Philadelphia Eagles: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Analysis
It was the offense that predictably stole the show during Chip Kelly's first year as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Led by Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy, the Eagles ranked fourth in the NFL with 442 points scored—a franchise single-season record.
However, it was the defense that flew under the radar throughout the season, especially in the final three months.
The Eagles allowed 382 points, ranking them 17th in scoring defense. Essentially, they were an average defense, and before the start of the season, that would have been considered a major success.
After capturing the NFC East title in Kelly's first year as coach, the Eagles are poised for greatness in 2014. With that said, it's not the offense that will be the key to the season. After all, everybody knows the offense will be among the best in the game.
It's the defense that will make or break the 2014 season for the franchise.
Can the Eagles take the next step to becoming an above-average defense, will they remain an average defense or will they take a step back, which would undoubtedly hurt the team's growth for the future?
The following slides will review all 11 defensive positions, giving a breakdown of the projected starter and depth chart for the 2014 season.
Left Defensive End: Cedric Thornton
Cedric Thornton headed into the 2013 season as the biggest mystery among the 11 starters on the team's defense. He ended the year as the team's biggest surprise on the defensive side of the ball, a player who established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the run game.
In fact, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated Thornton as the third-best run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end in the league.
Thornton doesn't offer much as a pass-rusher, but that's OK. His job is to occupy blockers and create holes for blitzing linebackers—notably Connor Barwin—to pressure the quarterback.
Thornton is the unquestioned starter heading into the 2014 season.
His backup is unclear at the moment. It could be Taylor Hart, the team's fifth-round pick from this year's draft, or it could be Joe Kruger, the team's seventh-round pick in 2013 who spent his entire first season on injured reserve.
It could also be a surprise player like Alejandro Villaneuva, the 6'9'' former Army Ranger who hasn't played organized football in four years.
Nose Tackle: Bennie Logan
The Eagles have a lot of faith that Bennie Logan will become a solid player at the nose tackle position. You want proof? They passed on mammoth nose tackle Louis Nix III twice in the draft.
If that's not an indication that Logan is their guy, nothing is.
Logan became the starter midway through his rookie season, when the Eagles traded away struggling veteran Isaac Sopoaga to the New England Patriots.
Logan had his fair share of ups and downs as a rookie, but the season ended on a sour note when he was visibly pushed around by the New Orleans Saints in the Eagles' loss in the Wild Card Round.
According to Eagles Insider, Logan bulked up to 315 pounds this offseason, making him more of a traditional space-occupying nose tackle instead of an undersized player. The 2014 season, Logan's second in the league, will show a lot regarding whether he can become a long-term starter in this league.
Logan's backup will likely be rookie Beau Allen, the team's seventh-round draft pick from the 2014 draft. Allen, a 333-pound presence in the middle of the defensive line, will compete with Damion Square for the backup spot.
Square was an undrafted free agent who found his way onto the roster in 2013, but disappointed during limited playing time.
Right Defensive End: Fletcher Cox
The Eagles traded up for Fletcher Cox in the first round of the 2012 draft, and the 21-year-old turned in a very nice rookie season as a rotational defensive tackle.
In fact, his 5.5 sacks tied for first on the team with Jason Babin and Brandon Graham.
However, the Eagles' switch to the 3-4 defense before the 2013 season really hindered Cox's production. His role completely changed, as he moved from a defensive tackle in a 4-3 to a defensive end in a 3-4. He still had a solid sophomore season, but didn't take the jump most expected.
Tommy Lawlor of Iggles Blitz wrote a really good piece on why he thinks Cox's best days are still ahead of him.
It makes sense too, as the former first-round pick is just 23 years old and eligible for a contract extension following his third year in the league.
With Cox expected to be the team's best defensive lineman in 2014, competition at the backup role begins with Vinny Curry, the team's second-round pick in 2012. Curry really hasn't gotten a chance to play much during his two years in the NFL, but has flashed lots of potential in limited opportunities as a pass-rusher.
Left Outside Linebacker: Connor Barwin
I'm not quite as high on Connor Barwin as most, but there's no denying that the 27-year-old linebacker is one of the most important members on the defensive side of the ball.
Barwin was signed in free agency before the 2013 season. Speaking with reporters, defensive coordinator Billy Davis established him as the team's "Jack of all trades" linebacker.
Barwin is a player who can rush the passer, stop the run and cover tight ends. In fact, no outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense dropped back into coverage more times (subscription required) than Barwin did in 2013. That speaks wonders about his versatility.
The Eagles have been teaching rookie 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith to play Barwin's role, although Smith will likely also see time in place of veteran pass-rusher Trent Cole.
Smith is clearly the future at one of the two outside linebacker spots, but it makes sense for him to spend most of the 2014 season on the bench learning from Barwin.
Pushing to make the final roster will be Travis Long, an undrafted player who is considered a sleeper by Philly.com's Paul Domowitch. Long tore his ACL during his final game at college and spent the 2013 season on the Eagles' practice squad.
Left Inside Linebacker: Mychal Kendricks
For the first season-and-a-half of his career, Mychal Kendricks struggled as one of the starting inside linebackers.
Then he really turned the corner during the second half of his second season, and it seemed that he collected a sack or a turnover in every game down the stretch.
