With the Philadelphia Eagles finishing up with their mandatory minicamp late last week, here’s an overview from what I saw up close from the defense during my time observing practices at the start of OTAs through the final practice:
– It was very noticeable that the Eagles can go a legitimate 11-deep on the defensive line (6 DE/5 DT), meaning all 11 players are capable of contributing. In fact, I don’t see another NFL team that’s deeper up front. It will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and line coach Jim Washburn use the entire group during training camp.
– Third-year DE Brandon Graham looks noticeably lighter (showed up to training camp last year out of shape—I’m putting it mildly), but whether that transfers to the field remains to be seen. But we really won’t get an idea about his progress until the pads go on during training camp. And with the emergence of Phillip Hunt late last season and the addition of second-round pick Vinny Curry this year, it’s not like Graham won’t have competition to deal with. If Graham progresses sufficiently enough in August and into the preseason, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if veteran DE Daryl Tapp, who only played in roughly 29.5 percent of the defensive snaps last season, winds up being traded before the regular season starts. Speaking of Curry, you have to like his size, quickness and motor—all three traits from which you could see even without pads on. I saw the real thing during Senior Bowl practices earlier this year.
– At defensive tackle, the Eagles have apparent solid depth and versatility. I kept an eye on first-round pick Fletcher Cox, who isn’t your typical interior defensive lineman. Those guys are typically built low to the ground and aren’t very athletic. But Cox has unusually long arms (34 ½) for a DT and he’s built like a DE. Even without pads on, you can see his short area quickness. And with Cox and veteran DT Cullen Jenkins capable of lining up outside (in the 4-3 or even if they used a 3-4 or other odd-man fronts), Castillo will have plenty of options to throw at opposing offenses. I can’t say this for sure, but fourth-year pro Antonio Dixon looked to be a little down in weight. And with all of this versatility and depth, the Eagles certainly don’t have to use veteran DEs Trent Cole and Jason Babin on a ton of snaps.
– When judging linebackers with no contact or pads on, it’s hard to make any definitive statements. However, you can see how fluid second-round pick Mychcal Kendricks is. It’s next to impossible to judge his understanding of the defensive scheme this early, but these practices were imperative in order for him to learn playing at SLB, a position which he hasn’t played before. You can see his fluidity of movement and coverage ability—two traits which will be tested once the pads go on in late July.
– Veteran MLB DeMeco Ryans did not look at all limited by the Achilles injury from a few seasons ago. As a high-level personnel executive told me after watching his tape from late last season, Ryans looked like he was all the way back from the injury. I will be interested to see how many plays he can handle each game. He was basically a two-down defender (played in just over 58 percent of the defensive snaps last season) with the Houston Texans in 2011.
– It has been written and speculated that the Eagles will change things up this season at cornerback as far as where those players are lined up. I fully expect the coaches to use more press coverage going forward. Most teams don’t have two starters over 6-feet (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha) like the Eagles do. And both are best used in press position where they can take advantage of their size. I’ve been on record as saying the Eagles will be better off without veteran CB Asante Samuel for one big reason; the ability to get physical with opposing wide receivers. Samuel typically plays deeper off the line (sometimes 8-10 yards deep), which is not the preferred alignment of DRC and Asomugha. For those wanting more information on younger cornerbacks such as Curtis Marsh, Brandon Hughes and Trevard Lindley, let’s wait till training camp. It’s too early to get a real idea of what their roles might be this season.
Still Some Work to Do
When examining the roster, it’s quite clear that head coach/executive vice president of football operations Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman have put together a very strong group, but there some issues remaining when it comes to depth at more than one position:
Outside Cornerback – The Eagles have plenty of candidates for the slot role (Joselio Hanson and rookie Brandon Boykin). However, what if either starter (Rodgers-Cromartie or Asomugha) couldn’t play? Is Hanson really an adequate replacement on the outside? He’s really solid inside, but is much less effective when lined up outside. He plays better in space or in confined areas. Unfortunately, the group of available veteran cornerbacks on the free agent market isn’t great, and most of them are best used inside.
Running Back – If starter LeSean McCoy got hurt, I’m not exactly sold that second-year pro Dion Lewis is ready to handle a significant amount of touches. While he’s an intriguing player, my sense is the Eagles would have to go with a running back by committee if McCoy couldn’t play. Lewis only saw 42 snaps on offense as a rookie. And with that being the case, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team signed a veteran at some point for insurance purposes. I’ll break down the offense later this week.
Strong Safety – As of this writing, the Eagles were in negotiations with veteran S O.J. Atogwe. But he’s more of a traditional “range” free safety, which means he’s not really a true in-the-box player like a SS. However, in today’s NFL, safeties have to cover more than ever, and there is less of aligning the FS deeper and the SS just inside the box. So Atogwe, who is expected to sign with the team barring a snag, could line up as a single safety or in different personnel groupings within the Eagles’ 4-3 defensive scheme. At the very least, he’ll serve as insurance at FS in back of starter Nate Allen. It should be noted that the Eagles had been trying to add depth and competition at SS to go up against starter Kurt Coleman and second-year pro Jaiquawn Jarrett, so it remains to be seen how that particular group will shake out.