Power Ranking 15 Best Players on Philadelphia Eagles Defense
The Philadelphia Eagles head into 2015 with a defense that was largely responsible for the team missing last season’s playoffs. Thirteen times the Eagles gave up 20 or more points, and the defense ranked 22nd for the year in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed.
It was the secondary in particular that was often exposed as the weeks went on. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher was the easy target, but it was defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ curious decision to leave Fletcher one-on-one with Dez Bryant and Jordy Nelson that decimated the Eagles’ postseason chances. As a unit, the Eagles secondary ranked second to last in the league in passing yards allowed.
Head coach Chip Kelly made major strides to improve the defense—particularly the secondary—this offseason. He signed free-agent cornerback Byron Maxwell to a $63 million deal. He drafted Utah’s Eric Rowe in the second round and two more corners in the sixth round plus a third-round inside linebacker to add depth.
The Eagles have a promising front seven that could be one of the better units in the NFL in ’15, but it’s the secondary that will be the true test of the season. Can this unit hold up against elite quarterbacks and receivers?
The talent on Philadelphia is evident, though, and it’s probable that this defense is one of the better ones in the league. Fletcher Cox is the consensus best player, while a handful of others vie for the nod as the second-best player on the defense.
Here’s a ranking of the 15 best players currently on the Eagles defense, counting from No. 15 down to 1. For rookies, it’s notoriously difficult to gauge how well they will translate to the NFL, so this is largely a projection based on their draft slot.
15. CB/S Walter Thurmond
The Eagles signed Walter Thurmond to a one-year deal to provide depth to their secondary. Like a handful of new players joining Chip Kelly’s team, Thurmond is coming off a lost season due to injury; he missed 14 games with a torn pectoral muscle.
Thurmond was expected to compete with Brandon Boykin and Nolan Carroll for the nickel cornerback spot—and that could happen—but it turns out the Eagles may be trying him at a new position.
Eagles approached Walter Thurmond about switching to safety three weeks ago. He thought it made sense. A lot of depth at CB.— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) May 28, 2015
Per the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff McLane, Thurmond was working with the second-teamers at safety. Chris Maragos was at the starting spot next to Malcolm Jenkins, but it’s doubtful he retains this spot throughout training camp, considering he’s essentially a special teams player and career backup at the safety position.
14. CB Eric Rowe
Eric Rowe (6'1", 205 lbs) is Chip Kelly’s kind of player—he’s a tall, long, physical corner with experience playing at safety, and Kelly felt it was worth trading up five spots in the second round to acquire him.
Rowe will be given an opportunity in training camp to win the starting spot opposite Byron Maxwell. It’s unreasonable to expect rookie cornerbacks to contribute on the outside immediately, but the Philadelphia Eagles may be pressed into a situation in which they need Rowe to start in Week 1.
Rowe started with the third team in OTAs, per the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff McLane, but Kelly typically likes to make his rookies earn their playing time. That’s no indication he doesn’t feel highly of Rowe.
13. CB Nolan Carroll
Nolan Carroll is in an interesting predicament this offseason. He theoretically could win the starting job opposite Byron Maxwell, especially if rookie Eric Rowe struggles in training camp.
He also could be the nickel cornerback, dime cornerback or even a veteran cut if he fails to impress this summer, especially considering he’s due to make $2.9 million against the cap in 2015 and the Eagles can release him with no penalty hit.
Carroll has experience with the Miami Dolphins as a starting cornerback, having started 22 games from 2012 to 2013. He was especially effective in ’13, finishing ninth among 110 qualifying cornerbacks in passer rating allowed (64.9), per Pro Football Focus.
12. ILB DeMeco Ryans
DeMeco Ryans is graded coming off a torn Achilles tendon, which does hurt his ranking. He’s also now 30 years old, entering his 10th NFL season and coming off his second major injury. Still, Chip Kelly thought highly enough of Ryans to extend/restructure his contract and keep him around for the 2015 season.
Ryans may start the campaign as a backup to Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks, but each of those two missed time due to injury a year ago, which means there’s a good chance Ryans sees playing time.
Ryans is still the unofficial quarterback of the defense. He’s said to be nearly 100 percent after last year’s injury, per CSNPhilly.com's Corey Seidman, and he’s a quality player even as he enters what is likely the twilight of his NFL career.
