Realistic Projections for Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Starters
There's a common misconception going around the city of Philadelphia that the Eagles had a bad defense last season. Not just a bad defense, but one of the worst defenses in the National Football League.
I'm honestly not sure where people got this idea from. Yes, the defense was expected to be very bad, but the brilliant work of the defensive coordinator and a few surprise players on the defensive side of the ball helped the Eagles finish 17th in the league in points allowed. That's the definition of average, and I think we all would have been very happy with average based on preseason expectations.
Although the Eagles need to improve on their pass rush, they ranked third in the league in turnovers and fourth in average yards allowed per run. They also allowed a cumulative passer rating of 82.3, using ColdHardFootballFacts.com's passer rating calculator, which ranks above average in this pass-happy era.
The Eagles have a number of young talented players who need to take a step forward in 2014 for this defense to become a top-10 or -12 unit. If they can, expect this team to contend for a Super Bowl title.
The following slides will predict the defensive statistics of every significant contributor for the team in 2014. I did not factor in injuries, but I did factor in potential benchings. Statistics like snaps played and passer rating allowed were found using Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Defensive End: Fletcher Cox
2013 stats: 908 snaps, 32 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 PD, 1 FR
2014 stats: 924 snaps, 44 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 PD, 4 FF, 1 FR
A big year in 2014 earns Fletcher Cox a hefty contract extension next offseason. I think he comes through. He followed up an impressive rookie season with a disappointing sophomore campaign, but don't forget that he switched positions and still collected a boatload of hurries even though he didn't record sacks.
With more help from his teammates and another year in the 3-4 scheme, I have Cox doubling his sack total and adding four forced fumbles. He won't make the Pro Bowl off of those numbers but he will earn a contract extension.
Nose Tackle: Bennie Logan
2013 stats: 488 snaps, 24 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FR
2014 stats: 638 snaps, 37 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 PD
The nose tackle of the future, Logan's 638 snaps project to about 40 per game. That's because seventh-round rookie Beau Allen has looked impressive enough in preseason that he should earn legit playing time. The most important stat for Logan is 3.8. That's how many yards per rush the Eagles allowed in 2013. Let's hope they can keep that number under 4.0 again in 2014.
Defensive End: Cedric Thornton
2013 stats: 739 snaps, 48 tackles, 1 sack, 2 PD, 1 FF, 1 safety
2014 stats: 544 snaps, 39 tackles, 1 sack, 1 PD
Although I was impressed by Cedric Thornton's emergence in 2013, especially as a run-stuffer, he offers almost nothing as a pass-rusher. I think he unofficially loses his starting job to emerging pass-rusher Vinny Curry late in the season. It'll be interesting to see what the Eagles do with Thornton when he enters free agency.
Defensive End: Vinny Curry
2013 stats: 322 snaps, 18 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 PD
2014 stats: 613 snaps, 31 tackles, 9 sacks, 2 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD, 1 safety
After two seasons of barely setting foot on the field, Vinny Curry is due for a breakout season. I have him winning the starting job from Thornton and finishing the year with nine sacks despite playing in just over 50 percent of the snaps. Throw in a couple of forced fumbles, a touchdown and a safety and you have a player who should be penciled in as a Week 1 starter in 2015.
Outside Linebacker: Trent Cole
2013 stats: 908 snaps, 44 tackles, 8 sacks, 6 PD, 3 FF, 1 safety
2014 stats: 701 snaps, 35 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT
I think the end is near for Trent Cole, who turns 32 this season and is undoubtedly in his final season with the Eagles. Expect Cole's snaps to decrease this year, due to age and the emergence of Brandon Graham (or rookie Marcus Smith). Cole's final five sacks in an Eagles uniform solidify him as one of the great pass-rushers in team history, even if he'll be playing elsewhere in 2015.
Inside Linebacker: Mychal Kendricks
2013 stats: 1,022 snaps, 86 tackles, 5 PD, 4 sacks, 4 FR, 3 INT, 2 FF
2014 stats: 1,034 snaps, 98 tackles, 7 PD, 3 sacks, 3 FF, 2 INT, 1 FR, 1 TD
I expect Mychal Kendricks to build on his final few games in 2013, when he seemed to collect an interception, fumble recovery or sack every week. He's an emerging star and his numbers in 2014 will earn him a hefty deal in free agency following the season.
Inside Linebacker: DeMeco Ryans
2013 stats: 1,189 snaps, 102 tackles, 8 PD, 4 sacks, 2 INT
2014 stats: 974 snaps, 76 tackles, 4 PD, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR
With DeMeco Ryans now 30 years old, the Eagles simply have to decrease his snaps this season. They've even admitted as much. Ryans still played well in 2013, but I think his level of play really decreases in 2014. He's an almost certain roster cut following the season, as he's scheduled to earn close to $7 million. With no proven talent behind him on the depth chart, expect Ryans to still average 60 snaps per game. He'll just be removed on most obvious passing downs.
