Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 4, Defensive Line

Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 4, Defensive Line

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the previous installments on specialists, wide receivers, offensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and  running backs.

Depending upon your outlook, Philadelphia’s defensive line doesn’t have any glaring holes. Fletcher Cox has shown flashes of dominance, while the one-two punch of Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry form a nice combination at the opposite end. Even Bennie Logan held his own at nose tackle, the area fans are most likely to say needs to be addressed.

The oldest of those players are Thornton and Curry, who each turn 26 in June. Three of the four are signed through 2015, and Thornton is an exclusive rights free agent which means he is not allowed to negotiate with other teams.

But behind them, the cupboards are bare. There is essentially nothing in the way of depth to speak of.

Clifton Geathers is unremarkable but for his size (6’8”, 340 lbs), and an unrestricted free agent to boot. Damion Square made no impact in his rookie year. Joe Kruger spent his rookie season on injured reserve, and how much can we expect of a seventh-round pick? There’s something called a Brandon Bair on the roster as well, but he’ll be 30 and has yet to make it in the NFL.

Any of Cox, Thornton, Curry or Logan isn’t as much the issue as the unit in its entirety is starving for attention.

The Eagles need to bring in a minimum of two, possibly as many as three defensive linemen who can play this offseason. If in the process of adding talent, they find upgrades over what is already there, so be it. No expense should be spared, particularly in the draft.

Nose Tackle of the Future?

Few players on the Eagles roster provoke the sort of mixed reactions that Bennie Logan will. Depending who you ask, the third-round pick out of LSU was either a beast, or he had an okay rookie season despite being miscast as a nose tackle.

While it may not show up in terms of pure production—27 tackles, 2.0 sacks in 16 games—Logan certainly held his own, particularly after the Isaac Sopoaga trade gave him a home. Logan started the final eight games of the season for the Birds at nose tackle and played extensively in the Wild Card loss to the Saints.

And advanced metrics suggest he was even better than a lot of people probably think. According to Pro Football Focus, Logan ranked 15th in run stop percentage and 19th in pass rush productivity among all interior linemen who played at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps in either capacity.

That’s a strong showing for a rookie who is supposedly miscast.

The Eagles likely do not share that opinion of Logan. In fact, head coach Chip Kelly already had high hopes for the 24-year-old when they were able to land him in last year’s draft. Via John Gonzalez for CSNPhilly.com:

“We believe he has the ability to be a three-down player,” Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said in the NovaCare Complex auditorium on Friday. “He’s stout against the run, but on third down I also think he can be an inside pass rusher for us. That’s what we really liked about him. And getting him in the third round, we were really fortunate. We had him in the second round and we were fortunate that he fell to us.”

Listed at 6’2”, 309 pounds, there is a perception Logan may be a tad undersized to play nose tackle. However, he could bulk up in the offseason and get closer to 325, which is probably about average for the position.

If Logan continues to develop, the Eagles could very well have their answer in the middle of this defensive line. He has the versatility to shift to end if need be, but the coaching staff might give him the opportunity to get comfortable on the interior.

The One-Two Punch

One of the most pleasant surprises in 2013 was the emergence of Cedric Thornton as not only a viable starter in Philadelphia’s defense, but one of the league’s top run-stuffers. Among regular starters at defensive end in 3-4 schemes, only Houston Texans All-Pro J.J. Watt posted a better run stop percentage according to Pro Football Focus.

Not bad for an afterthought. The only problem with Thornton is he wasn’t very effective as a pass-rusher, registering just 1.0 sack for the season.

No worries. That’s where Vinny Curry comes in.

Curry was basically Bizarro Thornton last season. PFF’s rankings had the 2012 second-round pick second only to Watt in pass rushing productivity—a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries—among all 3-4 ends who played at least 25 percent of their teams pass rush snaps.

Together, they formed quite the duo, although one does have to question this act’s longevity. Long-term, there may not be room for the both of them.

Thornton will be back in ‘14 as an exclusive rights free agent. The Eagles could choose to work out a long-term extension with him now, but that might prove difficult. Thornton doesn’t have much of a body of work prior to this past season, and he was completely one-dimensional.

It might make sense for the Birds from a buy-low perspective, and for Thornton from the viewpoint that he’s going to get the shaft on a one-year tender otherwise. Meeting in the middle to find his true value could be another story though.

Meanwhile, there were doubts about having Curry bulk up to play end in a 3-4 and to this day whether the scheme truly suits his strengths, but he performed. The issue is he’s only under contract for two more seasons, and if he’s not a full-time player for the Birds by then, good luck getting him to re-sign.