11. DE Vinny Curry
Vinny Curry is probably better suited as a 4-3 defensive end, so the fact that he was able to register nine sacks and four forced fumbles in a part-time role a year ago speaks volumes to his natural pass-rushing skills.
Curry will enter his fourth season with the Philadelphia Eagles still technically in a backup role to Cedric Thornton, but he is a pass-rushing specialist who sees action on third downs and obvious passing situations. A year ago, Pro Football Focus rated Curry as the eighth-best 3-4 end in the league in rushing the passer; Thornton rated 45th among 45 qualifiers in the same ranking.
That suggests Curry may see more and more of Thornton’s snaps, especially if he improves his performance as a run-stopper.
10. CB Brandon Boykin
Chip Kelly may think Brandon Boykin will never be anything more than a nickelback, but he’s a pretty good nickelback and could probably hold his own on the outside.
Boykin is a former Andy Reid draft pick, which means he’s not for long on the current Philadelphia Eagles. He’s also entering his contract year, and according to NFL Media insider Ian Rapoport, the team has already placed him on the trade block.
In fact, don’t be shocked if Boykin isn’t even on the Eagles' roster when the season starts.
When Boykin does play, though, he’s very good at what he does. He recorded six interceptions in 2013, including the game-winner and division-clincher in the closing minutes against the Dallas Cowboys. The only cornerback with more interceptions that season was Richard Sherman. Last year, Boykin didn’t duplicate his interception total, but he didn’t allow a single touchdown pass, per PFF.
If he’s in his natural nickelback role in 2015, the Eagles will be fortunate to have him.
9. DE Cedric Thornton
Cedric Thornton is an impressive success story, as he’s blossomed from a practice squad player to a formidable part of a three-man front on a possible playoff contender. After becoming a restricted free agent this past offseason, Thornton was re-signed to a one-year deal to remain on the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015.
He’s a tremendous run-stopper who offers very little as a pass-rusher. Thornton’s limitations are well-known, which is why the Eagles rotate him with Vinny Curry. But Thornton's success as a run defender helped the Eagles rank fifth best in the NFL a year ago in average rushing yards allowed per attempt.
Keeping Thornton around on a cost-friendly long-term deal would be the best move for Chip Kelly.
8. CB Byron Maxwell
Chip Kelly took a significant risk when he signed cornerback Byron Maxwell to a $63 million deal this offseason. That’s more money than Maxwell’s former teammate, Richard Sherman, makes in Seattle, and it places Maxwell as the fourth-highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, according to Spotrac.
What makes the contract so risky is that it’s much more on potential than play on the field so far. To date, Maxwell has started just one NFL season. While he was a productive player in Seattle’s Legion of Boom, he was the fourth-best defensive back in an all-world secondary that included Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
Maxwell’s 81.1 passer rating allowed ranked just 35th among 108 qualifying cornerbacks a year ago, per Pro Football Focus. Those are solid numbers, but they hardly justify a $10-plus million-a-year contract.
If Maxwell proves this season that he can match up with No. 1 wide receivers, he will climb up these rankings. But for now, he’s not much better than an average starting cornerback.
7. S Malcolm Jenkins
Veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins is Chip Kelly’s kind of safety—he’s a former cornerback who has the ability to cover wide receivers in man coverage. Jenkins played well in his first year in Philadelphia in 2014, starting all 16 games and recording three interceptions.
He dropped his fair share of interceptions, but still, Jenkins stabilized a safety corps that could be in trouble this season. Opposite Jenkins, the Eagles will be starting anyone from Earl Wolff to Jaylen Watkins to Ed Reynolds to Walter Thurmond, so that’s what ranks Jenkins slightly higher than he deserves based solely on his performance on the field.
6. NT Bennie Logan
Third-year nose tackle Bennie Logan is an unsung hero of one of the better run defenses in the National Football League. It’s doubtful he makes the Pro Bowl anytime soon, but he’s a valuable presence to the three-man front.
Logan’s sheer numbers don’t reflect his abilities; he registered no sacks, just one forced fumble and no fumble recoveries in 16 starts last season. What he did do, though, was anchor a Philadelphia Eagles defensive line that held leading rusher DeMarco Murray to 73 and 81 rushing yards in two appearances.
At over 300 pounds, Logan can play the traditional 0-technique nose tackle role, but he can also line up over the guards as a defensive tackle in a four-man front. When Logan’s contract expires after 2016, it’s probable that he receives a long-term deal to stay with Philadelphia.
