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.

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

TAMPA -- When Phillies camp opened earlier this month, Brock Stassi was considering mentioning his ability to play the outfield to manager Pete Mackanin.

Though he’s played mostly first base during his six seasons in the Phillies' system, Stassi has been used occasionally in left field. He’s also played the position in winter ball in Latin America. Even going back to high school, Stassi played center field.

As it turned out, Stassi didn’t need to have that conversation with Mackanin. The manager actually approached the player early in camp and told him he planned to get him some time in the outfield as well as at first base.

Mackanin and the Phillies' front office value versatility and they want to have it on their bench. Stassi has come to his second big-league camp as a serious candidate to win a job on the bench. His left-handed bat -- which he showed off with a solo homer in Friday’s 9-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Yankees -- would be attractive to the Phils. So would his versatility.

And if the ability to play first base and outfield isn’t enough versatility, Stassi can actually offer something else.

He can pitch.

In fact, the Cleveland Indians drafted him as a pitcher after his junior year at the University of Nevada in 2010.

Stassi returned to school for his senior year in 2011 and was a two-way player. The Phillies selected him in the 33rd round of the draft that year as a hitter, even though on draft day there was some confusion.

“Initially, I was announced as a left-handed pitcher then they changed it to outfielder,” Stassi said. “Then I got to Williamsport (the Phillies’ New York-Penn League team) and had a first baseman’s mitt in my bag, and I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. You’re going to be playing first.’”

Stassi’s minor-league managers in the Phillies' system have always been aware of his pitching background. He has made nine pitching appearances during his time in pro ball, including four with Triple A Lehigh Valley last year. All were in relief in long extra-innings games.

“I got a win and a loss,” Stassi said.

He recalled the loss with a big laugh.

“I shook off Logan,” he said, referring to catcher Logan Moore, another candidate pushing for a spot on the Phillies’ bench. “I shook to the fastball against a lefty. It wasn’t the right move and Logan won’t let me forget that. The guy hit a triple. Then I got hit with a comeback one-hopper right on the butt. It was like a 14-inning game.”

Stassi throws a fastball, curveball and changeup.

“My fastball is like 84,” he said with a laugh.

Many position players in a big-league clubhouse were pitchers at some point in the baseball journey. Roman Quinn, who broke into pro ball as a shortstop and is now a centerfielder, was used as a closer in high school and hit 94 mph on the radar gun.

“I believe it,” Stassi said. “That guy’s got a cannon. I had to catch him when he was playing shortstop. He’d come charging in on a close play and he’d let one loose and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And even from the outfield he’s got a cannon.”

Stassi’s arm doesn’t bounce back the way it used to when he pitched in college.

“Every time I have to pitch now I’m hanging for like two weeks,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t grab the baseball and gut out an inning if Mackanin ever needed it.

“Hey, if that’s what it takes,” he said.

Figuring out the Phillies’ bench at this point of camp is a little like solving a Rubik’s Cube. There are many possible combinations. Infielder Andres Blanco is a sure thing and outfielder Aaron Altherr seems like a good bet. So does outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Andrew Knapp, Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday and Moore are the candidates for backup catcher. Knapp can also play first base. And it’s not out of the question that the Phils would carry three catchers.

They could fill the perceived final spot on the bench with an infielder such as Pedro Florimon or another outfielder such as Daniel Nava, Andrew Pullin or Cameron Perkins. Or it could be Stassi, whose versatility is a plus.

“There’s a lot I like about Stassi,” Mackanin said.

Stassi comes from a baseball family. His brother, Max, is a catcher with the Houston Astros. They played for their dad, Jim, at Yuba City High School near Sacramento, California. Jim was a catcher who reached Triple A during his playing days in the Giants system.

“My dad always talked about the value of versatility in high school,” Brock said. “He preached it to the whole team. You might have two second basemen and they’re pretty equal, but you want both bats in the lineup so you might have to play outfield. It’s good to be able to do it. Don’t take it as a knock that you’re not at your normal position -- you’re in the lineup.”

In addition to wearing several different gloves, Stassi can swing the bat. He was Eastern League MVP in 2015 when he hit .300 with 15 homers, 90 RBIs and a .863 OPS for Double A Reading. He hit .267 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .806 OPS at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season.

Stassi has been described as “a grinder” by members of the Phillies’ player-development staff, and that’s a compliment. More than one thousand players were selected ahead of him in the 2011 draft. His signing bonus was just $1,000. He’s never appeared on one of those Top 10 prospect lists and never been on a 40-man roster, never mind appeared in a big-league game. But he’s continually moved up the ladder and now, at age 27, is under serious consideration to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench.

And maybe -- if needed in a pinch -- in the bullpen, too.

“Oh, man, it would be a dream come true,” Stassi said. “Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of playing in the big leagues. Just the path that I’ve taken -- I've had to earn everything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It would be really awesome to make this team.”

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

TAMPA -- The Phillies’ bats were slow getting started in the Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon. The Phils did not have a baserunner through the first six innings in a 9-4 loss to the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field.

“First game, I’m just happy we got at-bats because the pitching is always ahead of the hitting this early,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said afterward.

Outfielder Cameron Perkins had the Phillies’ first hit, a single up the middle in the seventh inning. He added a solo homer in the ninth inning.

Perkins, 26, was the Phillies’ sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Purdue University. He graduated from Southport High School in Indianapolis, the same school that produced Phillies great and Hall of Famer Chuck Klein.

A right-hander hitter who eschews batting gloves, Perkins hit .292 with eight homers and 47 RBIs at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season. He is not on the 40-man roster but was invited to camp for a look-see. He is considered a longshot to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench, but will certainly improve his chances if he keeps swinging it like he did Friday.

“I don’t think about it,” Perkins said of his bid to make the club. “All I can do is what I did today -- get my opportunity and make the most of it.”

Brock Stassi, another candidate for a job on the Phillies’ bench, also homered.

On the pitching side
Right-hander Alec Asher, who projects to open in the Triple A rotation, started for the Phils. He pitched two innings, allowed a home run to Didi Gregorius and struck out two.

Asher made big strides with his sinker last season. He’s added a cutter now.

Right-hander Nick Pivetta debuted with two scoreless innings. He gave up a hit, walked one and struck out three. The Phillies acquired Pivetta from Washington from Jonathan Papelbon in July 2015. He projects to open in the Triple A rotation, but first will pitch for Team Canada in the WBC in March.

“It’s a lifelong dream for me, right up there with whenever it is that I get my first start with the Phillies,” Pivetta said.

The bullpen
Mackanin has said he’d like to have two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. The Phillies have just one -- Joely Rodriguez -- on their 40-man roster, although it’s possible that Adam Morgan could be shifted from starter to reliever later in camp.

The Phils have brought two veteran lefties -- Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos -- into camp on minor-league deals to compete for a job. Burnett made his debut Friday and gave up a triple, a sacrifice fly and a home run in his inning of work.

Luis Garcia was tagged for four hits and three runs in his spring debut.

Up next
The Phillies host the Yankees in Clearwater on Saturday afternoon. Morgan will start for the Phils against right-hander Adam Warren.