Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Brian Westbrook: Eagles Depending Too Much on the RB?

The 2007 season was unforgettable for Brian Westbrook. He established himself as one of the NFL’s premiere running backs. It is difficult to find a pre-season ranking that does not have Westbrook as a Top Three back entering the 2008 season.

Will the 2008 season bring an encore performance? Do the Eagles need a repeat performance to succeed?

Over the past three seasons, Westbrook’s workload has steadily increased. In 2008, Westbrook posted career highs in carries (278) and receptions (90). The increased touches led to an NFL-high 2,104 yards from scrimmage.

Westbrook was asked last week if his heavy workload would be lightened this year. “No, they haven’t talked to me about lightening, or anything like that. I’m a fan of carrying the ball, and having the ball in my hands.”

Is such a heavy dependence on Westbrook best for the team?

Surprisingly, Westbrook believes that the offense might be most effective by spreading out the touches.

“I also want the best for this team. I know sometimes it’s better to spread the ball, allow them to get the ball into different people’s hands so that we can present problems for a defense.”

It is difficult to argue with Westbrook’s comment. The Eagles 2008 offense features several new weapons that need to be maximized. Maximizing these talents will limit Westbrook’s touches in 2008.

A healthy Donovan McNabb should lead to an increased dependence on the pass. When McNabb is healthy, coach Andy Reid has a tendency to shy away from the running game. Obvious running downs and situations often result in unexplainable passing plays.

A healthy L.J. Smith should limit the offense’s dependence on Westbrook in the red zone. Forced touches to Westbrook, last year’s only true playmaker, will now be more evenly distributed to Smith and a host of newcomers.

The newcomers include speedy Lorenzo Booker and DeSean Jackson.

Booker is a Westbrook-style running back. He brings shiftiness, speed, and good hands to the offense. Carries and passes that were limited to Westbrook and Bulkhalter will now be distributed among the three backs.

DeSean Jackson’s addition to the receiving corps, Curtis’s second year in the system, and Brown’s continued growth will also limit Westbrook’s catches.

Since his rookie season, Brown’s yearly receptions have continued to increase. During an inconsistent 2007 season, Brown caught 61 passes. If Brown is able to show any type of presence in the early part of the season, his numbers will continue to climb.

If Curtis continues to follow his career pattern, the Eagles can expect an increase in production. In college and while at St. Louis, Curtis posted dramatic statistical increases from year one to year two.

Again, more production from Brown and Curtis means less dependency on Westbrook.

A decreased dependence should also limit the wear on Westbrook’s body and increase his effectiveness.

Less touches does not mean less effectiveness. Per touch Westbrook was a more effective back in 2006. With a decreased workload in 2006, Westbrook posted a 5.1 yards per carry average and a 9.1 yards per catch average. These numbers dipped to 4.8 and 8.6 in 2007.

Less touches also means less pounding. Less pounding lengthens Westbrook’s career and prime years. An healthy, effective Westbrook in 2009 should ease the team’s transition to Kevin Kolb.

Recent comments from Westbrook show that limiting his touches could be a tricky situation. “ I love having the ball in my hands. I think I’m a better player when I have the ball in my hands."

The 2008 season will be a test of the Eagles' ability to manage Westbrook’s involvement without sacrificing the team's and Westbrook’s effectiveness. Just another interesting storyline to follow as the season approaches…

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