Eagles Snapshot: Defensive Line Preview

Throughout the course of the week, we’ll be providing position-by-position previews of the entire Eagles roster. We start with the defensive line. Click here for all of the previews.

The roster: Jason Babin, Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins, Derek Landri, Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Phillip Hunt, Brandon Graham, Darryl Tapp, Vinny Curry.

The Eagles decided to keep 10 defensive linemen, parting only with tackle Antonio Dixon when they trimmed the roster to 53. Assuming everyone’s healthy, Babin and Cole will start at defensive end, and Jenkins and Landri will likely be the tackles with the first group. There’s some uncertainty with the second foursome, however. Expect Cox and Thornton to be the tackles. But the Eagles could keep nine linemen active on gamedays and rotate Hunt, Tapp and Graham in at the end spots.

Look for Curry, a rookie second-round pick, to be inactive to start the season.

Player in the spotlight: Brandon Graham

Graham has been playing with something to prove all offseason. As a rookie, he finished with three sacks and 13 quarterback hurries (second on the team). But he tore his ACL late in the season, had microfracture surgery and fell into a funk during his sophomore campaign, battling weight issues and appearing in just three games.

Graham has vowed to get back on track this offseason, turning heads in the weight room back in the spring and making good on his promise to coaches to not miss a single practice at Lehigh. During the preseason, Graham lined up primarily at left defensive end and consistently got to the quarterback, finishing with 3.5 sacks.

The Jason Pierre-Paul comparisons aren’t going away anytime soon. The Giants snagged JPP two spots after the Eagles selected Graham in the first round of the 2010 draft, and he turned in a 16.5-sack season in 2011. But now that he’s healthy, Graham is hoping to prove that the Birds didn’t waste their pick on him.

You should also know that…

* Babin missed almost all of training camp and the entire preseason with a calf strain. He says he’ll be ready to go Sunday against the Browns. Of course, Reid will ultimately be the one to decide that. If Babin can’t play right away, or has to play limited snaps, the Eagles will have to figure out how to replace him. In the preseason, they moved Jenkins to left defensive end to help against the run, but that was when they were playing with extra tackles. Now, they only have four DTs on the roster, so moving Jenkins outside would leave them thin on the interior. The Eagles could go with some combination of Hunt/Graham/Tapp at left defensive end instead.

* Hunt might have been the Eagles’ most impressive player in the preseason, with 3.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. Look for him to be given ample opportunities to rush the passer.

* The Eagles’ second group could feature two defensive tackles who have never played an NFL snap. Thornton spent most of last season on the practice squad, but had a very strong camp and preseason, earning the nod over Dixon. Cox, a first-round pick in April, showed flashes, but will likely need some time to get comfortable with Jim Washburn’s style. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Cox replaced Landri with the first team, and Landri teamed with Thornton on the second team.

* While it’s true that the Eagles play eight or nine defensive linemen, it does matter who is on the first team. For example, the first-team tackles last year were Mike Patterson and Jenkins. They played 66.3 and 61.6 percent of the snaps, respectively, per Pro Football Focus. The backups (Landri and Trevor Laws) played 44.2 and 38.2 percent. In other words, everyone will play, but the most productive players will play more.

* The Eagles tied for the league-lead with 50 sacks last season, and 46 of those came from the defensive line. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Birds used just four pass-rushers 81.8 percent of the time last season. That was the second-highest percentage in the league. In other words, they didn’t need to blitz to get pressure. For the most part, that should be the case again this season.

* Patterson continues to recover from offseason brain surgery and could miss the entire season.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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