Philadelphia Eagles: 8 Burning Questions About the Defensive Line
The Philadelphia Eagles will be switching to a 3-4 defense under head coach Chip Kelly, marking a drastic change for the team's veteran defensive players who have operated only in a 4-3 scheme at the NFL level.
Kelly won’t likely employ a strict 3-4; he’ll utilize a 3-4, a 4-3 Under and even a straight-up 4-3 as he feels fit.
Defensive ends Trent Cole and Brandon Graham will be rushing the quarterback from the outside linebacker position, while last year’s first-round pick, Fletcher Cox, will slide to 5-technique end. Gone are tackles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, with nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga coming over from San Francisco to occupy the traditional 0-technique role.
Cox seems to be the only lock to make the starting lineup.
Given the success he had as a rookie and his stature as a first-round draft pick, the Eagles will pencil him in as a starter. The other positions, including the rotational spots at end and tackle, are up for grabs.
Longtime defensive coordinator Jim Johnson heavily utilized a rotation on the defensive line, employing nearly every lineman in a multitude of snaps. Since the Eagles don’t have a superstar on the line, expect the same approach from new defensive coordinator Billy Davis.
The Eagles currently have 12 defensive linemen on the roster, plus several more defensive ends who have been relocated to 3-4 outside linebackers.
The following takes a look at what the Eagle fans can expect from their team's defensive linemen in 2013.
Can Fletcher Cox Transition to 3-4 End?
As a rookie in 2012, Fletcher Cox thrived in the Philadelphia Eagles’ 4-3 defense. He registered 5.5 sacks, six quarterback hits, 14 pressures and 24 tackles.
The first-round pick was especially efficient down the stretch, notching 4.5 sacks in the team’s final six games. Cox himself said he was made (via phillyburbs.com) for the Wide 9 defense.
The 3-4 defense will ask Cox to play a much different brand of football. No longer will he line up at tackle to shoot the A-gap. Instead, he will move outside to defensive end, where he will face opposing offensive tackles in head-to-head matchups.
This will likely decrease his sack total in ’13, but that doesn’t mean he can’t provide value. Cox weighs in at 300 pounds, which means he has the ideal size to be a 3-4 end. Defensive line coach Tommy Brasher said Cox is talented enough to play in any scheme.
When the Eagles do play a 4-3 Under or base 4-3, Cox has the versatility to line up anywhere. He seems a logical fit to play inside at the tackle position in which he spent his rookie season. But Cox did play some 4-3 end at Mississippi State University, and his tremendous skills will make him difficult to block for tackles or guards.
His overall ability is likely one of the factors that motivated the move to 3-4 DE.
The Eagles have to be hoping Cox can provide the kind of impact that Cory Liuget did for the San Diego Chargers last year or what Ray McDonald has done for the San Francisco 49ers.
It’s probably unrealistic that Cox will become the next J.J. Watt because he's a once-in-a-generation superstar with Hall of Fame talent. But Cox should lead the Eagles linemen in snaps played in 2013, and hoping for a repeat of his 5.5 sacks is very reasonable.
What Will Isaac Sopoaga’s Role Be in 2013?
A true 3-4 defense is predicated around a picturesque nose tackle, a la Haloti Ngata or B.J. Raji. The nose tackle’s job is to line up directly over the center, forcing the offense to send double-teams his way; a dominant NT opens up space for the ends and linebackers to make plays.
Just to be clear, Isaac Sopoaga won’t be the Philadelphia Eagles’ Ngata or Raji. He’s a 32-year-old veteran at the tail end of his career. What Sopoaga can do is provide an example of how to play the 3-4 nose tackle position, seeing as he played it for a handful of years in San Francisco.
Sopoaga did sign for three years and $12 million, $5 million of which is guaranteed. That means he’s probably not a one-year rental. He played 395 snaps for the NFC champion 49ers in 2012, which averages out to just 20-30 per game.
That’s a respectable workload for a player of Sopoaga’s experience. His 320-pound frame means he’s easily big enough to line up at nose tackle. He doesn’t offer a lot of versatility at this point in his career, and he’s almost a no-show as a pass-rusher.
Sopoaga will see his action primarily on first down and in obvious running situations, such as goal-line plays. The best thing the Eagles can hope for from Sopoaga is that he’s a big body who opens up lanes for his teammates, notably pass-rushers like Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin.
Will Cedric Thornton Start Opposite Fletcher Cox as a 3-4 End?
As of now, the other 3-4 end spot projects to be a weak spot for the Philadelphia Eagles. Or, one could say, there will be a heavy rotation with opportunities for players to step up and seize the starting spot.
Cullen Jenkins would have been a perfect fit, seeing as he played the position very well for the Green Bay Packers for several seasons. Curiously, the Eagles released him, meaning a camp competition will produce the spot opposite Cox.
The candidates appear to be Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry, Bennie Logan and Joe Kruger. David King, Damion Square and Clifton Geathers are long shots to make the 53-man roster.
