Eagles Wake-Up Call: Defensive Roster Analysis
After taking a look at how the Eagles’ offense shapes up heading into the 2016 regular season, now it’s time to examine the defense.
Defensive End: Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry, Steven Means, Marcus Smith, Bryan Braman
A big reason why the Eagles were able to generate so many turnovers (10) in the preseason was because of a very strong pass rush. Graham looks back at home in the 4-3 defense after playing in the 3-4 for a few seasons. As a 4-3 defensive end in 2012, Graham led the NFL in “Pass Rush Productivity” and penalties drawn, per Pro Football Focus. He’s had a great summer. Barwin is versatile enough to contribute as a 4-3 end despite signing in Philadelphia to be an ideal fit at 3-4 outside linebacker. Curry is a great pass rusher off the edge who can also line up as a tackle on obvious pass rush downs.
The Eagles have ample depth beyond their main three defensive ends. Means, 26, looked very good in camp and preseason games. He terrorized quarterbacks on a regular basis. Smith had some nice moments as well. The 2014 first round pick has a long way to go to shed the “bust” label but the Eagles can be happy he’s showing some signs of life. Braman isn’t a true defensive end as much as he is a special teams player. “Kill. Maim. Destroy.”
Defensive Tackle: Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Beau Allen, Destiny Vaeao
Cox and Logan combine to form what could easily be one the NFL’s best starting defensive tackle duos. Cox is an All-Pro talent while Logan is probably underrated in the national picture. Logan is entering a contract year so the former third round pick certainly has a lot to play for. It wasn’t clear how Allen would transition from 3-4 nose tackle to 4-3 defensive tackle. There’s no question he made a successful position change. Allen looked stout against the run and even generated pressure from the inside. Vaeao is one of the few undrafted free agents to make Philadelphia’s final roster. The Washington State alumnus played well enough to make the Eagles feel confident keeping him over veterans Mike Martin and Taylor Hart.
Linebacker: Jordan Hicks, Nigel Bradham, Mychal Kendricks, Stephen Tulloch, Kamu Grugier-Hill
Linebacker is a tricky spot for the Birds. Hicks flashed star potential as a rookie, but can he stay healthy? And how effective will he be as a 4-3 middle linebacker compared to a 3-4 inside linebacker playing behind a two-gapping 3-4 defense? Hicks showed positive signs this summer so he’s off to a good start. Bradham is looking for a rebound this year after struggling in Buffalo last season. Bradham had success under Schwartz in 2014, so there’s hope for the SAM linebacker. It remains to be seen if Bradham will face punishment regarding his alleged assault arrest. Kendricks has had a strange offseason. Though declared the starting WILL linebacker early on, the Eagles had him play late into the third preseason game. The coaching staff also made him play in the final preseason game. Those moments are typically reserved for backups, not sure-fire starters. All the while, Kendricks has refused to speak to reporters. He’s still projected to start, but it’s a situation worth keeping an eye on.
The Eagles signed Tulloch following the season-ending injury suffered by rookie linebacker Joe Walker. Tulloch obviously has plenty of experience playing in Jim Schwartz’s scheme. The 31-year-old linebacker is the backup MIKE linebacker. It will be interesting to see if the Eagles involve him in a rotation. Rookie Grugier-Hill was a sixth round pick by the Patriots in the 2016 NFL Draft. He projects as a linebacker/safety hybrid who can help out on special teams.
Cornerback: Leodis McKelvin, Nolan Carroll, Ron Brooks, Jalen Mills
After originally keeping six cornerbacks on their first 53-man roster, the Eagles are down to four after trading Eric Rowe and waiving C.J. Smith to put him on the practice squad. McKelvin is a favorite of the coaching staff despite having a so-so summer. Carroll, meanwhile, has looked like Philadelphia’s best corner this offseason. He’s fully healthy after suffering a season-ending ankle injury late last November. Brooks was getting looks on the outside during offseason practices but appears to be the slot cornerback at most for now. He’s also expected to contribute on special teams. Mills generated a lot of training camp hype. The rookie seventh round pick struggled defending the deep ball due to a lack of speed but he was very sticky in coverage on short to intermediate throws.
