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INDIANAPOLIS – If the Eagles are going to use a 3-4 defense this year – and everything points that way – they already have some good pieces in place, according to general manager Howie Roseman.
Roseman, speaking at the podium Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine, said he believes several of the defensive linemen currently on the roster can play in an odd front and said he doesn’t think a change in defensive philosophy necessarily means a dramatic change in personnel.
A 3-4 defensive front starts with a nose tackle. It’s the most difficult piece to find. Since most colleges play a 4-3 front, they’re not developing very many pure nose tackles. But Roseman said he believes Antonio Dixon, who the Eagles reacquired late last year after he spent 2009 through 2011 in Philly, is a perfect fit.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Roseman said. “That’s his skill set. He’s a big body, [makes] good use of his hands, he’s a run stopper – he’s kind of what you’re going to look for if you’re going to look for a 3-4 nose tackle.”
The Eagles’ most critical building block on the defensive line is Fletcher Cox, who was an all-rookie pick last year after the Eagles took him in the first round out of Mississippi State.
Roseman said the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Cox, a defensive tackle as a rookie, can play and be effective at any position in any defense.
“Fletcher is a unique player because he’s got incredible versatility,” Roseman said. “He can really play in any scheme. He can play in a 4-3, he can play in a 3-4, and he can do any spot in those alignments. In a 4-3, he can be an end, [in a 3-4] he can be a 3 technique (B-gap pass rusher outside the guard), he can be a nose tackle, he can be a 5 technique (3-4 end lining up outside the tackle), he can be a 4 technique (3-4 end lining up across from a tackle).
“He has an incredible skill set, and he does all those things really well. You’re looking for a big jump from him year one to year two. Young guy,  years old - we’re excited about Fletcher Cox and what he can bring to our football team.”
Roseman also said he projects Brandon Graham and Trent Cole both as capable 3-4 rush linebackers.
Graham, a first-round pick in 2010, came on strong late last year after Tommy Brasher replaced defensive line coach Jim Washburn and finished with 5½ sacks. Cole, a two-time Pro Bowl pick, had just three sacks last year but averaged 10½ the six previous seasons.
“When [Graham] came out, there was a lot of discussion about him being an outside linebacker and being able to play on his feet, and I think he can do that,” Roseman said.
“He can rush the passer, he can hold the edge, he can play in space, and so I think that’s a transition that Brandon can do. Wherever we go, I think Brandon’s going to be a piece of that.
“Trent’s the same way. Trent can rush the passer. As you look at 3-4 rush linebackers, Trent has the skill set that a lot of those guys have.”
It’s important to note that although everything points that way, neither head coach Chip Kelly nor defensive coordinator Billy Davis has come out and said definitively that the Eagles will transition to a 3-4 as the base front in 2013.
The Colts made the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 last year under defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, and Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, an Eagles personnel executive from 2004 through 2011, said Thursday that it’s not easy to find personnel to man a 3-4 after your team has run a 4-3 for years.
“These guys are hard to find, really tough to find,” he said. “So if you can’t find somebody that exactly fits what you’re looking for, you find guys that can at least resemble them, and then it’s up to the coaches to help them reach their ceiling.
“A lot of guys who don’t fit the mold end up playing the position at a high level. If you want a guy who’s 6-5, 300, but you can’t find him, then you go get a guy who’s maybe 6-3, 285, playing at a 1-AA school and then you hope that maybe halfway through his rookie season, once he’s got some food in his belly, he’s up to 300.
“You can’t just get a whole new [group], so you look at the guys you already have and figure out what they do well and where they fit in.”
As for linebackers, the Eagles might have a lot more work to do, but that would be the case even if they kept a 4-3.
Kelly lavished praise on DeMeco Ryans Thursday, which was interesting considering that one of the reasons the Texans cut ties with him was because they didn’t believe he fit into their 3-4 defense.
“Physical player, obviously, the leader of the defense as far as getting guys lined up,” Kelly said. “He really plays the game the way you want it to be played, and I think from listening to the people in the building there’s a quality about him that you want to be around him.”
The Eagles’ only promising young linebacker, Mychal Kendricks, played in a 3-4 at Cal, where he was both an inside and outside linebacker, so that’s one piece of the puzzle the Eagles don’t have to worry about.
It’s been more than a quarter of a century since the Eagles played any form of a 3-4 as their base defense. Marion Campbell ran the 3-4 under Dick Vermeil from 1977 through 1982 and again as head coach from 1983 through 1985.
All their defensive coordinators since - including Wade Phillips, whose father Bum Phillips is one of the architects of the 3-4 defense - have played a base 4-3.
It looks like after 28 years, that’s about to change.
Just another transition for a team that has no shortage of transitions this offseason.
“I think obviously if we transition to that at some point, then you’re talking about some guys who haven’t done it and they’ve got to practice it and do it, so you’re talking about a projection,” Roseman said. “But that’s what happens in the draft, too. The 3-4 teams are taking ends and dropping them back, and it’s all projections.”