Earlier today, we took a look at five questions on offense heading into camp. Now we’ll look at the defense:
1) How good can this defensive line be?
Early on in the 2011 season, the Eagles played the Falcons on Sunday Night Football. The box score for Trent Cole read 6 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFLs, but that did little to tell the story of what Cole actually did in that game. He basically made a mockery of Falcons LT Sam Baker’s attempts to keep him from looking like little more than a tackling sled. Whatever he went to… the bull rush (especially the bull rush), the arm over, the rip, it didn’t matter. Baker could do absolutely nothing to keep Cole from collapsing the pocket on virtually every pass play and making life miserable for Matt Ryan. It was one of the most dominant performances I’ve ever seen from a defensive lineman.
I think that’s kind of the story with Trent Cole. His stats are good (at least 10 sacks in 4 of the last 5 years), but I don’t think they truly tell the story of how good a football player he is. He’s a great pass rusher, and an elite run stopper from the DE position, and a leader in the locker room.
Jason Babin is kind of the opposite, as he has eye-popping glamour numbers (18 sacks in 2011), although his game has some deficiencies. He commits far too many penalties (he led the team with 12 last season), and while I don’t believe he’s a liability in the run game, I certainly wouldn’t say that’s one of his strengths. Still, he is great at what he does, which is get to the QB.
At DT, Cullen Jenkins remains one of the better interior defensive linemen in the NFL, who excels at collapsing the pocket. His 5.5 sacks in 2011 were good for 6th in the league for DTs. His presence did wonders for Babin’s numbers last season. Pairing with him is Mike Patterson, who I believe is a very underrated player, even by Eagles fans. Patterson, however, had brain surgery and remains questionable for the start of camp.
Getting past the starters, look at this second line:
Brandon Graham – Fletcher Cox – Antonio Dixon – Vinny Curry
Potential galore. Cox and Curry haven’t taken a snap in the NFL, but according to Tony Pauline of Sports Illustrated, “several NFL teams have privately stated they believe Cox will be the best defensive player to come from the 2012 draft.” Meanwhile, Curry dominated in college and I thought he was one of the most impressive players at the Senior Bowl practices.
Brandon Graham was selected a few spots ahead of the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul in the 2010 draft. Graham showed promise as a rookie, but an ACL tear severely set him back. Pierre-Paul finished 4th in the NFL for Defensive Player of the Year. Naturally, the comparisons of Graham and JPP have led Graham to become something of a punching bag among some Eagles fans. Graham recognizes that and has come into camp with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. At minicamp, Graham said, “I’m a bust, and I’m going to keep being a bust. Even when I make plays, I’m going to still act like I’m a bust.”
A lot of teams in building mode would be excited about that 2nd string being their starters. The oldest player on the second line is Dixon, at 27, with the rest of the bunch all 24 years of age or younger.
But the depth doesn’t even end there. Phillip Hunt played very well last season when he got his opportunities, and Darryl Tapp is a 6-year vet that is a really nice role player with 23.5 career sacks. And then there’s Derek Landri, who simply made plays last year.
This is as deep and talented of a defensive line heading into camp as I can think of in recent memory. It will be interesting to see if the Eagles can fit all that talent onto their 53 man roster.
2) How much better is the linebacking corps, and who will start?
Newly acquired DeMeco Ryans will start in the middle, and the team hopes that he can be a leader of the defense. Ryans believes that his reputation as a leader doesn’t mean a thing until his teammates can see whether or not he can actually play.
“Right now, I’m coming into a new situation, so I have to go out and earn (their respect),” Ryans said. “These guys, I don’t know whether they’ve seen me play or what, but these guys have to go out and see me play on the field to give that respect to me.”
Manning the SAM position will likely be 2nd round draft pick Mychal Kendricks. Kendricks is an athletic phenom, and has looked like he belonged from the first day he stepped onto the Eagles practice fields at the NovaCare Complex. Something would have to go drastically wrong for Kendricks to lose his grasp on a starting position.
Most people believe the third spot will eventually go to 2nd year LB Brian Rolle. I’m not so sure that is a lock. Rolle was getting reps with the starting unit at minicamp, but was not so good last season that he will just have a starting job handed to him. His primary competition will be Jamar Chaney, and possibly even Casey Matthews for the WILL spot.
The Eagles should expect to get far better play from their linebackers this season, although it would be hard to imagine them being much worse.
3) What does the CB situation look like?
Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are the starters. Rodgers-Cromartie is in the final year of his contract, so his level of play will be under heavy scrutiny all season long. He looked extremely impressive in minicamp, although that was in shorts. DRC is one of the most athletically gifted players in the league, but it remains to be seen if he can translate that into becoming a consistently good CB.
