After eight productive years as a defensive end in the four-man front, Cole shifted to a stand-up outside linebacker in Billy Davis' new 3-4 scheme. For the first time ever, Cole was asked to not only stop the run and rush the passer, but also take on more responsibility that included even covering running backs, slot receivers and tight ends.
Cole finished the season as Pro Football Focus' seventh-rated 3-4 outside linebacker (subscription required), ranking higher than notable players such as Terrell Suggs, John Abraham, Mario Williams and Junior Galette. He was second-best at his position in stopping the run, finishing behind just Suggs.
Cole’s high cap hit for 2014 ($6.6 million) suggested he may have been a cap casualty, and the Eagles did draft his future replacement in Marcus Smith, a first-round linebacker out of Louisville. But there seems to be no indication that Cole will be released, and he should be counted on for another big role in ’14.
Smith is an extremely raw player who probably should have gone in the second or third round of the NFL draft. He’s going to have to refine his pass-rushing skills to succeed at the next level, and that likely means he won’t be pushing Cole for playing time.
Cole has remained remarkably durable during his career, and the same should be expected of him in ’14. He started all 16 games in ’12 and ’13. He missed three games from 2010 to 2011, but those are the only three he’s missed since 2006.
Cole is still the best pass-rusher on the team, since Connor Barwin is more of a jack-of-all-trades linebacker who stops the run and covers the pass in addition to rushing the quarterback. Cole should be expected to put up at least eight to 10 sacks again, and he will be helped by an underrated three-man front (Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton). He’s averaged nine sacks per season over the last eight seasons, and he’s now in his second year in the new scheme.
There’s solid depth up front, with Taylor Hart and Beau Allen added to a unit that already included pass-rushing specialist Vinny Curry. Should Cole find himself wearing down late in the season, Davis can easily spell Cole with a player like Smith, Brandon Graham or even Curry.
Cole will frequently play as the 7-technique end in a four-man front, which is undoubtedly an easier task on third downs than dropping into coverage. He’s in his 10th NFL season, but plenty of defensive players are still productive at this point in their careers.
A case could still be made for Cole as the best defensive player on the Eagles, and for the team to advance far in the postseason, it will need Cole to continue to generate pressure on the opposing quarterback.