As for the details, there’s not a whole lot we know right now. We know Chip Kelly prefers a 3-4. We know defensive coordinator Billy Davis has a background in multiple schemes, including the 4-3 under. Having spoken to Davis and some of the other assistants, I got the impression that pre-snap disguise is going to be a big part of whatever the Eagles do.
As we look ahead to free agency (March 12) and the draft (April 25), now seems like a good time to take stock of the Eagles’ defensive linemen to see how they might fit going forward.
Fletcher Cox – In a 3-4, Cox shifts out to defensive end. If you remember from the previous post on the 4-3 under, one of the linemen is a 3-technique (between the guard and tackle). On the weak side, this player gets designed one-on-one opportunities and needs to be a good pass-rusher. Cox would seem to fit the mold perfectly.
“He can be an end, a 3-technique, a nose tackle, he can be a 5-technique, a 4-technique,” Roseman said at the Combine. “He’s got an incredible skill set. He does all those things really well. I think you’re looking for a jump from him year one to year two, a young guy, 21-years-old. We’re excited about Fletcher Cox and what he can bring to our football team.”
Trent Cole -He’s coming off a down year, and while Cole’s best days are probably behind him, he’s only 30-years-old and should still be able to contribute. The question is: Where?
Cole has played defensive end in a 4-3 his entire career. In Davis’ 4-3 under scheme in Arizona, the “Predator” was a pass-rush specialist on the weak side. With the Cardinals, the Predator rushed the quarterback 94 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. The Seahawks also ran a 4-3 Under, and Chris Clemons rushed the QB 89.9 percent of the time last year.
“Trent is the same way [as Brandon Graham]. He can rush the passer,” Roseman said. “If you look at 3-4 outside linebackers, Trent has the skill set that a lot of those guys have. I think obviously if we transition to that at some point, then you’re talking about guys who haven’t done it and they have to practice it and do it. You’re talking about a projection, but that’s what happens in the draft too. The teams that have been 3-4 teams, they’re taking ends and they’re dropping them back. It’s all projections.”
Many have questioned whether Cole would be good enough in pass coverage to play outside linebacker in a true 3-4. He’s dropped back into coverage 14 times the past two seasons. Cole did so a little more back in 2010 under Sean McDermott, but even then, it was only 7.5 percent of the time (43 total snaps).
The truth is, most 3-4 teams have an outside linebacker whose job it is to primarily rush the passer. DeMarcus Ware rushed the QB 88 percent of the time; Clay Matthews 85 percent; San Francisco’s Ahmad Brooks 81 percent; Aldon Smith 85 percent; Kansas City’s Tamba Hali 83 percent; and Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan 81 percent.
Cole averaged 11 sacks per season from 2007 to 2011. The key to his future is not whether he can cover, but whether he can get back being an effective pass-rusher.
Brandon Graham – His projection is probably similar to Cole’s.
“When he came out, there was a lot of discussion about him being a 3-4 outside linebacker and him being able to play on his feet,” Roseman said of Graham. “I think he can do that. He can play. He can rush the passer, he can hold the edge, he can play in space, so I think that is a transition Brandon can do. Wherever we go, I think Brandon is going to be a piece of that.”
On a per-snap basis, Graham was the Eagles’ most productive pass-rusher last season. He could fit in the Predator role or as an outside linebacker in a true 3-4. Graham has dropped back 23 times in his entire career.
One more follow-up on the coverage note I mentioned above. I took a look at PFF’s snap counts for 3-4 outside linebackers last season. Of the 25 3-4 OLBs who played the most snaps, only eight dropped into coverage 30 percent of the time or more. In other words, cover skills shouldn’t be ignored, but the focus of outside linebacker in a 3-4 is still to rush the QB.
Vinny Curry - He also falls in the same category as Graham and Cole – with a couple caveats.
For starters, we don’t know what Curry brings to the table as a pass-rusher. He only had 33 pass-rushing opportunities all of last season and didn’t have a sack or hurry, according to team stats. But obviously, that’s too small a sample size to make any projections off of. Curry could be in the mix for the Predator role or an outside linebacker role in a 3-4.
Our buddy Tommy Lawlor over at IgglesBlitz.com brought up another possibility for Curry: SAM. Right now, there’s no clear-cut option at SAM on the Eagles’ roster. In Davis’ Arizona scheme, this player rushed the passer 70 percent of the time and dropped back 30 percent of the time. Curry would have to prove himself as a cover guy to get a look at this spot.
Perhaps more likely, the Eagles target this position in free agency and/or the draft. Oregon’s Dion Jordan would appear to be a perfect fit.
Antonio Dixon – Roseman was asked about the possibility of Dixon playing nose tackle.
“I don’t think there is any question about it,” he said. “That’s his skill set. He’s a big body, good use of his hands, he’s a run-stopper. He’s kind of what you look for if you’re looking for a 3-4 nose tackle.”
Dixon played well for the Eagles in 2010, but he’s played a total of 122 snaps the last two seasons per PFF. I’ll be surprised if he’s the team’s Plan A going into offseason workouts.
Whether the Eagles go to a straight 3-4 or a 4-3 under, they’ll likely target a nose tackle or two in the coming months.
Cedric Thornton - The 4-3 under calls for the 5-technique (between the tackle and tight end) defensive end on the strong side to do a lot of the dirty work and be stout against the run. Thornton could be an option to fill that role. He didn’t do much as a pass-rusher last year, but has the size (6-4, 309) and motor the Eagles could covet from this spot.
Thornton will not be handed the job, however. It’s likely that the Eagles add some bodies who can play DE in a 3-4.
Phillip Hunt – He was a non-factor last year and saw limited playing time. Hunt could get a look at outside linebacker in the spring, but he’ll be fighting for a roster spot.
I didn’t mention some of the new faces that have already been added - like Ronnie Cameron (6-2, 295), Everette Brown (6-1, 256), Chris McCoy (6-3, 261). Cameron could get reps at DE; Brown and McCoy look like rush linebackers. All will obviously be battling for roster spots.
Looking ahead to the coming months, the Eagles’ need spots are nose tackle and SAM linebacker. But they will also likely add 3-4 defensive ends, and as we’ve learned over the years, they’ll always have their eyes open for pass-rushers.
So while some pieces are in place, there is plenty of work to do in the months ahead.