This position is generally considered to be a weakness on Philadelphia’s defense. This group could benefit from a strong pass rush and good coverage on the back end, however.
Safety: Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Jaylen Watkins, Chris Maragos, Terrence Brooks
The Eagles believe Jenkins and McLeod combine to form one of the NFL’s best starting safety tandems. Schwartz has openly said as much. Both players have great range in coverage and they’re not afraid to be physical. Jenkins’ ability to play in the slot makes him that much more valuable to this Eagles defense, though it remains to be seen if he’ll be used in that role.
Watkins went from being an afterthought to a strong No. 3 safety. The 2014 fourth round pick always had coverage skills but his tackling has been an issue in the past. The transition from cornerback to safety has paid off for Watkins. Maragos is a special teams ace and the leader of that unit. Brooks was claimed by the Eagles off waivers earlier this week. The 25-year-old safety has connections with current Eagles vice president of football operations Joe Douglas and assistant director of player personnel Andy Weidl. Brooks was a third round pick by the Ravens in 2014 when Douglas and Weidl still worked for Baltimore. Brooks could be counted on as a special teams contributor.
WHAT YOU MISSED
“There’s a lot of competition at that position. It’s what we wanted way back in the spring and going into training camp.” Pederson explains why the Eagles traded their second-round pick from last year.
The Eagles signed Caleb Sturgis to a one-year extension.
Analyzing the roster on the offensive side of the ball.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
A four-man rotation at linebacker will “more than likely” be used, according to Jeff McLane of the Inquirer.
“We didn’t bring him here to watch,” [Jordan] Hicks said of [Stephen] Tulloch. “They’ve been rotating me around a little bit, a couple snaps at each position. We’ll see. We all got the ability to interchange.”
If Tulloch were to play in the middle and Hicks were to move outside to weak-side, Mychal Kendricks could be the odd man out on run downs. Nigel Bradham, conceivably, would remain at strong-side linebacker since he isn’t expected to play in the nickel.
Kendricks, who was unavailable on Wednesday, has said that one of the reasons his performance declined last season was that he played in a rotation. He was the only Eagles starter to play in the preseason finale last week. Coach Doug Pederson said it was to get him snaps because he had missed two games with a hamstring injury.
But Kendricks has declined to be interviewed since after the third preseason game when he was the lone starter to play deep into the fourth quarter, so it’s unclear if he, at least, believes that the Eagles intended to send him a message.
Soft-tissue injuries have been an issue for Kendricks, who missed three games because of a hamstring strain last season and four because of a calf strain the year before. He struggled last season — particularly in pass coverage. Hicks and Kendricks, who has excelled as a pass rusher, are still likely to be the two linebackers when offenses use “11” (three-receiver) personnel.
Browns head coach Hue Jackson said that Wentz “wasn’t the right fit” for their team, according to Dave Zangaro of CSNPhilly.com.
“Well, at that time, he wasn’t the right fit for us,” Browns head coach Hue Jackson said on a conference call with Philly reporters on Wednesday. “It had nothing to do with Carson. I think Carson is a tremendous person, player and has a bright future. At that time, we decided to go in a different direction.”
If Jackson thinks Wentz has a bright future, he might not see things the way the rest of his organization does.
The Browns’ chief strategy officer, Paul DePodesta, recently said in a radio interview that the Browns didn’t take Wentz because they didn’t think he would become a top-20 quarterback in the NFL. The Eagles clearly disagree.
Will those comments motivate Wentz on Sunday?
“That’s, for one, in the past,” Wentz said. “I’m a very motivated individual the way it is, so I don’t really have the need for extra motivation in this one.”
Jim Schwartz and Frank Reich will address the media starting at 10:30.
Chris Jastrzembski contributed to this post.