Philadelphia Eagles Position Breakdown: Defensive Line
There's no denying the amount of talent on depth that's on the Eagles' defensive line. There will be at least one player who won't make the final roster cut on the Eagles' front line who could probably start for another defense.
Players like Derek Landri, Antonio Dixon and Darryl Tapp are far from locks to make the team even though they have been successful starters in the NFL in seasons past.
Several factors have led to the Eagles' defensive line becoming the deepest front in the NFL. Brandon Graham is finally fully recovered from the ACL tear he suffered in 2010. He should start to resemble the player whom the Eagles traded up for in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft.
The Eagles also spend a first-round and a second-round draft pick on defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Vinny Curry. They could easily combine for at least 10 or 12 sacks in their rookie seasons.
Last season, the Eagles' front line had a short offseason program to pick up the new defensive line coach's Wide-9 scheme. They proved to be fast learners as the defensive line alone racked up 46 sacks in 2011. With a healthier unit, more talent and a greater understanding of the Wide-9 scheme, we should see that sack total from last season increase in 2012.
Jason Babin has become one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL under Eagles' defensive line coach Jim Washburn. Babin was thought of as a first-round bust from the 2004 draft. In his first six seasons in the league, he had a combined 17.5 sacks. In the last two seasons, both under Coach Washburn, Babin has a combined 30.5 sacks.
Babin isn't a great run defender. He isn't a complete defensive linemen. He does one thing well, and he does it better than just about every other pass-rusher. He gets to the quarterback and creates havoc.
Sometimes, being a one-trick pony isn't such a bad thing in the NFL. The Eagles rotate their defensive linemen in and out to ensure certain players are placed in the type of situations that they thrive in. Babin plays in a lot of passing situations to best use his skill set.
Babin is at his best when the Eagles have the lead, and he can pin his ears back and get after the quarterback. Fifteen of his 18 sacks in 2011 came when the Eagles had the lead. I don't expect to see his numbers drop off at all this season with the Eagles expected to maintain more leads for longer periods of time.
Trent Cole and Jason Babin form one of the top passing-rush duos in the NFL, but they are very different type of players. Babin is a pure pass-rusher while Cole is one of the most complete defensive ends in football.
Cole hasn't wowed anybody with a 18-sack season, but in the last five seasons, he has been consistent with his sacks totals. In that span, he has had at least nine sacks every single season but never had more than 12. He has averaged 11 sacks per season over the last five years.
Sacks don't tell the whole story with Cole. He's a better run defender than he is a pass-rusher which is really saying something.
Cole has become one of those players who gets better as the game goes on and as the season goes on. That's rare for a defensive linemen. Most linemen tend to wear down as both the game and the season goes on—not for Cole, who had five of his 11 sacks from 2011 in the final month of the season. He also had eight of his 11 sacks in the second half including four in the fourth quarter.
Trent Cole hasn't reached his full potential yet. He should reach it under Washburn who has turned one-dimensional linemen into elite pass-rushers. Imagine what he will do with Cole after a full offseason of work.
Brandon Graham isn't a first-round bust just yet. You can't judge him based on what Jason Pierre-Paul has done in his first two seasons. Pierre-Paul had racked up 21 sacks since being drafted in the same draft as Graham in 2010. Both players were taken in the first round.
Pierre-Paul has been able to stay healthy in his first two seasons while Graham was set back when he tore his ACL late in his rookie season in 2010. He was starting to settle in as an NFL pass-rusher right before he tore his ACL in 2010. It usually takes a year after an ACL surgery for a player to get all of his speed and agility back.
2011 was a lost cause for Graham. He showed up to training camp nearly 290 pounds, about 25 pounds over what his ideal weight should be. It's difficult for a player going through rehab to stay in shape and keep the weight down. You can't work out like you would normally would when your going through rehab. Maintaining a strict diet is vital to a player's shape.
Graham is fully recovered from his ACL surgery and should be able to get back on track. He was drafted in the first round for a reason. He's an excellent pass-rusher and should start reminding fans of that this season. He understands better than anyone that 2012 is a make-it-or-break-it season.