Outside Linebacker: Connor Barwin
2013 stats: 1,158 snaps, 48 tackles, 12 PD, 5 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT
2014 stats: 1,094 snaps, 49 tackles, 8 PD, 7 sacks, 3 FF, 2 INT, 1 FF
Last year's big offseason free-agent signing, Connor Barwin was a tremendous success as a jack-of-all-trades linebacker. He probably won't drop back into coverage as much in 2014, but he's just as important to a defense that really needs his versatility and leadership. I have his snaps decreasing just a little but his big plays (sacks and turnovers) increasing.
Outside Linebacker: Brandon Graham
2013 stats: 331 snaps, 17 tackles, 3 sacks
2014 stats: 567 snaps, 30 tackles, 8 sacks, 3 PD, 1 FF
I remain optimistic for Brandon Graham. He was a legitimate star in limited action in 2012 but has never gotten a chance to show what he can do on a regular basis. His time could be coming in 2014, as veteran Trent Cole continues his decline. Eight sacks in less than half the snaps would likely earn Graham a starting spot heading into the 2015 season.
Outside Linebacker: Marcus Smith
2014 stats: 313 snaps, 14 tackles, 2 PD, 1 sack
My expectations for Marcus Smith as a rookie are very minimal. He's a project, a player who is still learning the intricacies of the position. He would likely need two injuries to see significant action, as he's probably the fourth outside linebacker at this point.
Cornerback: Cary Williams
2014 stats: 636 snaps, 41 tackles, 5 PD, 1 INT, 98.4 passer rating allowed
I was both impressed and surprised by Cary Williams last season. Repeatedly torched with the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in 2012, Williams allowed just an 80.9 passer rating during his first season in Philly, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He also turned in some impressive performances against top wide receivers, notably Calvin Johnson and Pierre Garcon.
But don't expect his success to continue in 2014. He'll be improved as a tackler (he had a down year in 2013), but he'll allow close to a triple-digit passer rating. I actually think he is benched in midseason for either Bradley Fletcher or Nolan Carroll (or possibly even Brandon Boykin). Williams turns 30 this season. He'll be cut next offseason for sure.
Cornerback: Bradley Fletcher
2014 stats: 711 snaps, 49 tackles, 8 PD, 2 INT, 1 FR, 86.0 passer rating allowed
A pleasant surprise in 2013, Bradley Fletcher is locked in a battle for the starting job with Nolan Carroll. I still haven't decided who wins the job, but I have Carroll playing better than Fletcher during the season and finishing the year with more snaps played. Fletcher is an average cornerback, and that's how I project him to play in 2014.
Cornerback: Brandon Boykin
2014 stats: 811 snaps, 46 tackles, 19 PD, 5 INT, 2 FR, 1 FF, 0.5 sacks, 2 TD, 70.1 passer rating allowed
The best defensive player on the 2013 Eagles, Brandon Boykin, absolutely has to be given a chance to play on the outside. He's too good to sit on the bench for 50 percent of the snaps. I think he gets that chance in 2014—sort of.
I have him playing in about two-thirds of the snaps, which still isn't enough for a player of his talent. A second straight near-Pro Bowl level season will complicate things once Boykin is eligible for a contract extension. Will the Eagles pay him as a starter or will they make him enter the final year of his rookie deal without a new contract?
Cornerback: Nolan Carroll
2014 stats: 799 snaps, 46 tackles, 15 PD, 4 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD, 73.3 passer rating allowed
I still can't believe how little interest Nolan Carroll received in free agency. He posted the best year of his career in 2013 but wasn't a hot commodity in free agency. He's still competing with Fletcher for a starting job. I think Carroll finds his way onto the field for about 50 snaps per game, either as the number two corner over Fletcher or in place of a struggling Williams. He won't play as well as he did in 2013 but he'll still be a very good corner.
Safety: Malcolm Jenkins
2014 stats: 1,171 snaps, 61 tackles, 9 PD, 1 sack, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 90.4 passer rating allowed
I have Malcolm Jenkins leading the team in defensive snaps in 2014. The team's big free-agent signing on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, the best-case scenario for the Eagles is Jenkins reviving his career on a defense better suited to his strengths.
He's not a playmaker and he's not a shutdown guy in coverage. But he's much better than Earl Wolff, Ed Reynolds or Chris Maragos. He can cover slot receivers on obvious passing downs, too. There's no reason for him to ever leave the field.
Safety: Nate Allen
2014 stats: 931 snaps, 6 PD, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR, 87.4 passer rating allowed
An impressive preseason has helped Nate Allen win the starting job over last year's rookie Earl Wolff (although Billy Davis hasn't officially announced the winner of the competition yet). I don't expect Allen to turn into a star, though. He should be helped playing next to Malcolm Jenkins instead of Patrick Chung, but he's still a below-average safety who probably won't be re-signed next offseason.
Unless otherwise noted, all advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).