- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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When one thinks of the Philadelphia Eagles, one can't help but think of Donovan McNabb. From the day he was drafted, when the fans booed and the writers ripped the team, McNabb has been the franchise player, the one who gets the credit for the good times, and gets blasted for the bad. Even when he's not on the field, working as much in recent Decembers as the Maytag repairman, it's all about McNabb, for better or worse.
So how was it that the Eagles, thought to be dead in the water when McNabb tore up his knee in Week 11, and with a stretch of three straight division road games on the horizon, managed to get on a hot streak with seemingly end-of-the-road Jeff Garcia, and returned to the top of the NFC East? Can't blame or praise McNabb for that. Could it be because there are others on the team who matter, like underrated running back Brian Westbrook, demanding head coach Andy Reid and a normally reliable defense? Um, sure it could! But McNabb remains the key.
Key Backups/Position Battles
Until we actually see which plays the Eagles call in Week 1 at Green Bay, there's no way to know for sure if the Eagles will again throw more than any team in the NFL. Through 10 weeks last season, McNabb was not only fantasy football's best player, he was on his way to a historic season. Consider that McNabb played barely half a season and still was among the top 10 quarterbacks overall. He nearly beat out Tom Brady for fantasy points, and he was fantasy's No. 2 quarterback heading into the season. McNabb threw two or more touchdown passes in nine games, in part because the team was so pass-heavy. McNabb is 30 now, and coming off yet another season-ending injury, so the fact the team used its first draft pick on eventual replacement Kevin Kolb is meaningful. If, or when, McNabb gets hurt this season, A.J. Feeley will get another chance, with Kolb waiting in the wings. The goal is not to need him for two years, at least.
Westbrook became the center of the new balanced offense when McNabb went down, and he sure didn't look tired, hurt or overworked down the stretch. Instead, he thrived with the extra work, rewarding fantasy owners with career bests across the board. Despite all that, the Eagles have been looking for a larger battering ram for years, and think they found help in Penn State's Tony Hunt, a rookie who should at least figure into the goal-line situations. Buckhalter is still around, but there's been little need in fantasy to handcuff him to Westbrook. Hunt, on the other hand, could be that guy.
Reid has always treated his wide receivers as replaceable parts, letting game breakers like Stallworth walk when they wanted too much money, and thinking that McNabb will always find a way, no matter to whom he throws. It's the system, silly, that makes the stars for Reid, not the other way around. Reggie Brown is a solid No. 1 receiver whom fantasy owners will grab among the top 20 at the position, while Curtis comes over from the Rams to start. Curtis is quick, but doesn't quite have Stallworth's speed, and won't average 19.1 yards per catch, but he should be productive. Hank Baskett and Greg Lewis aren't stars, but they're more than capable of being No. 3 options on this team.
Week 4 @ New York Giants
Week 5 BYE
Week 7 Chicago Bears
Week 9 Dallas Cowboys
Week 12 @ New England Patriots
Week 13 Seattle Seahawks
Week 14 New York Giants
Week 15 @ Dallas Cowboys
Week 16 @ New Orleans Saints
Week 17 Buffalo Bills
What To Expect
McNabb's health will be a hot topic all preseason, and the talk probably won't go away anytime soon. You see, even when McNabb's knee is strong enough for him to compete on the field, and allow him to run and dance and make big plays, Eagles fans and fantasy owners will remain wary of the next injury. Three of the last five seasons, McNabb has seen his season truncated. Philly fans like the fact Kolb is older than the average rookie, and have high hopes for the future, but does anyone really want the future to start in the next few months? McNabb is likely to elicit strong feelings in the fantasy world. Some see him as the potential league/fantasy MVP he might have been if not for a fluke torn ACL; others see the guy who is too big a risk to be a No. 1 quarterback. Even if you take the middle ground, you know you'll get solid statistics, with the chance of spectacular ones, while he's out there. As for the play calling of offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and/or Reid, McNabb should be effective regardless.
Likewise, fantasy owners are going to be wary of making Westbrook a first-round pick in many leagues. Sure, he's got the statistics to be worthy of such high regard, but what if McNabb throws on 70 percent of the plays again? What does that do to Westbrook's value? Also, what if the larger, rounder, fresher Hunt becomes the goal-line option, another Brandon Jacobs just 90 minutes down the New Jersey Turnpike? That would diminish Westbrook's stats as well. Then again, it's all the distractions that seem to make Westbrook undervalued, and worth every penny, each season.
If you play in a point-per-reception format, Philly wide receivers are likely to disappoint. Brown was among the league leaders in yards per catch, but he didn't reach 50 catches in 2006, nor was he targeted 100 times. He's someone you want in leagues that reward big plays, as his six catches of 40 or more yards placed him tied for third in the league, and he could end up with double digits in touchdowns. Curtis no longer has to wait in line behind potential Hall of Famers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, but don't expect more than 50 catches out of him, either. McNabb will spread the ball around.
This could be the final Philly season for L.J. Smith, a talented tight end who is often targeted near the goal line. We still haven't seen any monster seasons from Smith, as his value appears tied to McNabb. Garcia didn't utilize Smith much the final two months. Former Bengal Matt Schobel is back for another year, but Smith is the better athlete and target, and motivated for a big season.
On defense and special teams, the Eagles figure to bounce back from a subpar 2006. The Eagles have suffered individual defections, and gotten older, at linebacker and in the secondary, and opposing teams have taken advantage. Former Bills Pro Bowler Spikes was brought in to stop the run, and the Eagles hope Jeremiah Trotter can give the team another year. Recovering Jevon Kearse is expected to anchor an underrated pass rush, and that, in turn, makes defensive backs Brian Dawkins and Lito Sheppard more interesting individual fantasy choices. David Akers last had a top-notch season in 2004, as injury and a lack of field goal attempts have stunted his value. He's certainly capable of a big season, but not likely to be one of the top kickers selected in that last round (you do wait until the final round for kickers, don't you?).
McNabb has a lot to prove this season, whether he shows it in his play or in his ability to just stay on the field. The surprise drafting of Kolb poses no immediate threat, but certainly the point was made. McNabb needs to take the Eagles not only to a division title, but far in the playoffs. In terms of personnel, on both sides of the ball, the Eagles can compete and return to another Super Bowl. And whether this happens or not, McNabb will be the one being watched the most.
Fantasy owners probably won't target McNabb among the top five at the position, but the risk does carry with it reward. Philly had the league's No. 2 offense a year ago, and should again give the fantasy football world plenty to enjoy.
Eric Karabell previews the 2007 Philadelphia Eagles from a fantasy perspective.