Curry was a good enough prospect and has flashed enough NFL potential that he would likely be a big draw if he were just hitting the free-agent market. The reality is if we’re still sitting here this time next year and Curry is not going to be a starter, the Eagles will be better off trading him.

It’s not a terrible problem to have, but it does require that the organization think ahead. Thornton does not appear to be an every-down player, but he certainly has value if he continues to perform like an elite run-stuffer. Alternately, Curry can seemingly contribute in any scheme, but the coaching staff only trusted him to be on the field for 28 percent of the defensive snaps in ’13.

If Thornton is willing to sign a long-term extension for relatively cheap, it could be wise to lock him up. Otherwise, they should give him the one-year tender and wait to see exactly what they have in Curry.

Curry didn’t chart poorly against the run—29th according to PFF—so he may develop into an every-down player yet.

Fletcher Cox

You can probably go ahead and pencil that name in at right defensive end for the next 5-7 years. There were some reservations about how Cox would adapt going from playing defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment to end in a 3-4, but he handled the transition well.

Granted, Cox maybe seemed to make fewer impact plays in his second NFL season. His sack total dipped from 5.5 as a rookie to 3.0 in ’13, while tackles for a loss plummeted from five to just one.

However, it’s not as if the declining numbers was entirely unexpected. Learning a new scheme certainly played into the dropoff. There were also increased responsibilities in the new role, as opposed to the Wide-9 where the linemen’s sole job was to attack gaps and get after the quarterback.

Cox’s season was actually quite good when it’s not measured purely in terms of production. According to PFF, he led Philly in QB hurries with 39, seven more than the next best player on the team, and he ranked ninth at his position for pass rushing productivity based on the metrics site’s formula.

Again, this was a season where Cox had to re-establish himself at a new position. Yes, he was the 12th overall pick in the draft two years ago, but expecting him to dominate under the circumstances was unfair.

And he did dominate in spurts. Cox needs to continue to develop and be more consistent in year three, but he’s already one of the better all-around linemen in the league and could anchor Philadelphia’s unit for years to come. What remains to be seen is whether Cox can become the type of player that adds Pro Bowls to his resume.

End to End: Who will Flyers protect, lose in expansion draft?

End to End: Who will Flyers protect, lose in expansion draft?

Throughout the offseason, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: The expansion draft, who to protect and best guesses at Vegas' selection.

Dougherty
We have and will continue to discuss in detail the entry draft, but we haven't talked much about the June 21 expansion draft. That's what we're doing today.

The expansion draft will affect the Flyers' plans this summer because they will be losing a player to Vegas, but the impact will be a minimum. They will not lose any core pieces.

How the expansion draft works: Teams have two options in protecting players. They can either protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. The expectation is the Flyers will protect seven forwards, three D-men and a goalie.

There are six forwards and two defensemen who are obvious protections: Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Valtteri Filppula, Shayne Gostisbehere and Radko Gudas. Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny are exempt.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall will have decisions to make on who the seventh forward and third defenseman he protects. Then there is the goalie protection.

That leaves forwards Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Nick Cousins, Taylor Leier, Scott Laughton, Michael Raffl, Matt Read, Jordan Weal and Dale Weise; and defensemen Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning.

Losing any of those six forwards would not be major blows to the Flyers. Now on the blue line, it gets interesting. My prediction is that the Flyers will choose to protect Manning with the hope Vegas takes MacDonald's contract.

Probably isn't going to happen.

Of the goalies, I don't think Vegas will have any interest in Anthony Stolarz, especially since he tore his right MCL in April. So that should cut the question here. That would mean the Flyers protect Michal Neuvirth, whom they signed to a two-year extension.

So what is my best guess at who Vegas plucks from the Flyers?

I think it will be a toss-up between Laughton and Raffl. I suspect the Flyers will re-sign Weal before the draft and then protect him, or have a verbal understanding they'll sign him after the expansion draft. Both parties appeared interested in him coming back.

My pick? Let's go with Laughton, a former first-round pick who turns 23 on Tuesday.

Laughton hasn't panned out as the Flyers hoped. He spent last season in Lehigh Valley and both Leier and Weal earned call-ups over him. I think that is a telling sign here.

So I'm predicting Laughton going to Vegas, where a change of scenery helps him out and the Golden Knights get a young forward that can slot into a third- or fourth-line role and still has upside.

