Eagles preview: Will return to health, upgrades be enough?

Although the Eagles were one of just two NFC teams to rank among the league's top 10 in both rushing and passing last year, they finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

The three most significant reasons for that were a poor offense in the red zone, a mediocre kick return game and a defense that, while statistically excellent (first in the league in red zone touchdown avoidance), was notably shy of big plays.

Philadelphia ranked 24th in the league in red zone touchdown percentage, 24th in punt returns, 24th in kickoff returns -- and 32nd, dead last, in takeaways.

It's hoped that a return to good health by tight end L.J. Smith, who was hobbled by a succession of injuries in 2007, will improve the red zone offense, and coach Andy Reid has placed considerable emphasis in training camp on working in that area.

DeSean Jackson, a second-round draft choice, is counted on to liven up the return game. He was one of the top-rated receivers and returners in the draft after setting a Pac-10 record at California by returning six punts for touchdowns.

And cornerback Asante Samuel, one of the big prizes on the free agency market, is expected to provide the interceptions that were missing last year. His 16 over the last two seasons are the most in the league.

Then, there's quarterback Donovan McNabb, who appeared to have a renewed focus this summer. McNabb will be 32 in November, hardly ancient for a quarterback. But he hasn't made it through a season without an injury-caused absence since 2004, missing 15 games the last three years, and his win-loss record in that stretch is 17-16, compared with 56-23 in his first six years. McNabb had an excellent training camp and is fully healthy.

The offensive line is starting to show some age. In November, starting tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan will turn 34 and 35, respectively.

Jim Johnson's defense will, as usual, be aggressive and unpredictable, coming from all angles.

Six-time Pro Bowl free safety Brian Dawkins, one of several players struck down by injury in 2007, is healthy again. Dawkins, tied for fifth all-time in sacks by a defensive back, is in many ways the glue that holds the Eagles' defense together because Johnson uses him in a variety of roles.

Two linebackers, Chris Gocong and Omar Gaither, should improve from the experience gained last season as first-time starters. Gaither, who broke into the lineup late in the season, was used in the middle; he will be able to showcase his athleticism more now that he has settled in on the weakside.

On the hot seat

Tight end L.J. Smith. He's coming off a season plagued by a series of injuries and he's on a one-year contract, essentially an audition and an order to perform. The Eagles need Smith to be a force in the red zone, an area in which they were woeful last year.

Difference-maker

Strong safety Quintin Mikell, who quietly is making a name for himself after coming into the league as an undrafted free agent. He makes plays in both the running game and passing game, uses his smarts to anticipate plays and is a good hitter.

Hard road to hoe

The Eagles have a favorable schedule but the early, back-to-back games against Dallas on a Monday night followed by Pittsburgh the following Sunday could set the tone for the year. The NFC East teams all play the AFC North, but the Eagles benefit from getting the two best teams in that division, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, at home. Further, Philly does not have to take a plane to a game after Nov. 16.

Eagles will be better than you think ...

If Donovan McNabb stays healthy and plays a full season and if one of his wide receivers or tight end L.J. Smith emerge as a potent force to give the team another playmaker to go with running back Brian Westbrook.

Eagles will be worse than you think ...

If the revamped linebacker corps fails to provide the quickness and aggressiveness needed in Jim Johnson's defense. With the Eagles doing a lot of shifting, stunting and blitzing from all angles, there are often gaps that must be filled quickly to prevent a big play.

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