Every well-run company does a yearly inventory check. In this eight-part series, I will break down, position-by-position, where the Eagles stand, how long-term their current situation is and the likelihood of a draft pick being spent on that position.
Next up: The D-Line.
The Starters: The Eagles are decent along the D-Line, albeit unspectacular. However, the group is so young that the answers may already be on the roster. And if not, it’s probably too early to tell.
Fletcher Cox is clearly the best player on the D-Line and possibly on the entire defense. But that might be more an indictment of the defense’s lack of start-power than Cox’s actual ability. Truthfully, Cox was again solid in 2013, but he did not take the step forward that many had hoped after a really promising rookie season. His Sack-, TFL- and Solo Tackle Numbers were down, although much of that may be the 3-4 system, which generally allows for less playmaking opportunities for it’s down-lineman. Still, both Muhammad Wilkerson, Justin Smith and J.J. Watt have become stars at 3-4 DE, so it can be done.
At the other DE spot, Cedric Thornton proved to be perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2013 season on defense. Ced ranked as one of the top run stopping D-Lineman in football and was a major part of a run defense that finished in the top 10 last year. Thornton’s biggest issue is his total lack of pass rush ability. Ced will simply never be a guy who puts up more than – maybe 3 sacks? – in a given season, and that severely limits his upside. Still, at 25, he’s a valuable role player. Additionally, he has the size at 6’4, 309-lbs to be the team’s NT in the future.
And NT is where Bennie Logan comes in. The 2013 3rd-rounder was given the starting NT-job after veteran Isaac Sopoaga was traded to New England. Logan proved to be better than the big Samoan, but was still routinely pushed off the ball and unable to hold the point of attack as well as he needs to. It may simply be a case of Bennie simply not being strong enough yet. But as we saw with the body-dysmorphia of the infamous Mike Patterson, big guys can pack pounds if they want to. I think he has earned a shot to prove himself at NT this season. Grade: B
The Backups: The DL remained pretty healthy in 2013, so there isn’t really much experience among the backups.
Vinny Curry is the exception. I’ll admit that I had no idea where Curry would fit into Billy Davis’s defense, and his move to 3-technique DE was a little surprising. But I thought Curry looked great as a situational pass rusher and seemed to off-set Thornton’s skill set very nicely. Rotation DEs with pass-rushing ability are valuable, and Curry certainly fits the bill.
Damion Square is the only other backup with experience, although him getting trucked by DeMarco Murray is just about the only Damion Square-moment that we have thus far. Square anchored an excellent Alabama defense in college. And although he went undrafted, he was seen as one of the priority Free Agents of the 2014 UFA class. Expect him to be back in the rotation in 2014, although his job is not guaranteed.
Beyond those two, it’s a lot of bodies. Joe Kruger was drafted in the 7th round last year, but was seen as too raw to play, but too talented to stash on the PS. So, off the IR. He could be in the mix this year. Brandon Bair is a 29-year old former Oregon player who played under Kelly and is a longshot. Alejandro Villanueva is a 6’9 former Army Ranger who was signed by the Eagles after three tours in Afghanistan. Cool story. It’d be awesome if he made the team.
But truthfully, the team probably needs two additional backups to add to the mix. Grade: C+
Long-term viability: Cox, Thornton and Logan are all under 26 years old, so that group would appear to be set for a while. The question is whether it’s good enough. Cox is fine. Thornton, while limited, doesn’t need to be upgraded at this point. And it probably makes sense to let Logan show what he’s got with a full season at NT. So, while the starters are very young, and they’re probably in place for 2014, I’d venture a guess that in two seasons, only two of the three will be starters. Grade: B+
Draft Likelihood: I don’t think the Eagles will draft a DL unless a player they really like falls to them. Maybe a late-rounder could be used to bolster depth, much like Kruger and David King last year. But I think this is a case where you bring in a few UFAs, maybe a journeyman or two, to compete, and see where it goes. Grade: D+