5 Burning Questions For The Philadelphia Eagles

Patrick WallCorrespondent IMay 2, 2008

It's time to get to work.

The spending frenzy that is free agency has ended. The NFL Draft has come and gone. For players and coaches across the league, it's time to get down to business.

Each of the 32 starts the first of many mini camps in the next week. These camps give coaches (and fans) a glimpse of how each team will look next season.

Like all teams, the Eagles have important questions they need answered. Here are my top five burning questions for the 2008 Philadelphia Eagles:

#5: Can Donovan McNabb - and the team as a whole - stay healthy enough to make a run in 2008?

For a lesson in what injuries can do to a team, look no further than the story of the 2005 Philadelphia Eagles. After losing to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl the previous season, the Eagles hoped to punch their ticket to The Big Dance again.

These plans would be thwarted by a force bigger and meaner than T.O. could ever be - the injury bug.

Seven starters were lost for the year, and the team hobbled to a 6-10 record. The following season, McNabb went down Week 11. In his place, journeyman quarterback Jeff Garcia led the team to a 10-6 record and a playoff win before falling to the New Orleans Saints.

Following his shaky 2007 campaign, many wondered if McNabb (and the Eagles as a whole) could stay healthy enough to make a legitimate run at the Super Bowl.

This concern could shape up to be the biggest factor in the team's success in 2008. Brian Westbrook has never played a full season. Cornerback Lito Sheppard, who is a difference maker when healthy (more on Sheppard later), has not played a full season since 2003.

And McNabb? Well, this is the first offseason in recent memory that he is not recovering from an injury.

The Eagles need their playmakers to stay healthy if they want to compete in the improving NFC in 2008.

#4: What will be the fate of Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard?

In the weeks leading up to the Draft, many around the league thought it was more likely for the Dolphins to win the Super Bowl in 2008 than for Lito Sheppard to remain an Eagle after Draft Weekend. Well, Sheppard is still on the team, and it seems like it is going to stay that way.

Three teams were believed to be interested in Sheppard's services: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and St. Louis. All three teams drafted cornerbacks; two with a first day pick.

The team now believed to be most interested in acquiring Sheppard is Jacksonville. The Jaguars are building their team for a run, and would likely jump at the chance to acquire Sheppard.

Lamont Smith, Sheppard's agent, was believed to be shopping his client to the Jaguars in exchange for a package of draft picks for 2009. However, the situation doesn't seem to be so clear cut.

Sources deny that Smith ever spoke to the Jaguars about Sheppard, and both the Eagles and Jaguars have denied discussing anything regarding a trade.

Sheppard's unhappiness in Philadelphia started with a contract dispute, and escalated over the course of the offseason. The signing of superstar free agent Asante Samuel appeared to seal Sheppard's fate with the Eagles. According to sources, Sheppard's relationship with head coach Andy Reid has become strained in recent weeks.

When asked about Sheppard's status with the team, Reid said, "As I sit here right now, Lito is an Eagle. That's how it is, just like every other guy on this football team."

Veteran safety Brian Dawkins has expressed disappointment with the situation, saying, "It's a tough situation to be in, and this is somebody I'm close to and I consider a close friend. I don't like it for him. Whatever happens, I hope it works out best for Lito. I hate that this is happening to him."

For the time being, evidence suggests that Sheppard will stay an Eagle for the 2008 season. Beyond that is anyone's guess. Reid did say that he would speak to Sheppard before the team begins its first mini camps this weekend.

#3: Are the Eagles too old at too many key positions?

Of the players on the Eagles 2004 Super Bowl team, only 9 starters from the year are currently on the team. Despite this, the Eagles have managed to stay competitive while bringing in an influx of new players.

The starters that remain on the team hold key positions. McNabb and Westbrook are the team's two major weapons. Tra Thomas, Jon Runyan, and Shawn Andrews make up one of the stronger offensive lines in the NFL. Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown, and Brian Dawkins have been a dominant secondary trio for years. David Akers is the most successful kicker in franchise history.

However, nearly all of these players are near or over the age of thirty. Runyan and Thomas are 34, and are entering the last years of their contracts in 2008. Dawkins appeared to have lost a step in 2007, although he has said that the premature birth of his twins was partially responsible.

In order for the Eagles to continue to have success, these players will need to step up and play at a level that the Eagles expect. After all, production level of these players is a large reason for their tenures in Philadelphia being as long as they have been.

#2: Can the Eagles win with the corps of wide receivers they currently have?

There is little doubt that the Eagles would benefit from the addition of a top-flight wide receiver. In fact, many Philadelphia faithful believed this would be the year the Eagles would find one.

The Eagles attempted to sign then-Patriots receiver Randy Moss in March, and made a highly publicized run at Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald.

Fans fondly recall the 2004 season as one that enjoyed an offense brought alive by McNabb and Terrell Owens. The production of Owens' 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns has not been replicated by any wideout since his dramatic exit from the team in 2005.

With the 49th overall pick in the draft, the Eagles selected Cal's electrifying wide receiver and return man DeSean Jackson. At 6'0, 178 lbs, Jackson is not exactly the big, strong receiver most fans were hoping for.

Still, his electrifying speed will no doubt revitalize a lacking special teams unit that suffered in 2007.

The possibility of adding a free agent receiver via trade seems unlikely at this point. The Bengal's Chad Johnson and Arizona's Anquan Boldin have publicly asked for trades, but both organizations have said they have no intentions on trading their respective players.

The Eagles are already crowded at the wide receiver position. In addition to Reggie Brown and 2007 free agent Kevin Curtis, the Eagles also have youth at the position with players like Jason Avant and Hank Baskett.

For now, the Eagles will have to settle for the players they have. The starting lineup does not figure to change in 2008. Curtis will have another year in the system, and Brown is expected to be more consistent.

Rookie wide receivers tend to play a lesser role in Reid's offense, so Jackson will likely be regulated to special teams next season.

#1: Can the Eagles compete in the extremely competitive NFC East?

The 2001 through 2005 seasons were good years to be a Philadelphia Eagles fan. The team finished with at least 12 wins each season, and went to the Super Bowl in 2004.

During that time, the Cowboys, Giants, and Redskins were mired in mediocrity. Now, memories of an inferior NFC East seem like a distant memory.

In the past three seasons, the Eagles have failed to make the playoffs twice.

Each team brought in a new head coach (or two, in the Cowboys' and Redskins' case) since Andy Reid was hired from Green Bay in 1999.

Each team has also found a quarterback to build around.

Tony Romo has brought Dallas back to the top of the NFC. Eli Manning went from the laughingstock of New York to Super Bowl MVP in just one season. Jason Campbell continues to improve, and should make strides with a new head coach.

The other three teams in the division have also built strong overall teams. In fact, the Eagles were the only team in the division not to make the playoffs in 2008.

Dallas won the NFC East in 2007 with a 13-3 record and was ranked 3rd in total offense and 9th in total defense last season.

The Super Bowl Champion New York Giants came in second in the East with a record of 10-6. They ranked only 16th overall in total offense, but ranked 7th in defense.

The Eagles, meanwhile, ranked 6th in overall offense in and 10th in defense. These numbers are a strong indicator that Philadelphia should be in the thick of the division in 2008.

As the Giants and Steelers proved in recent years, winning the division crown does not always equate to a Super Bowl berth. Remember: the Cowboys have not won a playoff game since the Aikman days.


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