The Eagles got a major draft steal when they selected Vinny Curry late in the second round. Curry has both first-round talent and a first-round character. He's a true leader with an outstanding motor. No defensive end in the 2012 NFL draft is a better fit for the Wide-9 scheme than Curry.
Curry was an outstanding pass-rusher at Marshall. Despite always being the focus of his opponent's protection schemes, had racked up 87 solo tackles and 23 sacks over the past two seasons. Too many times, defensive prospects get away with having low sack totals because they didn't play with a lot of talent in college.
Vinny Curry didn't have a lot of help around him, but he still put up big-time numbers. Imagine what he will do lining up next to the likes of Cullen Jenkins, Trent Cole and Jason Babin.
Curry won't have to be an every down defensive end in his rookie season. He will be a vital part of the defensive-line rotation but figures to play mostly on passing downs early in his career. It's the perfect role for Curry in his rookie campaign.
It's hard to say what Phillip Hunt's role will be on the defensive line. He could be one of the two key reserve defensive ends. He could be the fifth defensive end on the roster who will spend the season on the inactive list unless someone gets hurt. He could also miss the cut altogether.
Hunt has looked both stronger and faster so far at the Eagles' OTAs. He's a little undersized compared to the rest of the Eagles' defensive ends, but he's quick off the edge and could excel in the Wide-9 scheme that best utilizes defensive ends that are quick off the edge.
Hunt had just two sacks in limited action last season but showed a lot of promise in the final month of the season. He will be a big part of the competition at defensive end this summer. The starters are set, but the depth at defensive end is still up for grabs.
Being a backup defensive end is a bigger deal for the Eagles than it is for most teams. A backup defensive end could still see close to 40 percent of the snaps each week. A strong camp and preseason from Hunt could vault him over rookie Vinny Curry or Brandon Graham who has been a disappointment.
Darryl Tapp appears to the odd man out at defensive end for the Eagles. He's the oldest reserve defensive end on the Eagles' roster and has shown very little production in his two seasons with the Eagles. Tapp has just 5.5 sacks in 26 games as an Eagles.
The ceiling is pretty much set with Tapp. He's a decent backup defensive end and nothing more. He doesn't have the potential to be anything more at this point. After six seasons with a career high of seven sacks back in 2007, I think we have seen all we are going to see with Tapp.
Tapp isn't a bad player. On another roster, he would stand a pretty good shot at making the final cut. There's a good chance that he cuts cut early in either training camp or during preseason, so he has extra time to find a role with another team.
He's good enough to make a contribution for a team that needs more depth at defensive end—just not good enough to beat out players like Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham and Phillip Hunt.
The Eagles are loaded with versatility at defensive tackle, and it starts with Fletcher Cox. He runs like an athletic defensive end, but he has the strength of a 330-pound tackle. He's a well-built, 6'4", 295-pound defensive tackle.
Cox lined up all over the defensive line at Mississippi State, playing both tackle and end. He has already done the same at the Eagles' OTAs. His speed and explosion off the line and his strength make him a very difficult blocking assignment for any linemen.
I fully expect Cox to be moved all over the Eagles' defensive line all season long. He can line up at both defensive tackle spots and as a defensive end. He's that rare breed of defensive tackle who can both penetrate into the backfield and clog up the middle.
Because of Cox's versatility, physicality and athleticism, he can fulfill any defensive line role in a given game, and he should be able to perform all those roles every single week. That kind of player is a real weapon for a defense. The offensive line has to recognize where he lines up on every play. Protection schemes will have to adjust to how he lines up on every play.
That all sounds incredibly optimistic, but Cox is far from a finished product. His technique still needs a lot of work, and we havn't seen how he can hold up against NFL competition for a full season. It will be interesting to see how quickly he adjusts to the speed and ability of the NFL. He has the potential to be an elite defensive tackle.
Cullen Jenkins was a dominant player in the first month of the 2011 season. He had four sacks in the first three games and five in the first five games. He recorded just a half sack the rest of the season. It's easy to say that he probably just wore down toward the end of the season. He is on the wrong side of 30, but he actually played well down the stretch if you can look past the sack totals.
Jenkins had 11 solo tackles in four games in the month of November and nine solo tackles over the last four games. Those are solid numbers for a defensive tackle. Sack totals usually don't tell the whole story on a player. Jason Babin might be the exception to that rule.