Kendricks is eligible for a contract extension following his third season, one that will hopefully result in a breakout campaign.
His backups will be either Jason Phillips, Emmanuel Acho or both.
Phillips was signed as a free agent before the 2013 season—mainly to play special teams—but tore his ACL and missed the entire season. Acho is on his third team in as many seasons and found his way into six games for the Eagles last season.
Right Inside Linebacker: DeMeco Ryans
I think it's pretty safe to say that this is DeMeco Ryans' final season in Philadelphia. He's a decent starter and is solid against the run, but he's a major liability in coverage.
I'm not the biggest fan of those aging linebackers who rack up 100 tackles per season but never make any game-changing plays.
With EaglesCap.com indicating that he's set to earn $6.8 million in 2015, Ryans will almost certainly be a veteran roster cut next offseason.
He's still much better than anything else the Eagles currently have on the roster, which includes veteran Najee Goode—likely the team's top backup—and Casey Matthews, who somehow enters his fourth training camp with the team despite a very disappointing career.
Right Outside Linebacker: Trent Cole
You've got to love a player like Trent Cole, who successfully switched to a new position at the age of 31 without seeing much of a decline in performance.
Playing linebacker for the first time in his career, Cole was used mostly as a pass-rusher while Barwin was the coverage linebacker.
Cole finished the season with eight sacks and, for what seemed like the first time in his nine-year career, he didn't wear down in the second half of the season. He also turned in typically impressive results against the run.
You could easily argue that Cole was the team's best front-seven player in 2013.
However, an eight-figure salary in 2015 almost guarantees that Cole is entering his final season in Philadelphia—unless he restructures his contract.
His top backup is former first-round pick Brandon Graham, who is still mostly an unknown despite entering the fifth year of his career.
Graham hasn't been a full-time starter since tearing his ACL at the end of his rookie season, but it's safe to say that if the Eagles really liked what Graham could do, he would have gotten more opportunities to play.
Graham always seems to produce as a pass-rusher in limited situations. It's just unclear how he could do if he needed to be counted on as an every-down player.
Left Cornerback: Bradley Fletcher
The biggest positional battle on the defensive side of the ball in training camp might be at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where last year's starter looks to hold off free-agent signing Nolan Carroll for the starting spot.
With Brandon Boykin firmly entrenched as the nickel corner, the loser of the Fletcher-Carroll battle will drop to the fourth corner spot, meaning he'll be lucky to see the field for 10 snaps per game.
Fletcher played surprisingly well last season, collecting 73 tackles, two interceptions and 16 pass breakups, but Carroll was a stud with the Miami Dolphins last year.
He allowed (subscription required) just a 47.8 completion percentage and 65.0 passer rating, figures that were bested by just one cornerback in the NFL.
If Carroll earns the starting job and plays anywhere near that level in 2014, he'll be the steal of free agency for the Eagles.
Free Safety: Malcolm Jenkins
How Malcolm Jenkins plays at free safety could largely determine how the Eagles defense plays in 2014. The biggest free-agent signing on the defensive side of the ball, Jenkins was signed to fill the void that the team has had at free safety since veteran Brian Dawkins was allowed to walk after the 2008 season.
If you believe the numbers at Pro Football Focus, Jenkins is one of the bottom-tier starting safeties in the league, a player who isn't particularly good at tackling (16 missed tackles in 2013) or coverage (103.3 passer rating allowed in 2013).
If you believe what Kelly told reporters, Jenkins is a player whose versatility (drafted as a cornerback in 2009) will allow the team to use him as a corner in three- and four-wide-receiver sets instead of taking him off the field.
Jenkins' top backup is likely Chris Maragos, signed from the Seattle Seahawks in free agency. Maragos will mostly just see time on special teams. Keelan Johnson, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, also has a chance to make the roster.
Strong Safety: Nate Allen
The Eagles somewhat surprisingly re-signed Nate Allen to a one-year deal this offseason, but the veteran was given no assurances that he'll start in 2014.
And he shouldn't have been.
Even though Allen played his best football in 2013 since he was a rookie in 2010, he's still a below-average starter who is best suited as a backup.
Earl Wolff played well as a rookie in 2013, but his big issue was staying healthy. He had knee issues that seemed to last the entire second half of the season. Expect him to return fully healthy, ready to battle it out with Allen for the starting job next to Malcolm Jenkins.
Rookie Ed Reynolds, a fifth-round pick in 2014, likely won't see much playing time this season.
Right Cornerback: Cary Williams
Cary Williams is firmly entrenched as the Eagles' top cornerback for the second straight season.
With that said, there's really no denying that Williams isn't respected around the league. Just check the numbers. He was targeted 117 times last year (subscription required), the second-highest total in the league.
Williams turned in a much better year than expected in coverage, stopping Calvin Johnson, Pierre Garcon and Jimmy Graham, among others. However, he appears to be a prime candidate for regression, so it's a good thing that the Eagles have some solid players behind Williams on the depth chart.
Other than Fletcher, Boykin and Carroll, the Eagles have versatile rookie Jaylen Watkins.
The first pick of the fourth round in 2014, Watkins probably won't see much playing time as a rookie, but his ability to play any of the four defensive back positions could prove essential if the Eagles suffer a key injury in the middle of a game.