The Eagles defense was one of the main concerns for Chip this year, and he made plenty of moves to bolster the unit; he made his big splash in Free Agency by adding a cornerback and then used the majority of his draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. With our offensive breakdown in the books, here’s the battles and players to watch as we get into the dog days of summer:
Nose Tackle: The whole front 7 for the birds is pretty stacked, and I look for it to be one of the top in the league this year. Bennie Logan took some crap last year before their Thanksgiving day game for talking trash on the Cowboys offensive line. But boy did he do his part to back up his words. Logan ranked 10th among all interior linemen in stopping the run in 2014, according to pro football focus. The Eagles as a team let up a mere 3.74 yards per carry against, which was good enough for 5th in the league. Logan is very talented and will look to spearhead that unit again. Behind him is a second year guy who played solid in spots in Beau Allen. Two guys that are pretty reliable in the center of the defense will be key to locking up the run.
Defensive Tackle/End: Another loaded position on the Eagles D-line are their tackles or technically ends in their 3-4. First there is Fletcher Cox. Cox is one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the league. He led this unit last year making plays all over the field, and I expect more of the same this year. In fact, over the last nine weeks of the 2014 season, Cox ranked as the top 3-4 defensive end against the run and the second overall behind some dude name JJ Watt. On the other side is Cedric Thorton, another big defensive lineman who does his part in clogging his gap. Between Cox, Logan and Thorton, it is going to be very difficult for teams to run against the birds. Behind Cox and Thorton sit Brandon Bair and Vinny Curry. Curry had 9 sacks last year, despite playing limited minutes. He will look to get similar opportunities this year and if he continues to drop the quarterback he may find himself in the mix even more.
Inside Linebacker: Another log jam sits at inside backer. Let’s start with the Legend of Kiko Alonso. I’m extremely excited to see this guy manning the middle of the Eagles defense for the foreseeable future. This guy was an absolute animal for the Bills as a rookie. He amassed a staggering 159 tackles as a rookie, which was third overall in the league. In addition to making tackles, he tallied 4 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 sack, 11 stuffs (tackles made at or behind the LOS) and 4 pass deflections. To put it simply, Alonso makes plays from sideline to sideline, which is exactly what you want out of a middle linebacker. Perhaps the most exciting part about Alonso in green and black is that he will have someone of equal talent starting next to him. I don’t know if it will be Demeco Ryans or Mychal Kendricks, but both players are good options. I lean towards letting Kendricks start; he’s more dynamic than Ryans and I think he and Alonso together on the field is flat out frightening. However, I get the vibe from the Chipper that Ryans will get the starting nod, assuming he’s healthy. I don’t mind this because Ryans is probably the best leader on the Eagles defense and perhaps even on the team. He’s old Mr.Reliable and I’m happy he is still on the team. It is NEVER a bad thing to have too much talent at one position. If nothing more, these guys will have a killer rotation and fresh legs. If there’s an injury, you don’t lose a step. I fully expect Alonso and Kendricks to be on the field in passing situations as Alonso is a specialist at covering TE’s and Kendricks is far more athletic than Ryans at this stage in his career. Another guy who I’m excited to see out there is Jordan Hicks. Hicks is a rookie, but was another 3 down ILB during his years at Texas. The Eagles really like him and I think he projects out at worst to be a solid backup linebacker. I also expect Najee Goode to make a push for the gameday roster. As legendary Medfield High School football head coach Erik Ormberg says, “you build your defense up the middle. Solid on the interior line, solid at the ILB positions and solid at safety. If you can do that, everything else will take care of itself.” The Eagles have accomplished at least ⅔ of that.
Outside Linebacker: As I sit here breaking down the Eagles roster, I’m getting more excited about this defense. One of the Eagles best football players is one of the incumbent outside linebackers, Connor Barwin. Barwin was fantastic last year- he made an impact in every aspect of the game as he accumulated 14.5 sacks, 5 pass deflections (mainly batted balls at LOS), forcing 2 fumbles and being a genuinely good human being. Barwin did it all. I expect this defense to call his number often again this year. He forces teams to gameplan against him. On the other side of the defense sits Brandon Graham, fresh off signing a new contract. Graham is on this team mainly because of his ability to rush the passer. He was stellar last year in limited playing time (5.5 sacks), but with Trent Cole now in a Colts uniform, Graham will see plenty of opportunities to rush the passer. Marcus Smith and Bryan Braman sit as the #2’s at each spot, but expect Smith to get the most opportunities. He was the team’s first round pick last year and watch for him to take a big leap in year two. However, if an injury happens to either Graham or Barwin I honestly think the best option is sliding Kendricks to OLB and keeping Ryans and Alonso inside. Not much competition going on at LB for the Birds this preseason, but it will still be a situation to keep an eye on: who starts inside, how do Graham and Smith look and of course whatever antics Barwin is up to.