Thornton is formerly an undrafted rookie who worked his way onto the roster as a 4-3 tackle. He totaled 19 tackles and one sack in limited snaps in 2012. He has the size to play 3-4 end, and he’s cheap ($555,000 base salary next season). He will see his fair share of snaps, although that really depends on his ability to make plays.
What Impact Will Rookie Bennie Logan Make?
The Philadelphia Eagles made rookie defensive lineman Bennie Logan their third-round pick in this year's draft. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller compares Logan to Jason Jones of the Seattle Seahawks for his athleticism and ability to play both end and tackle in a 3-4.
Logan won’t have just one spot on the defense; he’ll line up everywhere from a 4-3 tackle to an end or, even possibly, a nose tackle in the 3-4. He checks in at about 300 pounds, meaning he’s a little undersized to be a traditional nose tackle. But slide Logan over in a 4-3 under, and he would be a great fit playing next to Fletcher Cox.
Those are two talented football players in the middle of the line, with a strong core of pass-rushers vying for time on the outside. Logan played a major role in LSU’s success in 2012, particularly helping to free up Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. He said via CSNPhilly.com he’s already comfortable playing in the Eagles’ 3-4 defense.
Defensive coordinator Billy Davis will enjoy utilizing Cox and Logan in multiple spots on the line. Logan’s value in ’13 won’t be solely in his sack total as much as it will be a combination of his ability to both rush the quarterback and stop the run.
What Results Will Vinny Curry Put Up in 2013?
Last year, Vinny Curry didn't even see field until midway through his rookie season. That's pretty rare for a second-round pick.
Curry's results were limited. He totaled eight tackles, zero sacks and just three quarterback hurries. Then again, he played just 89 snaps, per Pro Football Focus (membership required). With his fine pass-rushing skills, Curry seemed a likely fit to move to the 3-4 outside linebacker spot.
That's why it is strange that Curry is being asked to line up as a 3-4 end in the new defense. He's already put on 20 pounds, which bulks him up to 280 pounds, but Curry is still undersized for a traditional 3-4 end.
Curry could be a sleeper for the Philadelphia Eagles defense in 2013. If he surprises and makes an impact as a situational pass-rusher (as either a 3-4 end or 3-4 linebacker), the Eagles will have one more defensive player capable of getting to the quarterback.
What Can the Team Expect from the Seventh-Rounders?
The Philadelphia Eagles drafted Joe Kruger and Dave King in the seventh round, giving them a pair of late-round picks who could fight for a spot on the final roster.
Kruger is the younger brother of pass-rushing specialist Paul Kruger, who just inked a sizeable free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns. He picked up six sacks and forced two fumbles at the University of Utah last season. Kruger is 6’6” and just under 270 pounds, which makes him undersized to play end in a conventional 3-4 defense, but it will make him a good fit in a hybrid defense.
King is 6’5”, 285 pounds and could line up at several spots on the defensive line. He’s a bit small to play 4-3 tackle and the competition ahead of him at end is deep. With his superior skill set, Kruger probably has the edge on King, and there might not be room for both on the roster.
That means King could spend his rookie season on the practice squad, or he could wind up on injured reserve in order to protect him from getting snatched up by another team.
Can Damion Square Make the Roster?
Alabama’s Damion Square went undrafted but signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent. He could work his way onto the 53-man roster, given the versatility and skill he displayed in college last season.
Square started every game his last two seasons at Alabama, logging 7.5 sacks, 18.5 tackles for a loss and 93 total tackles. He’s 6’2”, 293 pounds, meaning he’s a better fit at 3-4 end than tackle.
Square faces a logjam ahead of him at end, so he will have to turn in outstanding performances in training camp and preseason to nab one of the final roster spots.
Will Trent Cole Be out of Place as a 3-4 Outside Linebacker?
In a word, yes.
Trent Cole has thrived as a defensive end over the last eight seasons, twice rating as the single-best 4-3 end in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus (membership required). He once was a phenomenal all-around player who dropped off drastically in 2012.
Cole saw his sack total reduced to just three after averaging 10.5 per campaign from 2006 through ’11. He’s going to be 31 years old this season and making a difficult transition to a linebacker role that will ask him to play off the line, to cover tight ends and rush the quarterback from a standing position.
Dwight Freeney struggled immensely last year after the Indianapolis Colts transitioned to a 3-4. Freeney went from 10 and 8.5 sacks the previous two seasons to just five in ’12. Cole is a better all-around player than Freeney, but he could deal with a similar struggle.
If Cole can successfully transition to the new 3-4 defense, the Eagles will have a tough front seven for opposing offenses to prepare for. Billy Davis would be smart to take advantage of Cole as an end in the 4-3 Under schemes.
Cole is also getting to the age in which his snaps will have to be limited to keep him fresh all season. Simply put, it will be interesting to see what kind of results the Eagles get from their veteran defender.