What I've learned from Eagles camp: Defense

What I've learned from Eagles camp: Defense
August 7, 2014, 5:30 pm

Previously, we examined how the Philadelphia Eagles offense has progressed at training camp. Now, let’s dissect the performance of the Birds’ D through two weeks of workouts.

Again, in lieu of a daily practice report, these observations have been pieced together over the course of nine practices since camp opened on July 26. Using a larger sample size hopefully paints a clearer picture of the strength of individual performances this summer.

Minus the joint practices with the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Massachusetts, the Eagles only have two practices remaining that are open to the media.

Defensive Line

Much like the offensive line, it’s not easy getting a read on how the defensive linemen are progressing at Chip Kelly’s training camp. Most of their individual work is done at the far end of the field, away from prying eyes, and there’s no live tackling or pass rush during team drills.

Vinny Curry and Beau Allen seemed to gain the most. Both guys were a load for pass protectors in one-on-ones.

Curry is up to 279 pounds and still has such a great first step. It looks like he will spell Cedric Thornton on obvious passing downs this year, which is the least we could’ve hoped for from the 2012 second-round pick.

Allen was getting first-team reps at nose tackle due to the hamstring injury to Bennie Logan. I wouldn’t read too much into that… yet. The seventh-round rookie is the biggest lineman on the roster at 333 pounds, though. He could be seen picking center Jason Kelce’s brain for several minutes after practice one day. Let’s see what Allen can do in a few games before we anoint him, but he appears to be on track for a sizable role in the defense this year.

Outside Linebacker

In my humble opinion, first-round pick Marcus Smith did little to distinguish himself during these practices. Granted, it’s kind of impossible to determine anything about his ability to rush the quarterback the way this camp is run. Still, you couldn’t tell much beyond the raw athleticism.

For what it’s worth, I’m confident Brandon Graham is on the 53-man roster, barring some kind of trade. There’s a lot of talk that the Eagles like Travis Long—a second-year undrafted free agent—and that may be, but Graham is the only outside linebacker on the roster behind starters Trent Cole and Connor Barwin with meaningful NFL experience on defense. The club is going to cut the one reserve who is a proven commodity when it comes to rushing the passer? Not buying it.

Interior Linebacker

To be fair, the Eagles’ offensive weapons will test the athleticism of linebackers across the NFL. That being said, the tandem of DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks on the interior of Philly’s 3-4 does not appear to be improved in pass coverage at all.

LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles are running the linebackers ragged in the flat and on wheel routes. Brent Celek and Zach Ertz were able to find holes over the middle and inside the red zone. We’re talking about some very skilled receivers, for sure, but dropping into coverage wasn’t an area of strength for Ryans and Kendricks in 2013, either.

Cornerback

Nolan Carroll may have stolen the spotlight, but Brandon Boykin is still the best Eagles cornerback in camp. Boykin seems to come up with multiple big plays every day at practice—violent pass breakups and highlight-reel interceptions. Much like last summer, Boykin flashed the potential to excel on the outside as well. At some point over the next year, the coaches may be forced to consider a move from the slot for Boykin to a full-time role outside.

Speaking of Carroll, there’s no question he’s had a strong camp. Yet I look at who he’s been working against on the second-string defense as far as the quarterback and receivers are concerned, and come away slightly less impressed. Carroll, 27, started 22 games for the Miami Dolphins over the past two seasons. We kind of know what the Eagles are getting, which is a decent-not-great cornerback. Let’s pump the brakes just a bit on Carroll’s ascension.

Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are still Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, meaning they’ll continue to provide adequate corner play for the time being.

Safety

I think the Eagles want somebody, anybody to step up and seize the opening at safety. They know what they have in Nate Allen, which while serviceable, there’s been no indication he’ll continue to evolve. 2013 fifth-round pick Earl Wolff definitely has an opportunity to beat Allen out, but missing a couple of practices with “knee soreness” isn't endearing him to the coaching staff.

The fact that Chris Maragos has been getting looks with the ones lends the appearance of a message being sent to Allen and Wolff. Maragos hasn’t had a particularly good camp, not to mention he’s never started a game in four NFL seasons, so don’t try telling me that’s a legitimate option.

One positive aspect of Maragos getting looks with the first-team defense is it’s allowed Allen and Wolff to take reps together. Malcolm Jenkins has never started 16 games in a season, so history would suggest that duo will take the field at some point.

Jenkins is enjoying a very nice camp, by the way. The sixth-year veteran is outstanding in man-to-man coverage, whether his assignment is a wide receiver, tight end or running back. There’s a chance that in a scheme seemingly tailored to his strengths, Jenkins could be headed for something of a breakout season in Philadelphia.