With the NFL being such a pass happy league in recent years, the slot CB is also considered by some as a “starting job.” Joselio Hanson has held that title for the Eagles for years, but he is aging and will have fierce competition in rookie 4th round pick Brandon Boykin. Boykin looks like he may be a steal, as he had a tremendous minicamp.
The primary backup to Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside is 2nd year CB Curtis Marsh. His primary competition will be Brandon Hughes.
4) Nate Allen… and then who at safety?
In the “Miracle at the Meadowlands” game in 2010, Nate Allen suffered a serious knee injury, and he struggled in the first half of the 2011 season as he tried to regain confidence in the health of his knee. As the season progressed, Allen continued to get better, and looks to be back on track in becoming a solid starting safety. He is the only lock to start at safety.
The Eagles’ coaching staff has reportedly been unhappy with 2nd year safety Jaiquawn Jarrett’s ability to learn the defense, and there are additional questions about his speed, of lack thereof. His inability to put a stranglehold on a starting spot heading into his second year in the league is certainly disappointing for a 2nd round pick.
Instead, that job is currently occupied by Kurt Coleman. Coleman is a smart football player, but limited athletically. He is ideally suited as a backup safety, but won’t kill your defense if he has to start.
The Eagles also recently brought in veteran Oshiomogho Atogwe, who played in Washington last season. At one time in his career, Atogwe was one of the better playmakers in the NFL. In 2007 and 2008, Atogwe picked off 13 passes and forced 6 fumbles with the Rams. He is no longer that kind of dynamic player, but is still a solid veteran presence.
Also worth mentioning is special teams standout Colt Anderson. Anderson tore his ACL late in the 2011 season, and is still recovering. He is reportedly “ahead of schedule” in his rehabilitation, but it is likely that he will begin the season on the PUP list.
5) Who will emerge as the kick/punt returners?
In his first three years in the NFL, DeSean Jackson was clearly one of the best punt returners in the NFL. There will almost certainly be debate as to whether or not he should still be returning punts, with the thinking that you don’t want him to be injured. I’m of the opinion that he should return punts.
For one, punt returns are not kick returns. I think that sometimes the two are lumped together as being dangerous. Kick returns are brutal. On kick returns, you have 10 players running full speed down the field, as the returner runs full speed head on at them. It looks a lot like the fight scenes in Braveheart, where the English and Scottish forces charge at one another from a across a field at full speed.
Punt returns are completely different. For starters, it’s sheer numbers. At the snap on a punt, typically only the gunners release downfield, with the personnel on the line either having blocking assignments, or ineligible to run downfield until the punt is away. This creates much more of a “broken field” for the returner. If the punter is able to put good hangtime on his kick and the gunners are in a position to make a play, Jackson can simply call for a fair catch. In situations where nothing is there, he can simply try to get to the sidelines or just go down. The risk of bodily harm is far less on punt returns in comparison to kick returns.
Furthermore, because players along the line on the punt protection team are also trying to keep the return team from getting a free run at the punter, they have blocking responsibilities. To ensure that the return team doesn’t just run right over your line to get to the punter, teams are forced are trade speed for some bulk along the line. As a result, you have a mix of linebackers, tight ends, fullbacks, etc that are trying to track down a speedy guy like Jackson, which is a complete mismatch.
Personally, I’m not inclined to let my opponent breathe a sigh of relief whenever they punt and DeSean Jackson isn’t back there.
That debate aside, the Eagles have a number of very intriguing options as far as players competing to win a returner job. First and foremost is the aforementioned Brandon Boykin. Boykin is a lock to make the team, which in my opinion, makes him the most likely to win the kick returner job. Special teams coach Bobby April had Boykin rated as the best combo returner (kick and punt returns) in this year’s draft. Boykin’s college return numbers:
Kick returns – 110 returns, 2660 yards, 24.2 yards per return, 4 TD
Punt returns – 32 returns, 180 yards, 5.6 yards per return, 1 TD
The Eagles also signed a pair of undrafted free agents with character issues in Damaris Johnson of Tulsa, and Cliff Harris of Oregon. Johnson returned both punts and kicks in college, while Harris mainly returned punts. Their college numbers:
Damaris Johnson, Tulsa:
Kick returns – 122 returns, 3191 yards, 26.2 yards per return, 2 TD
Punt returns – 53 returns, 556 yards, 10.5 yard per return, 2 TD
Cliff Harris, Oregon:
Kick returns – 9 returns, 192 yards, 21.3 yards per return, 0 TD
Punt returns – 46 returns, 614 yards, 13.3 yards per return, 4 TD
Mardy Gilyard will also be in the mix, although in his 16 career NFL kick returns, his longest return was just 34 yards.
The Eagles were atrocious last year on both kick and punt returns. That is one area that is almost a certainty to improve in 2012.