Depth Chart Projection: Eagles Defense

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

We did the offense yesterday. Now it’s time for the defense.

This gets a little tricky since the Eagles’ base look is different than nickel and dime. I tried to clarify some of the differences in the position-by-position breakdown below.

DEFletcher CoxBrandon BairTaylor Hart
NTBennie LoganBeau AllenWade Keliikipi
DECedric ThorntonVinny CurryBrian Mihalik
OLBConnor BarwinMarcus Smith IIJordan Dewalt-Ondijo
ILBDeMeco RyansJordan HicksNajee Goode
ILBKiko AlonsoMychal KendricksBrad Jones/Emmanuel Acho
OLBBrandon GrahamTravis LongBryan Braman
CBByron MaxwellBrandon BoykinWalter Thurmond
CBEric RoweNolan Carroll IIJaCorey Shepherd/Randall Evans
SMalcolm JenkinsJaylen WatkinsChris Maragos/Ed Reynolds
SEarl WolffEJ BiggersChris Prosinski/Jerome Couplin

Defensive line: “The Nobodies” are the heart of this defense. Fletcher CoxBennie Logan and Cedric Thornton form the foundation of everything the Eagles do. They are productive, consistent, unselfish and seem to have formed a real bond with one another. Players at other positions are constantly talking about how the three guys up front don’t get enough credit.

But depth is an issue here. If the Eagles lose any of their three starters, they’ll suffer a significant dropoff to the backups. Vinny Curry has performed well in his specialized role but is not a true 3-4 defensive end. The key player to watch in the coming months is Taylor Hart. A fifth-round pick in 2014, he did not play a snap as a rookie. The Eagles need him to improve as a rotational defensive end, potentially replacing Brandon Bair.

Outside linebacker: The Eagles replaced Trent Cole with Brandon Graham at right outside linebacker. Others are skeptical about Graham’s ability to perform as a full-time player, but I think he’s going to flourish with more snaps. I see a gifted pass-rusher who’s ready to be unleashed.

As for the backups, it’s gotten mighty lonely on Marcus Smith II island. It’s basically me and his immediate family here as we go into 2015. I see a very good athlete with great measurables who works hard. Maybe he was harmed by shifting inside for a portion of last season. Maybe something won’t click mentally. I don’t know. But Smith improving and playing meaningful snaps as the third OLB would be a step in the right direction.

However, he is an unknown at this point, and Travis Long is coming back from ACL surgery. There’s not a lot of depth here, and an injury to Connor Barwin could be devastating.

Inside linebacker: This is easily the toughest group to sort out on either side of the ball. What we know: The Eagles traded LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso. Hence, they must like Kiko Alonso. They not only held on to DeMeco Ryans, but gave him an extension. Hence, they must like DeMeco Ryans. They reportedly have not had talks to extend Mychal Kendricks, and there have been multiple rumors suggesting that he’s on the trading block. Hence… well, you get the picture.

My feeling is Kendricks is one of the most talented, athletic, productive players on the defense. But hints suggest Chip KellyBilly Davis and the coaching staff may feel differently. If Ryans (Achilles’) and Alonso (ACL) are healthy, they are the favorites to start. That would make for an unhappy Kendricks. Remember, this is a guy who felt he was robbed of a Pro Bowl berth last year. How is he going to react if he’s on the sideline in a rotational role?

Maybe an injury or a trade helps sort this one out, but it’s confusing as currently constructed.

As for depth, the Eagles have some nice options. They drafted Jordan Hicks in the third round. Najee Goode had some good moments in 2013 before he went down last year. Brad Jones is expected to be a factor on special teams. And Emmanuel Acho has played meaningful snaps in this scheme.

Given that Ryans, Alonso and Hicks are locks to be on the team in Week 1, there will be some healthy competition with this group in the spring/summer.

Cornerback: We can use pen for Byron Maxwell at one starting spot. The other one is up in the air. I doubt Eric Rowe will start the spring with the first team, but my guess is the coaches hope he does enough to warrant a starting spot once September rolls around.

If Rowe isn’t ready to play right away, Nolan Carroll II is the favorite to team up with Maxwell. Most likely, Brandon Boykin will continue to play in nickel. Walter Thurmond will likely get reps both inside and outside. Rookies JaCorey Shepherd and Randall Evans could be competing for one roster spot.

If Maxwell were to go down, the Eagles would be in trouble.

Safety: Death, taxes and the Eagles going into the spring with a question mark at safety.

They filled one spot successfully with Malcolm Jenkins last year, but who’s going to play next to him? I put Earl Wolff on the first team here, but the coaches have said little to suggest they have confidence in the third-year player.

The Eagles have a couple cornerback/safety options in Jaylen Watkins and EJ Biggers. Biggers has not played well at his previous stops, but at least he has some experience. Watkins’ only action came at cornerback in Week 17 last year, but perhaps he makes a position switch.

It’s possible that Rowe moves to safety at some point too, but Kelly said that he’s going to at least start at cornerback.

Chris Maragos and Chris Prosinski are nice special team players, but neither seems like an option to play defense. Ed Reynolds and Jerome Couplin are unknowns.