson. Ever. Which allowed him to dial up all those blitzes without fear. First with Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent, then with Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, always with Brian Dawkins, the secondary was routinely as good as any in the NFL. Now, it starts out as a weakness, the biggest question mark of all defensively. This isn't the Eagles we've all grown accustomed to.

The familiar faces are gone, the most glaring being under center. It's Year 1 A.D., and no one knows what to expect. And frankly, I can't wait to find out.

-The Rev
P.S. As a reminder, checkout the livest sports talk (and hopefully on the radio soon) show around, "The Unsportsmanlike Conduct Show" as we are live Wednesday's at 9pm Eastern at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/edthesportsfan! Download our podcasts if you missed the live show as well!


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