- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Despite a surprising playoff run that landed the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, the franchise was at a bit of a crossroads this offseason. Quarterback Donovan McNabb wasn't happy and didn't care who knew it, in part due to a controversial benching in Week 12, but also because he wanted more money and more weapons to make sticking around a few more years worth it. Coach Andy Reid apparently agreed, even though his quarterback of the future was in place. But would Eagles fans ever stand for a rebuilding season anyway?
Ultimately the Eagles decided to keep McNabb around for another run or two at a Super Bowl and make him happy, restructuring his contract and showering him with options that would better protect him and others who would scare opposing defenses. The Eagles had a terrific offseason, really, whether it came to procuring impact players from the draft or big linemen to help protect their franchise quarterback, and now it comes down to executing on the field in one of the league's toughest divisions.
The Eagles think they can make it to the NFC Championship Game this season. They should know, having accomplished the feat five times this decade. Does the current team have what it takes? This might be the most important training camp Reid, McNabb and friends have had in a while.
Let's take a closer look, shall we?
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: DeSean Jackson quickly established himself as Philly's top wide receiver, in part because Kevin Curtis couldn't beat his hernia problem, but also because the rookie's speed was such an asset. Jackson electrified fans and tortured opponents alike in the receiving and return game, and finished as the No. 30 wide receiver in fantasy football. That was a surprise.
The Eagles are hoping another speedy rookie can have a similar impact this season, and therein lies the battle. Curtis needed another sports hernia surgery this offseason, and while he says he feels fine and ready to go, the fact is Jeremy Maclin out of Missouri was the team's first-round draft pick. It did seem like an odd pick at the time, since Maclin seems to have similar tools to Jackson, but maybe the Eagles intend to throw both youngsters out there at the same time and create mismatches for the defense. Curtis dealt with a number of injuries last season, including a concussion, but can still get open downfield, so this should be interesting. Reggie Brown remains an Eagle as well, but at this point he's fourth on the depth chart, at best. Hank Baskett, better known for his high-profile wife of Playboy fame, has been more productive and hasn't complained about touches.
Fitting in: A year ago on draft day, the Eagles traded a pick to the Dolphins to acquire Lorenzo Booker, envisioning him as a Brian Westbrook clone who could run the ball between the tackles and catch passes from the backfield. Things didn't go well, as Booker ran the ball only 20 times, averaging 2.7 yards per carry. Correll Buckhalter remained Westbrook's backup, but now he's a Denver Bronco, leaving Booker and rookie LeSean McCoy to vie for the carries Westbrook doesn't get. McCoy, a second-round pick out of Pittsburgh, immediately becomes the main backup and threat for a lot more. Westbrook is Philly's most critical player, and he comes off a season with knee and ankle problems, so whether you believe handcuffing backup running backs to your studs is a wise idea or not, it's pretty easy to see how McCoy could end up with major value.
Even if Westbrook is on the field, it's possible Philly regulates his workload a bit more than in the past, meaning McCoy won't need to start for Reid to help fantasy owners. Westbrook has never played a full 16-game season before, and his recovery from offseason ankle surgery has gone slower than originally expected. He might not play in the preseason at all.
Fantasy owners should also keep an eye on the tight end position. Team whipping boy L.J. Smith is gone, but Brent Celek delivered a two-touchdown effort in the NFC title game, and would seem the clear choice to inherit the starting role. Then again, the Eagles kept adding weapons in the draft, and Cornelius Ingram, recovering nicely from a torn ACL that apparently blunted his value on draft day, is more athletic. Matt Schobel and Eugene Bright are also in the mix, meaning one of these options probably won't be an Eagle come September. Whether McNabb makes good use of any of these tight ends is another matter.
On the line: The Eagles figured the best way to enchant enigmatic offensive tackle Shawn Andrews was to acquire his brother Stacy, giving the Eagles a potentially terrific right side of the line if they choose to line them up there. Adding Stacy Andrews from the Bengals wasn't the team's signature move, however. The Bills couldn't pay for their own Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters, so the Eagles traded for him and gave him a new contract. Ultimately, Stacy Andrews and Peters replace longtime bookend tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan, and could be an upgrade. Add free-agent fullback Leonard Weaver, who gives the team a legit blocker in the backfield for the first time in years, and the Eagles seem serious about opening up holes for running backs.
On the mend: Westbrook (ankle) and Curtis (hernia) are the noteworthy offensive players coming back from injuries, but the Eagles did so well at adding depth this summer the team won't need to rely on them as much as usual. Then again, from a fantasy aspect, that's not a good thing. Westbrook clearly wasn't playing at 100 percent this past season, and he still ended up being a top-10 running back in fantasy for 2008.
The bottom line
This Eagles look a lot different than even last season's version, and worlds away from the lone Super Bowl entrant of the McNabb-Reid era. The line is different, there are more weapons on offense, and of course the defense will have to overcome the controversial loss of Brian Dawkins. Beloved defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is undergoing treatment for skin cancer and took a leave of absence, which could also affect how the defense plays, either hurting it or acting as a motivational tool. Overall, the Eagles have among the best talent of any team in the NFC, and could make it back to the conference title game again. Fantasy owners will have plenty of options from this team as well.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.