Cornerback: The Eagles secondary has been awful over the past few seasons. In 2014 they ranked second to last in passing yards allowed per game and were 28th for touchdowns allowed through the air. Sadly enough this may have been a slight improvement over 2012 and 2013. However, Chip has done his best to make upgrades throughout this secondary starting by cutting incumbent corner Cary Williams and letting Bradley Fletcher walk in Free Agency. Chip went out and signed the hottest name on the cornerback market in Byron Maxwell. It’s tough to fully judge Maxwell’s performance given the loaded secondary he was in, but given the fact that the Seahawks run a cover 4 scheme, effectively leaving their corners and safeties on islands, and Maxwell rarely let up big plays, I think he’ll be an upgrade. If he can be the lock down corner the Eagles hope he can, then that will go a long way in solidifying this secondary. Remember, they have to play Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr and Desean Jackson twice each per year, so if they don’t have someone that can limit the damage of those WR’s then this defense will be in trouble time and again. On the other side of the field it is an open competition. Nolan Carrols has been repping with the 1’s during OTA’s, but his spot is wide open. Carroll struggled to get on the field last year and beat out the incumbents, who as previously stated, let up big numbers. So I’m not confident he wins this battle. His biggest competition is with 3rd round draft pick Eric Rowe from Utah. The Eagles like to baby their rookies along, but I have a feeling he may overtake Carroll for this spot by opening day. A few days ago when I began to write this, I described how their nickel corner, Brandon Boykin, was one of the best in the league at his job. However, Boykin is now in the Steelers secondary and the Eagles are looking at youth to fill the nickel role. For the record, I think Boykin was walking at the end of this year no matter what; the Eagles drafted 3 corners and brought in Maxwell, so Boykins’ days were probably numbered. But part of the reason Chip felt comfortable letting Boykin go is his faith that either JaCorey Shepherd or the “loser” of the Rowe-Carroll battle will fill in successfully at nickel. Regardless of how all these competitions shake out, this will be a position to watch in camp and throughout the season.
Safety: Finally we get to the safety spot. One spot is solidified by Malcolm Jenkins, who had a great first year in Philly racking up 15 pass deflections, 3 picks, 2 forced fumbles and 80 tackles. Jenkins was very active last year being lined up all across the field from the 1 high safety to coming up and playing almost at the outside linebacker position. He’s an important cog in this defense and also provides great leadership. However, his starting mate from last year, Nate Allen, is gone. Most Birds fans are happy to see Allen go, but stand concerned about who is replacing him- the Eagles have moved nickel corner Walter Thurmond to that second safety spot. Thurmond was injured the entire year last year and I’m not sure what to expect from him. Competing with him will be often hobbled Earl Wolff. Wolff is a physical safety who is not shy to contact. However, in his 2 years with the Eagles, he has struggled mightily to stay on the field and reports are surfacing that Chip is not happy with his inability to stay healthy. This safety spot is of major concern right now, but if they can get solid play from the other 3 secondary spots as well as front 7 then they may be able to weather the storm.
Kicker: Cody Parkey had a very memorable rookie campaign, hitting 32 of 36 of his attempts, including 4 over 50 yards. Going into training camp last year Parkey was on the Colts roster and the Eagles had Alex Henery as their starter. Parkey was signed in time for the last preseason game, banged home two 50 yarders and won the job. He then proceeded to hit a game winning field goal on the road in just his second week. I like this kid quite a bit and hope he provides the Eagles with a solid option at kicker.
Kick Returner: Josh Huff made a name for himself when he returned the opening kick for a touchdown in week 12 versus the Titans. He was great when he managed to stay healthy, but that’s the key with Huff, if he’s healthy he’ll be a great option. If he isn’t healthy, Sproles can take those duties or rookie Nelson Agholor could step in as well.
Punt Returner: Darren Sproles sits as one of the best in the league in punt returns as he tallied 506 yards last year on 39 attempts and 2 touchdowns. He is one of the biggest game changers on the Eagles roster and can turn any game with one touch. I look for more of that out of him this year and feel comfortable with him every time he touches the ball.
Overall I expect the Eagles defense to be improved from last year. The front 7, which dominated late last year, will be even better this year with the addition of Kiko Alonso, and the return of all other impact players. The secondary should be better mainly because it couldn’t get worse, but they lack depth in the secondary so if Maxwell or Jenkins goes down to injury they will be in big trouble. But, hopefully they will be backed by a defensive line that can get after the quarterback often. I look for their special teams units to be one of the best in the league due to the amount of stress these returners puts on opposing units. I’m excited to see what these two units will bring to the table this year.
By Peter Gumas