Hall
There's a lot to the expansion draft — tons of possibilities and things can still change before June 21 that could impact the Flyers' decisions.

Albeit unlikely, Steve Mason could re-sign, which would obviously affect the Flyers' protection plan at goalie. Assuming that doesn't happen, I think the Flyers protect Neuvirth, especially considering Stolarz's health is in question this offseason and he may not be the true goalie of the future. Stolarz is also a pending restricted free agent, so he'll have to receive his qualifying offer from the Flyers before the expansion draft.

Now, let's say the Flyers go with the seven-forward, three-defensemen approach.

The blueliners are pretty clear: Gostisbehere and Gudas will be protected, as it comes down to MacDonald and Manning. I feel the organization thinks a bit more of MacDonald and his versatility compared to Manning, whose two-year deal last summer was likely strategic on the Flyers' part in planning for this expansion draft.

As for the forwards, Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, Schenn, Filppula and Couturier are staying put. I believe Weal will be re-signed and protected.

Ultimately, I could see Raffl being Vegas' choice. At 28 years old, he's not super young or inexperienced, but also not old by any means, and the winger can play all four lines because of a well-rounded game that complements different styles.

Raffl's injuries last season (abdominal, knee) may cause red flags. At the same time, the Golden Knights should be intrigued by the two seasons prior in which Raffl played all 82 games of 2015-16 (and was a plus-9) after scoring a career-high 21 goals in 2014-15.

A loss of Raffl wouldn't be ideal, but not as damaging given the Flyers appear to be gaining more depth and youth at forward.

Paone
June 21's expansion draft will be the biggest wild card of the NHL summer. And that's not just some corny pun because it involves an expansion team from Vegas.

It'll be the first piece of player movement during the offseason, coming before the entry draft and free agency. But since it will be the first piece of player movement of the offseason, it will help mold how the Flyers and the rest of the teams around the league approach their summers.

None of the Flyers' "big guns" will be on the move and my gut tells me the Flyers will be protecting Neuvirth as they want him to shoulder the starting load this coming season.

We don't know exactly what Vegas is looking for in the expansion draft because general manager George McPhee is keeping that close to the vest. But if I'm the Golden Knights' GM, youth is at the top of my wish list.

That leaves three Flyers to stick out in my mind — Weal (25), Cousins (turns 24 in June) and Laughton (turns 23 on Tuesday).

After the sparkplug Weal was down the stretch with eight goals and four assists in 23 games, the Flyers should reach a new deal with the UFA and keep him in Philadelphia.

That leaves Cousins and Laughton.

My instinct tells me Vegas will gamble (sorry, still getting used to this whole Vegas having a team thing) on Laughton, a former first-round pick.

There's a reason he was a first-rounder in 2012. The guy can play, even if he hasn't shown it consistently in Philadelphia. But remember he's been yanked back and forth between the AHL and NHL on numerous occasions and when he's been with the big club, he's either been in the press box as a scratch or been tossed back and forth between center and wing. That constant instability in both level and position can be detrimental to a young player. Vegas would give Laughton a fresh start, a fresh home and some fresh stability.

Plus, I know there are only so many protections to go around, but Cousins is a guy the Flyers should want to keep around. Just 16 points (six points, 10 assists) in 60 games isn't good enough offensively, but not many Flyers were great offensively last season. Everyone needs to be better there. But Cousins has that pest intangible that can be so effective, especially in the rugged Metropolitan Division, where basically every game is a rivalry game. It's a good quality to have.

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Skidding Phils take on veteran Bronson Arroyo

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Skidding Phils take on veteran Bronson Arroyo

Phillies (16-30) vs. Reds (23-24)
4:05 p.m. on TCN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Tim Adleman and the Reds shut down the Phillies in Friday night's series opener, dealing the Phillies a 5-2 defeat. It was the Phillies' 21st loss in 26 games (see full story).

Jerad Eickhoff takes the ball for the Phillies on Saturday, trying to get both the team and his own season back on track. Veteran Bronson Arroyo takes the start for the Reds.

Here are five things to know for the game:

1. Worst in baseball
The loss on Friday paired with the Marlins' win over the Angels gave the Phillies sole possession of the worst record in baseball. 

The loss to the Reds was enough to make manager Pete Mackanin call a team meeting with the Phillies hitting a definitive low at 16-30. The 2016 squad didn't fall 14 games under .500 for the first time until Sept. 2. The Phillies are 5-18 in May and have scored 86 runs compared to 131 by opponents. 