Jenkins didn't have another pass-rushing defensive tackle to benefit from. This year, he should with Fletcher Cox. Both of those players lining up next to each other on passing downs with Trent Cole and Jason Babin lined up at defensive end will be lethal.
Jenkins isn't an elite player; he's a very good player. He can't carry a defensive line, but he can be a very good part of defensive line that can create a lot of big plays. He had 5.5 sacks last season and had seven sacks as a 3-4 defensive end for the Green Bay Packers in 2010. With more help this season, he could have a career year.
It was a miracle that Mike Patterson was able to play in 15 games last season. He suffered a seizure during training camp last summer and was diagnosed with cerebral arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which is an abnormal arteries and veins in the brain. He had brain surgery in the offseason to treat this problem.
Patterson hasn't been able to participate in OTAs but should be ready for training camp. It was a scary situation when Patterson collapsed during training camp. It seemed very possible that his career could be over.
He had a pretty typical year in 2011. He had 26 solo tackles and 2.5 sacks which is right on par with that type of numbers he usually puts up. He isn't an elite player in any area of his game. He's a good run defender and a decent pass-rusher.
He's a quality starter who will see the most action on running downs. He's a good run defender. The Eagles have two solid inside pass-rushers with Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox. Patterson's role will be more of a run defender in the Wide-9 scheme. He will get challenged by Antonio Dixon and Derek Landri on running downs, but he should see more action on running downs because of his experience and ability.
Antonio Dixon was the Eagles' best run stuffer in the 2010 season, but after a season-ending triceps tear in 2011 and a new defensive line scheme, his status on the team remains unclear.
Dixon is a better run stuffer than he is a penetrator. Penetration is the key for any defensive tackle in the Wide-9. It's more about getting into the backfield to create havoc than it is about just plugging up holes in Jim Washburn's scheme.
Dixon played in just four games in 2011 before tearing his triceps muscle. He had just three solo tackles and zero sacks. We don't know quite yet just how good of a fit he can be in the Wide-9.
The Eagles will have to make a decision on Dixon before the season starts. They will most likely be keeping five defensive tackles. Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson and Fletcher Cox are the locks. Dixon, Derek Landri and Cedric Thornton are battling for the final two spots.
Landri has already proved to be a good fit in the Wide-9. Thornton was an undrafted free agent the Eagles picked up last season. He spent the season on the practice squad.
I don't believe that both Thornton and Dixon will make the roster. They are both very similar players. They are both better run stuffers than they are pass-rushers though they do have some penetration ability. They are both getting extra reps in OTAs with both Jenkins and Patterson missing time.
Preseason will be a huge factor for Dixon. If he shows a good pass rush while lining up between the left guard and center, he should make the team. If he doesn't show that in preseason, Thornton will have a good shot at stealing his spot.
Derek Landri stepped up in a big way in 2011. He was cut before the season last September but was brought back after Dixon was lost for the season. He played in the final 12 games and recorded 17 solo tackles and two sacks during that time as a backup tackle.
You can't describe Landri's game by saying he's better as a pass-rusher or a run stuffer. He's a high-effort player who makes a living in the opponent's backfield. He doesn't always make the highlight-reel tackle behind the line of scrimmage, but he forces the quarterback to force the ball out early or changes the direction of a running play.
I believe he will be the fourth defensive tackle to make the roster unless Antonio Dixon really wows the coaches in training camp. Landri just has that knack for making plays behind the line.
He plays the run and pass really well, and his effort can be contagious at times. He's the type of guy you love to fill out your roster with.
Cedric Thornton didn't play on a single down last season, but that doesn't mean he won't challenge for a full-time spot on the 53-man roster this summer. Thornton doesn't have great straight-line speed, but he has a quick first step and a strong enough upper body to be a solid defensive tackle in this league.
This summer, Thornton will be able to challenge for a roster spot better than he did last year. He gets a full offseason with the coaching staff and will get more reps before training camp with Mike Patterson recovering from brain surgery.
Thornton has a real advantage this summer as he doesn't have much to lose be missing the cut. Worst-case scenario, he doesn't make the final roster cut down, and he lands on the practice squad for another season.