5. OLB Brandon Graham
It’s been a roller coaster of a career for Brandon Graham since the Eagles selected him 13th overall in the 2010 NFL draft. The Philadelphia Eagles famously bypassed now-All-Pro safety Earl Thomas to take Graham. While Graham struggled early with injuries and ineffectiveness, he’s now on the verge of becoming a starter at the outside linebacker position.
Graham racked up 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 39 quarterback hurries a year ago, per PFF. He’s always maximized his ability to get to the opposing quarterback because he’s played largely on third downs, but there’s reason to believe he can be just as effective as a full-time starter now that Philadelphia's released Trent Cole.
Graham lost 25 pounds this offseason, which should make him quicker off the edge as a stand-up rushing linebacker. He’s renowned for his tremendous work ethic, and he’s playing behind a dominant defensive line. Don’t rule out the possibility of Graham registering 12-plus sacks in 2015.
4. ILB Kiko Alonso
Chip Kelly essentially swapped LeSean McCoy and his $12 million salary for DeMarco Murray and Kiko Alonso this offseason. That’s a pretty good plan, considering Murray’s running style better fits Kelly’s one-cut offense and Alonso is a linebacker with an extremely high upside.
Alonso was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate as a rookie in 2013, registering 159 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions. That’s unbelievable production, and the fact that he attended the University of Oregon and previously played under Kelly makes him a perfect fit for this defense.
Kelly is taking a calculated risk that Alonso will be able to successfully bounce back from a torn ACL that cost him all of ’14, but it’s a smart move. Per Sharp Football Analysis, the Eagles have been the NFL’s healthiest team since Kelly took over two seasons ago; Kelly is clearly betting on his sports science program to get Alonso back to full strength.
Per the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff McLane, Alonso rotated snaps with Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans in the first day of OTAs. But Alonso’s sheer talent and ability to cover tight ends and wide receivers will keep him on the field over Ryans (as long as he’s healthy). There’s a good chance Alonso plays at a Pro Bowl level in 2015.
3. ILB Mychal Kendricks
For now, Mychal Kendricks gets the slight nod over Kiko Alonso, the biggest reason being that Kendricks is coming off a Pro Bowl-caliber season while Alonso missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL.
Chip Kelly inexplicably isn’t a fan of Kendricks, whether it’s the fact that Andy Reid drafted him or that the 5’11” Kendricks is several inches shorter than Kelly’s preferred height for his inside linebackers. And the Kendricks-for-Tashaun Gipson idea, per Eagles beat writer Ed Kracz, would make a lot of sense for a Philadelphia Eagles team in desperate need of safety help.
But for now, Kendricks is an Eagle, and he’s a fine player at that. Kendricks has shown steady improvement in each of his three NFL seasons, and the biggest change has been his ability to make tackles. Per Pro Football Focus, he missed an average of 18.5 tackles in 2012 and 2013 but just nine last year.
Kendricks can play the run, rush the passer, cover tight ends and, with his 4.47 40-yard-dash speed, he’s a versatile defender who will be a key piece of the Eagles contending for an NFC East title in 2015 if he stays on the team.
2. OLB Connor Barwin
Connor Barwin took that next step forward in 2014. He’s always shown glimpses of being a great player, but he put it all together last season and led the team with 14.5 sacks. Barwin has played all 64 games over the last four years, which means there are no injury concerns with him.
He had his struggles in pass coverage, allowing three touchdowns, but he’s also a sure tackler in run defense, missing just three of 41 attempts, per PFF. The six-year, $36 million deal he signed prior to 2013 is suddenly starting to look like a bargain, especially if he can continue producing sacks at that rate.
1. DE Fletcher Cox
After two productive seasons in Philadelphia, Fletcher Cox took that next step in 2014. The former first-round pick blossomed into a nearly unblockable force on the defensive line. He’s probably a natural 3-technique tackle, but he hasn’t missed a beat since moving to the 5-technique spot on the Eagles’ new 3-4 defense.
Cox had just four sacks a year ago, but his value is best demonstrated in what his teammates did. Connor Barwin had 14.5 sacks. Vinny Curry had nine. As a unit, the Eagles led the NFC with 49 sacks and 23 forced fumbles. That wouldn’t have happened without Cox.
After an offseason of Cox being included in possible trade talks for Marcus Mariota, Eagles fans can take consolation in knowing their prized defensive player will be around for 2015. If the organization is smart, it will do whatever is necessary to keep Cox around for the long haul.