The Eagles have dropped not-so-subtle hints about a scheme change all offseason long.
Chip Kelly has talked about preferring a 3-4. And Howie Roseman has discussed the versatility of specific players like Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham.
But one position the Eagles likely will have to address in the coming months is nose tackle. Antonio Dixon could be in the mix, but he’s played a total of 122 snaps the past two seasons.
Before we look at some free-agent options, it’s important to identify what kind of player the Eagles might be looking for. Mike Triplett of The New Orleans Times-Picayune recently provided a breakdown of 3-4 teams vs. 4-3 teams. He found that 14 teams ran a 3-4 or a hybrid that required some use of a nose tackle.
Below is a table with those 14 teams and their nose tackles. Playing time percentages are from Pro Football Focus.
Redskins Barry Cofield 6-4 318 67.5%
Packers B.J. Raji 6-2 337 68.4%
Cardinals Dan Williams 6-3 327 41.6%
49ers Isaac Sopoaga 6-2 330 32.2%
Seahawks Brandon Mebane 6-1 311 62.7%
Texans Earl Mitchell 6-3 300 36.1%
Colts Antonio Johnson 6-3 310 49.3%
Patriots Vince Wilfork 6-2 325 81.8%
Jets Sione Pouha 6-3 325 37.9%
Ravens Terrence Cody 6-4 341 32.1%
Steelers Casey Hampton 6-1 325 49.6%
Chiefs Dontari Poe 6-3 350 74.4%
Chargers Cam Thomas 6-4 335 37.2%
Cowboys Jay Ratliff 6-4 303 67.3%
AVERAGE 6-2 4/5 324.1 52.7%
A few things stand out here. First of all, let’s look at height and weight. All 14 nose tackles fall within the range of 6-1 and 6-4. The average height for the group is 74.8 inches, or just a shade under 6-3.
They are all also between 300 and 350 pounds. The average weight of the group is 324.1.
And then there’s playing time. This might be the most important factor because it shows not all nose tackles are created equal. The Patriots run a hybrid scheme, but they have a five-time Pro Bowler in Vince Wilfork, who played 81.8 percent of the snaps last season. Isaac Sopoaga, meanwhile, is a true first- and second- down, play-the-run, nose tackle. But that meant he was only on the field for 32.2 percent of San Francisco’s snaps.
In other words, this position can be as important as Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis want it to be. As Kelly has said time and again, scheme decisions will be personnel-driven.
Back in July, Field Yates of ESPN.com provided this description for a 3-4 nose tackle:
A 3-4 nose tackle requires an athlete strong and large enough to consistently hammer up against double teams, while also one athletic and instinctive enough to play laterally and diagnose offensive plays.
“At Nose Tackle you have to find a player who likes to mix it up. We want a big guy in there who likes to get down and dirty. He is going to get doubled a lot on the run and pass and is going to get down blocked a lot. He has to be a tough player. This guy can be a short and stubby type of player.”
In other words, the nose tackle’s job is often to do the dirty work, not pile up gaudy tackle and sack statistics. His contributions will be measured by how much other players benefit from his actions.
Keeping all that in mind, who are some potential nose tackles available in free agency?
Sopoaga is one. Tom Gamble is obviously familiar with him from his time in San Francisco. But Sopoaga turns 32 in September and does not provide the versatility the Eagles might be looking for. If they simply want a veteran, big-bodied nose tackle who can play the run, though, he could be an option.
Tampa’s Roy Miller is another. He’s 6-2, 310 and only 25-years-old. Miller played 48.7 percent of the snaps last year. He’s also a two-down player and won’t provide a lot of versatility as a pass-rusher. Tommy Lawlor over at IgglesBlitz.com has a good scouting report up on Miller.
Temple product Terrance Knighton will be on the market too. From a size/age perspective, he fits the bill, even though the production and consistency haven’t always been there. Knighton, 26, is 6-3, 330.
Alan Branch (6-6, 325) is another name to watch, especially if the reports about Kelly valuing length on defense are true. Branch is 28 and played the last two seasons in Seattle (a 4-3 under). However, he did not play nose tackle for Gus Bradley and company.
Some have asked about Pittsburgh’s Casey Hampton, but he turns 36 in September. Houston’s Shaun Cody (6-4, 307) is also on the market.