With Eagles’ Defense, Rotation Seems Likely

The Eagles’ signing of Connor Barwin last week led to some angst among a portion of the fan base.

Why sign another outside linebacker? What about Trent Cole? Brandon Graham? Vinny Curry?

And to a certain degree, that’s a fair question. The simple answer is that the Eagles saw value in Barwin, especially when you consider he’s only 26 and commanded just $8 million in guaranteed money. He’s played in a 3-4 before, was a second-round pick in 2009 and has an 11.5-sack season (2011) under his belt.

But the real answer might require a look at the bigger picture. It’s true that we don’t know exactly what Chip Kelly is going to run offensively or defensively. We look at what he did at Oregon, we look at some of the trends in the NFL, we assess personnel, and we make educated guesses.

One assumption that seems reasonable is that the Eagles will run an up-tempo offense. And if that’s the case, the Eagles will need bodies on defense.

From a September article by SI.com’s Stewart Mandel:

With the amount of time Oregon’s defense spends on the field, [defensive coordinator Nick] Aliotti has had no choice but to rotate in a slew of backups, including the entire second-string defensive line. The upside is that young players gain game experience. The downside is they’re more prone to breakdowns.

“What Nick has done — and it’s taken about four years in Chip’s system to learn it — is if you play fast on offense, you have to play a lot of people on defense,” said [former Oregon coach Mike] Bellotti. “It’s been a good thing that they played somewhere between 18 to 23 players per year. It improves their depth, and it gives their inexperienced players an advantage in that they’re playing real quality snaps when the game is on the line.”

In four years under Kelly, Oregon’s offense ranked 102nd, 120th, 106th and 117th in time of possession (Kelly once called it the “stupidest stat” in football). The flip side is that the defense was on the field longer than most teams.

Will the same philosophy carry over to the NFL? It seems likely. Jerry Azzinaro takes over as defensive line coach and assistant head coach. The first paragraph of Azzinaro’s official Oregon bio explains that he utilizes “numerous players to provide a rotation that results in fresh legs in the trenches at all times.” Azzinaro put that into practice with the Ducks, often going eight-deep up front.

“Coach Az wants us to give everything we have for three or four plays and then he will give us a rest,” defensive tackle Brandon Bair told ESPN.com back in 2009.

Earlier this offseason, inside linebackers coach Rick Minter also indicated that the Eagles would be using some kind of rotation.

“We’d like to play as many players as we can play to stay fresh, to stay sustainable for the long haul,” he said.

In that context, the Barwin signing doesn’t seem so puzzling. Cole is 30 and has been a 4-3 defensive end his whole career. Graham showed pass-rushing chops last year, but again, he has not played in a 3-4 in the NFL. Curry only got 33 opportunities to rush the QB (per PFF), but failed to notch a sack or a hurry.

“In any defense, especially with the way the game is going now, you need to be able to rotate at the defensive line and linebacker position to keep things fresh,” Barwin told reporters last week.

Of course, with the way offenses are trending, defenses don’t always have a chance to sub in and out. At some point, Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis will have to determine who the most productive players are. Once again, versatility will be key.

The rotation philosophy helps not only explain the Barwin signing, but it probably means the Eagles still have some work to do in terms of finding versatile defensive linemen through free agency, trades and the draft.

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