Many of the games recently haven't even been close. Six of the losses this month were by at least five runs. The team brought the tying run to the plate on Friday, but it was behind 5-0 and had just one hit going into the ninth. 

The offense has gone silent in the last six games, scoring no more than two runs each time out. In five of their last six, the Phillies have faced a starter with an ERA above 5.00 who proceeded to throw at least five innings and give up one run or fewer. Adleman was the latest to victimize the Phils (see story).

The bright side? The upcoming schedule is much more palatable for the squad. After the Reds, the Phillies face the Marlins, Giants and Braves for 10 games. Those three teams have a combined record of 57-85 this year and the Phillies went 5-0 against the Marlins and Braves in April.

2. 10th time's the charm?
Nine starts into his second full MLB season, Eickhoff hasn't found the right stuff ... or a win. In 51 2/3 innings, he's 0-5 with 4.70 ERA. 

Why the slow start? First off, Eickhoff had some control issues. He's gone from a more than palatable 1.9 to a less stellar 3.1 walks per nine innings. Beyond dishing out free passes, he has a 1.43 WHIP, up from 1.16 last season. Still, his 3.77 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) indicates he shouldn't have struggled quite this much. 

Looking further into the numbers, Eickhoff has allowed more infield and bunt hits this season than he did on a rate basis last year. He's induced less weak contact, which could be part of his issue. Still, he's thrown 300 MLB innings over 50 starts and has a 3.66 ERA. It's hard to believe his true talent level isn't closer to his 3.65 ERA over 197 1/3 innings last year than his out-of-character 4.70 mark this season.

He faced the Reds just once before, taking a loss in the Phillies' second game of the year. It seems a while ago now, but Eickhoff started the year with three quality starts, including a two-run, six-strikeout game over 6 2/3 in Cincinnati. The Reds' batters have four extra-base hits against him and he's allowed home runs to Joey Votto and Scooter Gennett. Gennett's HR came as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.

3. Arroyo back in action
You're forgiven if you didn't think Arroyo was still in baseball. He was injured and didn't pitch in either the 2015 or 2016 season. Despite being a non-entity on the field, he was still traded twice, going from the Diamondbacks to the Braves to the Dodgers, who immediately released him. 

At 40 years old, Arroyo is easily hittable now. The right-hander never threw very hard but now tops out at 87 mph, averaging 83-84 with his fastball. Like many soft-tossers, he constantly uses his off-speed stuff. He's heavily reliant on his curveball and slider, both of which are in the 70s. 

Hitters against Arroyo have been home run happy with 15 dingers this year over just 46 2/3 innings. Those 2.9 HR per nine innings are near three times as many as Eickhoff, who has struggled with the long ball at times over the past few seasons. The 15 home runs play a large part in his 6.75 ERA as batters hit plenty of flyballs vs. Arroyo. It doesn't help that he has a 1.479 WHIP. 

Among current Phillies, only Freddy Galvis (1 for 7) and Andres Blanco (1 for 3) have faced him. His career against the Phillies dates all the way back to three starts in 2000. Over 14 games (13 starts), he's 4-7 with a 5.14 ERA in 77 innings against the Phils. He's just the second starter after Bartolo Colon to pitch at Citizens Bank Park this season that also faced the Phillies at Veterans Stadium.

Arroyo is fourth among active pitchers in starts and fifth in innings pitched. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Moved into the leadoff spot on Friday, Odubel Herrera put together a few strong at-bats, finally coming through with a hit in the ninth inning to snap an 0-for-13 stretch.

Reds: Scott Schebler hit his 14th home run of the season off Aaron Nola in the second inning Friday. In just his third season, Schebler had just 12 homers in his career before 2017.

5. This and that
• Howie Kendrick made his third rehab appearance in Triple A Lehigh Valley Friday, going 1 for 4. He played all nine innings in left field. The IronPigs won, 5-4, with Nick Williams hitting a home run. Williams, J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro each had two-hit nights.

• The Phillies haven't won a season series vs. the Reds since 2012 (10-18 since the start of 2013). However, the Reds are 16-30 at CBP and haven't won a series in Philadelphia since Aug. 2006.

• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, on April 18 this year, Arroyo became the first Reds pitcher older than 40 to win a start since Boom-Boom Beck beat the Phillies, 8-1, on May 31, 1945.

• The Reds are the only team in baseball with four hitters (Votto, Schebler, Eugenio Suarez and Adam Duvall) who have at least 10 home runs.