As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to open training camp on July 25, we examine whether the team is better or worse than last season at each position. Our series concludes with the defensive line.
Cox was selected No. 12 overall in 2012 to be the penetrating force in the middle of Philadelphia’s 4-3 defense. One year later, he was being asked by a new coaching regime to jump outside to defensive end and play five-technique in a 3-4, something Cox had never really done before.
All things considered, the experiment went well. While his sack total dipped from 5.5 to 3.0 in his second NFL season, Cox actually led the Eagles in Mamulas quarterback hurries with 39 according to the game charters for Pro Football Focus. For that matter, only two 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL finished with more hurries.
That was while Cox was essentially learning a new position. It’s fair to imagine he might finish a few more of those plays in 2014. That, plus his improved familiarity with the position he’s playing, are reasons to think he’ll make a big leap in Year 3.
Cox did appear to wear down as last season went on, however, possibly from overuse. He wound up playing at least 74 percent of the defensive snaps in 10 of the Birds’ final 12 games, including playoffs, and clearly it took its toll as Cox seemed to disappear.
This year, Cox should still be fresh come December. To get the reason for that, we look to another area on the defensive line where Philly stands to make strides.
Defensive Line Depth
Cox should be able to get a few more breathers thanks to the infusion of young talent along the defensive line. The Eagles fifth- and seventh-round draft picks on defensive end Taylor Hart from Oregon and beau Allen out of Wisconsin. Another end, 2013 seventh-round pick Joe Kruger out of Utah, returns from injury to compete for a spot on the roster.
Obviously, either Hart and/or Kruger should be able to help relieve Cox directly. Allen’s presence might theoretically also allow starting nose tackle Bennie Logan to kick outside from time to time to help alleviate some of that pressure.
It’s hard to imagine Hart, Kruger and Allen wouldn’t be better options than Clifton Geathers or Damion Square, last year’s backups, neither of whom was very effective. At 6’8”, 325 pounds, Geathers mostly played the role of “guy too big to push out of the way” when he entered games, while Square was pretty much invisible as undrafted a rookie. Square is competing with Allen for the job, but Geathers departed during free agency.
There’s no guarantee the new talent will do better, but at least the Eagles have more options. If one or two of them pans out, Cox could be the main beneficiary, as even just a few extra plays off per game could go a long way toward a stronger finish.
Nobody would argue that Bennie Logan wasn’t a huge step up from Isaac Sopoaga, who was signed from the San Francisco 49ers during the offseason, then traded to the New England Patriots after Week 8. Of course, Sopoaga was kind of just there, so that really isn’t saying much.
Despite nose tackle being high on many fans’ offseason wishlists, Logan performed quite capably in eight starts last season. He caught a little bit of flak when the Saints pushed the defensive line around in the running game during the Birds’ playoff loss, but most of the damage was done on the edges, not in the middle where Logan resides. Otherwise, he did a fine job.
Nonetheless, there was a call for the Eagles to get bigger at nose tackle, even though Logan isn’t exactly small. He added weight during the offseason, getting up to 315 pounds, but that’s not going to placate the old-school mindset that the 3-4 defense requires a blimp-sized human being to anchor the line of scrimmage.
Clearly, the Eagles are committed to proving that’s not the case. They invested a third-round pick in Logan, and waiting until the seventh-round to address the position was an indication the team likes what it sees. After all, Logan’s progression should naturally continue in his second NFL season.
Time will tell whether or not he’s the answer, but Logan will be better.
I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to expect the same from Cedric Thornton this year, which is not so much a knock as it is a credit to just how stout against the run he was in 2013. Early in the season, he looked like one of the defense’s best players.
That being said, I think we know pretty much what the Eagles are going to get out of the guy. Thornton is an excellent, assignment-sound run-defender that offers next to nothing in the way of a pass rush. That’s fine, though, because he’s so good at the former, not to mention so cap-friendly, that it’s easy to keep him around in a two-down role.
Thornton is only 26 and last year was his first as a starter, so some growth isn’t out of the question. It’s difficult to envision him becoming a plus pass-rusher, though, and it’s not really common ability for an end in a 3-4 alignment, anyway. Valuable player who has a job to do and does it well.
The Eagles used a second-round pick on Vinny Curry in 2012, before the switch to a 3-4, which is a shame. Not unlike Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, Curry is a natural 4-3 defensive end. However, while Cole and Graham were able to stay close to their roots as outside pass-rushers as linebackers, Curry remained at end, which was probably like the moon to him.
Coaches didn’t demonstrate a whole lot of trust in Curry from the beginning, as he was left inactive for the first two games last season. Once he got into games, he showed a flare for getting after the quarterback, registering four sacks the rest of the way.
Still, for whatever reason, Curry still had his opportunities limited. Maybe there will be more confidence in him in his second season in the scheme, but so far, you get the sense the Eagles don’t view him as a great fit. There have even been whispers of Curry as possibly being on the trade block, though that sounds mostly like a media creation at this point.
However, Curry clearly has some ability, so if a team did call, the Eagles would have to think about it as long as they’re afraid to keep him on the field. They probably wouldn’t get much more than a late-round pick or another change-of-scenery player, but at least it would be salvaging something.
Best case scenario is certainly keeping Curry around and having him contribute, even if only as a situational pass-rusher. I’d like to see him filling in for Thornton rather than Cox, since Thornton offers nothing in that department. That could be a nice tandem.
BETTER OR WORSE
Better. Two-thirds of the starting defensive lineman should continue to develop as Logan and Cox enter their second and third seasons in the league respectively. Not only that, if Cox can give the Birds 16-plus quality starts instead of fading down the stretch, he could be like a whole new player late in the season. Thornton is also sound, and the depth appears to be improved. This group has a chance to take a big step forward if even just one or two of these young players really pans out.