Gonzo: 5 players the Birds can least spare

Trent Cole (58) and Jason Peters at camp. Cole had 28 percent of the team's sacks last year. For the Eagles, he's indispensable.
Trent Cole (58) and Jason Peters at camp. Cole had 28 percent of the team's sacks last year. For the Eagles, he's indispensable.
Posted: September 01, 2010

Some of the Eagles will participate in the team's final preseason game on Thursday against the Jets. The starters won't. Andy Reid said the first team will sit while the backups and scrubs sacrifice themselves. That's a good thing.

If you watched the Birds' third preseason game, you know the plot of that particular drama included a few ugly and unrehearsed twists. DeSean Jackson left the contest early with an upper-back injury, and Trent Cole was carted off after he hurt his ankle.

Both players look like they'll be ready for the season opener, but when they left the field in Kansas City last week, no one around here knew that. That might be why your local pharmacy was out of antacid the next day. Losing one or both of those players for the 2010 season would have caused midnight-green bile to bubble up in stomachs all across the Delaware Valley.

It made me think about the players the Eagles can least afford to do without - the most indispensable Birds:

5. Asante Samuel. He made the Pro Bowl last year and tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with nine. It's also possible that he tied for the league lead in matador impersonations (¬°ole! tackles). Unfortunately, just as the NFL once failed to keep track of sacks, it's yet to make the bullfighter whiff an official statistic. Maybe next year.

And yet there's no question that Samuel is one of the best cover corners in the league. With him, the Birds had a middle-of-the-pack pass defense last year, ranking 17th overall. Without him, opposing quarterbacks would undoubtedly pick the Birds' emaciated cornerback bones clean.

We've also heard a lot about Samuel's dedication to bulking up and improving his tackling. The vicious hit on Dexter McCluster in Kansas City was a start. If Samuel smacks players like that during the regular season, it would be hard not to move him up higher on this list.

4. Trent Cole. The Eagles tied for third in the NFL last year with 44 sacks - 121/2 of which were delivered courtesy of Cole. Those with an abacus handy know that means Cole accounted for . . . hold on . . . move that bead up and those beads down . . . more than 28 percent of the club's sacks. To put that in perspective, think of the team's sacks as your limbs. Now imagine chopping one off and ask yourself what kind of day you'd be having.

3. Stewart Bradley. The Birds' defense is a little like a game of Jenga. Pull some of the peripheral blocks away and the tower might remain standing. But remove the center piece and the whole structure topples. Bradley is the center piece - as the Eagles and the fans learned last season after he crumpled to the Lincoln Financial Field turf during Flight Night and suffered a season-ending knee injury. Without Bradley, the Eagles' defense might be average. (It was slightly better than that in 2009 and was ranked 12th overall.) With him, the defense could be a significantly better unit than the crew that let the Cowboys Texas two-step all over them last year.

2. DeSean Jackson. There are a lot of talented players in the NFL, but few have Jackson's big play capability. Go ahead and compile your own quick roster of the league's most explosive players, the guys who terrorize defensive coordinators because there's a real possibility they could score each time they touch the ball - no matter how far away the end zone happens to be.

Chris Johnson obviously makes the cut. Adrian Peterson and Andre Johnson do as well. And . . . who else? Randy Moss is 33 now. He may or may not still be that sort of athlete. Everyone else is a stretch. The NFL brims with quality running backs and receivers, but aside from the aforementioned, none can match Jackson's speed and elusiveness.

Jackson is easily one of the most dynamic offensive threats in football. He had 10 plays last year that went for 40 yards or more - tops in the NFL. You can't replace someone like that.

1. Kevin Kolb. So why isn't Jackson No. 1? Because despite his ability, and unless he's taking a direct snap in the Wildcat, he still needs someone to get him the ball.

Donovan McNabb did a lot of good things in Philadelphia, but one of the major knocks on him was his completion percentage in a system that demands precision. The Birds believe Kolb will be more efficient. We'll see. If he isn't - if he goes down or doesn't run the offense effectively - then the Birds will be in trouble. Because after Kolb comes Michael Vick, a man who's a fine athlete but not a great passer. Andy Reid said Vick is a "very nice person." He didn't say anything about Vick being accurate.

Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or gonzalez@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gonzophilly.

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