We covered the offense yesterday. Here’s the position-by-position look at where the Eagles’ roster stands on defense.
Defensive line (12): Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan, Taylor Hart, Vinny Curry, Beau Allen, Damion Square, Joe Kruger, Wade Keliikipi, Brandon Bair, Frances Mays, Alejandro Villanueva.
Given the number of snaps the defense was on the field for last year, the guess here is that the coaches would like to rotate defensive linemen even more in 2014. But that means the backups have to be productive.
Cox and Thornton are locks to start. Cox is the most talented of the Eagles’ linemen, but he’s played for three position coaches in two years. He’s been productive, but if he can take a leap in 2014, it’ll give this group a serious boost. Thornton, meanwhile, was probably the Eagles’ most productive and consistent defensive lineman last year. He wants to improve his pass rush, but Thornton’s steady play was a key to the Eagles’ solid run defense a year ago.
Logan is the favorite to start at nose tackle. He flashed as a rookie, and the coaching staff seems confident he can improve in Year 2.
Last year, the Eagles broke camp with seven defensive linemen. That means there could be four backup spots up for grabs. Hart, the team’s fifth-round pick, is a lock for one of them. And then there are some wild cards.
Curry showed last year that he can get after the quarterback, but on first and second downs, he’s not the type of run defender the team seems to prefer. It would not shock me if Curry got dealt at some point, but if he stays, he figures to continue in the situational role we saw last year.
The team essentially views Kruger (6-6, 290) as a rookie who red-shirted last season. He has the measurables and will be given an opportunity to earn playing time in his second year.
Allen and Square will battle it out for the backup nose position. The others face an uphill battle, although if one impresses this summer, he could steal a roster spot.
If I’m picking seven right now (granted, it’s early), here’s who I’ve got: Cox, Thornton, Logan, Hart, Kruger, Curry, Allen.
Outside linebackers (7): Connor Barwin, Trent Cole, Marcus Smith, Brandon Graham, Bryan Braman, Casey Matthews, Travis Long.
The guys who started last year – Barwin and Cole – are the favorites to do so again this year. Barwin is a lock, while there’s an outside chance that Smith unseats Cole. But more than likely, the rookie will be eased into the rotation as the third outside linebacker.
Things get interesting after that. Graham only played 26.8 percent of the snaps last year. He’s shown he can rush the passer, but clearly the coaching staff isn’t in love with him or Graham would have seen more action in 2013 instead of Cole. He could continue to fill a rotational role, but entering the final year of his deal, Graham is no lock to be on the roster when the season starts.
Braman was added as a free agent in the offseason and has a good shot to stick, given his value as a special-teamer.
Matthews was third on the team last year with 12 special teams tackles. He was moved from inside LB to OLB, but could have a hard time making the cut. Long would have to have a fantastic summer to make the team. Last year, the team kept eight linebackers total. Three or four are likely to come from this group.
Inside linebackers (7): DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Jason Phillips, Najee Goode, Jake Knott, Emmanuel Acho, Josh Kaddu.
This is one of the thinnest spots on the roster. Ryans and Kendricks are the unquestioned starters. After that, there are a lot of question marks.
Phillips was expected to help on special teams last year, but suffered a torn ACL early in training camp. Goode has a real chance to land a backup spot. Knott, an undrafted free agent last year, was suspended for the first four games of 2014 for violating the substance abuse policy. Acho was cut last summer, but eventually brought back. And Kaddu, an Oregon product, was added earlier this offseason.
As things currently stand, the Eagles would be in a tough spot in the event that Ryans or Kendricks should suffer an injury. The personnel staff will likely continue to keep an eye out for help at this position. In the meantime, they’ll have to bank on one of the backups emerging.
Cornerbacks (8): Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, Jaylen Watkins, Nolan Carroll, Roc Carmichael, Curtis Marsh, Davon Morgan.
The Eagles made some moves at this position, but the truth is Williams an Fletcher are still the favorites to start, and Boykin is a lock to be the nickel.
Watkins (5-11, 194) is one of the more intriguing players on the roster. I wouldn’t rule him out as someone who could potentially push Fletcher for a starting spot. The other thing to keep an eye on is what the Eagles do with their sub packages. I thought they might add a coverage LB and still play a lot of nickel. But that didn’t happen. Maybe instead, they play more dime and use Watkins as a sixth DB. Given his experience at both corner and safety, that could be an option.
Carroll seems most likely to be a depth/special teams option, although he started 22 games the past two seasons. So with a good spring/summer, he has a chance to earn playing time.
If the Eagles keep a sixth corner, Carmichael and Marsh will battle it out for a roster spot.
Safeties (7): Malcolm Jenkins, Earl Wolff, Nate Allen, Ed Reynolds, Chris Maragos, Keelan Johnson, Daytawion Lowe.
Another summer of uncertainty at the safety position. The Eagles added Jenkins as a free agent, and he’ll start at one spot. After that? Spots are up for grabs.
Wolff is the toughest player to get a handle on. He is probably the favorite to start alongside Jenkins right now. But that’s no lock. If he doesn’t progress, the spot could go to Allen. Reynolds, a fifth-round pick, could also have a chance to steal it, although he’ll be back at Stanford for much of the spring because of the NCAA’s graduation rule.
Maragos is considered primarily a special teams player. Johnson and Lowe face tough odds.
When the Eagles broke camp last summer, they had five safeties on the roster. If that’s the case again, look for Jenkins, Wolff, Allen, Reynolds and Maragos to make it.