Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry will serve as defensive ends in the Birds' 3-4 scheme. (AP)
Whenever the Eagles’ new defensive scheme is discussed, the first topics of conversation are Trent Cole and Brandon Graham and their migrations from the defensive line to outside linebacker.
Often forgotten are the new job titles for both Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry, a pair of young defensive linemen still trying to carve their niche in a scheme that keeps changing their roles just as they start whittling.
Right now, both are trying to adapt from one extreme to another, from the sack-happy wide nine to a two-gap scheme that asks them to concentrate heavily on the run. Neither has any experience in this kind of defense, outside of the spring camps.
Their ability to ease into the new defense is critical, given that someone is needed to emerge as an honest defensive end in Chip Kelly’s three-man front, with Fletcher Cox already penciled into the other defensive end and Isaac Sopoaga entrenched at nose tackle.
“It’s a work in progress,” admitted Thornton, a second-year pro who spent last season as a situational inside pass rusher in a four-man tackle rotation. Thornton has seen almost all of the first-team action during training camp.
“It’s starts with my stance first. I’m definitely trying to get my stance back,” he added “We’re all moving sideways, so I’m just getting readjusted to having my stance and footwork to where it was in the spring.”
So far, Thornton said, he’s an “average” two-gap defensive end. He hardly seemed worried about his job security or lacking in confidence that he would soon be better than average.
“I can’t tell you I’m where I want to be right now. I’m not,” he said. “I would not be here if the season started at this standpoint, skill-wise. So I’m definitely going to be a better player, from the first game of the preseason to the first game we play against the Redskins. I’ll be a better player.”
The vision for Curry is less clear. He logs plenty of reps on the second string but also floats around in packages and isn’t always lined up in a two-gap stance. Curry, a second-round pick last year, arrived with a reputation for sacking quarterbacks and causing havoc behind scrimmage.
He bulked up some during the offseason to be better equipped for engaging offensive linemen, but he isn’t certain about his role. Kelly and new defensive coordinator Billy Davis have shuffled linemen around in various spots and even practiced four-man fronts, trying to find the best fit for the personnel.
“I mean, I’m working on it every day,” Curry said. “I take coaching. Things aren’t going to happen overnight. It’s obviously a change, but it’s something you’ve got to have in your toolbox anyway, so we’re working.”
Kelly would like to predominantly play a 3-4 scheme that has flexibility on nickel downs and may resemble a 4-3 at times, but his blueprint will work only if the pieces fit the right way.
He drafted versatile interior lineman Bennie Logan out of LSU in the third round and acquired Clifton Geathers in the offseason, arming his roster with more players who are considered scheme adaptable.
The Eagles released their first depth chart Monday (see story), and although Kelly has downplayed the idea of a pecking order before the first preseason game, Thornton was listed on the first team opposite Cox.
Curry and Geathers manned the second team. Rookies Joe Kruger and Damion Square were third team. Logan is the second-team nose guard, one of the several places where he’s practiced.
There isn’t any more clarity now than when veterans reported July 25, but Friday’s preseason game against New England should help clear up the picture and tell whether Thornton and Curry have made significant process in their new assignments or whether the coaches need to implement Plan B.
“Right now we’re starting our second week of training camp,” Curry said recently, “so there’s really no say-so when it comes to that right now. Maybe by like the third preseason game I guess you can formulate an opinion, the coaches will come up with it. Everything will go from there.”