Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Defensive Line

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Defensive Line
July 15, 2013, 2:00 pm
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We pick up our training camp preview on the other side of the ball, where Chip Kelly selected long-time NFL assistant Billy Davis to be the defensive coordinator, and the Eagles are widely expected to transition to a 3-4 defense of sorts. Up first we examine the defensive line, an area of great change with multiple players switching positions or learning new roles, not to mention a couple of new names and faces.

[ Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Line
Linebackers | Cornerback | Safety ]

What should we expect from Isaac Sopoaga?

Not a whole lot. Sopoaga makes sense for the Eagles, who lacked a true nose tackle, much less anybody who so much as plays nose tackle – something they need with the shift to more three-man fronts. The nine-year veteran comes relatively cheap (three years, $11 million, no guarantee beyond 2013), and the team knows exactly what they are getting with vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble joining Sopoaga on the exodus from San Francisco.

Unfortunately, exactly what they are getting is a two-down run stuffer who isn’t particularly adept at stuffing the run. Sopoaga was only on the field for about a quarter of the defensive snaps with the 49ers last season, and run or pass, he didn’t chart very well according to Pro Football Focus. The site ranked him 82 out of 85 interior linemen in the NFL in 2012.

The problem the Eagles ran into this offseason is nose tackle is not an easy position to fill. There tends to be a premium on huge space eaters that command constant double teams at the point of attack, especially in 3-4 alignments where a dominant force on the nose is arguably the most important piece of the defense. Sopoaga is not that. He’s a stopgap at best. At worst, he’s Antonio Dixon’s backup.

Is Fletcher Cox headed for a breakout year?

The sky seems like it’s the limit for last year’s first-round pick, but whether or not Cox is going to take the proverbial next step is tricky/borderline impossible to predict. What’s considered a breakout? Does it have to be reflected by an increase in numbers? Cox had a very solid rookie season with 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble – that may not seem like a lot, but those aren’t bad totals at all for an interior lineman.

Is the benchmark an invite to the Pro Bowl? From what we’ve seen of Cox, a trip to Honolulu some day may not be a stretch. For right now though, we don’t even know exactly how he’ll be utilized in defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ scheme. If he’s playing end in a traditional 3-4 alignment as anticipated, he’s not necessarily going to post the numbers or earn the national recognition unless he’s an absolutely dominant force. It’s simply not a flashy position.

When teams select a player No. 12 overall though, Pro Bowls are sort of what you start to expect around year two or three. Right now it might be less a matter of if than it is when. Projecting numbers and other accolades isn’t easy, but we’ll all know it when Cox has arrived. The truth is he may not have very far to go to get there.

Will Bennie Logan make an impact in his rookie season?

He could see the field quite a bit, especially given the mess the Eagles have up front, but I’m not entirely sure Logan was an incredibly impactful player per se at the collegiate level. The third-round pick only recorded five sacks and 12 tackles for loss over 27 games his last two seasons at LSU – not exactly lighting the world on fire.

That said, Logan will almost certainly be contributing as a rookie. The main attribute his NFL.com scouting report stresses is that all-important versatility. He could play interior lineman in a 4-3, or end in a 3-4. At 6-2, 309 lbs. Logan seems a little undersized for nose, but it’s not always about how much space a player takes up, either. How much worse can he be than Sopoaga, apparently?

Best guess is we’ll see him line up all over the place with some regularity, and one can only hope perform adequately. Logan will almost certainly have an impact in that sense, but in terms of big plays or on the box score, we may not take much notice.

Is Vinny Curry still in the Eagles’ plans?

You would have to think so. The Eagles used a second-round pick on Curry last April, and then Andy Reid’s staff promptly forgot about him. At first it was to be expected. With two Pro Bowlers at end in Trent Cole and Jason Babin, plus Brandon Graham, Darryl Tapp, and Phillip Hunt all vying for playing time, there was quite literally a ton of competition to climb over. But Babin was released mid-season, Cole endured a sack drought that lasted for months, and the rookie still wasn’t getting many looks. Curry appeared in just six games, and was on the field for 89 snaps total (via PFF).

Now the Eagles will utilize more three-man fronts, and as a result Curry looks like one of several front-seven players without a defined role. He was a pass rusher at Marshall, but unlike Cole and Graham, he doesn’t expect to line up at outside linebacker. Curry bulked up in the offseason, up to 279 lbs. during the offseason according to the team web site, which makes him better suited for end. Ends in 3-4 alignments traditionally are not known as much for getting after the QB.

So what’s the story? Is he a fit? We have no way of knowing until the pads go on, but something to keep in mind is general manager Howie Roseman was credited with running the 2012 draft – not Reid – and Roseman had to have a sense that a head coaching change at the end of the season was possible if not probable. And with more and more defenses utilizing the 3-4, scheme versatility should have been part of the approach in the draft. If we can assume two plus two equals four in the Birds’ front office, the Curry selection was only logical if they felt he could make the transition.

(If that last sentence doesn’t bring Death From Above back, I don’t know what will.)

Does Clifton Geathers stand a chance of making the 53-man roster?

It sure sounds like it. Geathers was acquired from the Colts for fullback Stanley Havili in the offseason, which seemed like a bit of a nothing trade at the time. A sixth-round pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2010, Geathers is already with his sixth organization. He’s hardly played though, seeing fewer than 200 snaps in three NFL seasons.

So why would it be any different for Geathers in Philadelphia? Again, with a massive scheme overhaul, it’s unclear who will or will not be a fit. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton were tackles in a 4-3; now they’re probably ends. Cole, Graham, and Hunt were ends in a 4-3; now they’re linebackers, while somebody like Curry is staying put. It looks a little chaotic to an outsider, which makes it easier for an anonymous player like Geathers to rise to the top.

In fact, Geathers reportedly got to run with the first-team defense during some of the spring practices, which may or may not mean anything if you listen to Chip Kelly. His size – 6-8, 340 lbs. – certainly makes him an intriguing prospect as well even if his resume does not. I’m not sold yet on the 25 year old as a lock to make the squad or anything like that, but the Eagles are going to give him a long look at the very least.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

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