Eagle Eye: Needs on the Eagles' defense
DeMeco Ryans (left) and Trent Cole (middle) both have hefty cap figures for 2014, but are coming off productive seasons. (AP)
It was supposed to be the weak link of Chip Kelly’s team, the reason he wouldn’t succeed in his first year as Eagles coach.
When camp opened in July, the Eagles’ defense, an overhauled group with new names and faces but no superstars or game-changing talent, figured to be Kelly’s biggest problem.
For four weeks, it was. Then coordinator Bill Davis asked the public to trust him, and his defense responded by holding the next nine opponents under 22 points.
In the end, Davis' defense wasn’t the colossal failure it was alleged to be in August. The Eagles gave up a ton of yards this year -- 394 per game, fourth-most in the NFL -- but ranked 17th in scoring defense (23.9 points per game) and tied for fourth in turnover ratio.
Over the final 12 weeks, only seven NFL teams allowed fewer points and none produced more turnovers.
And the best part?
Almost all of the starters and key reserves are coming back.
“I think that’s huge,” cornerback Cary Williams said, “especially when you’re trying to build a successful team. It starts with a defense, with the guys being able to be familiar with one another, understand each other, communicate, get better with each other and get better.”
Change is inevitable after every season for every team, but nearly every starter and key reserve for the Eagles is under contract for 2014.
The only starter with a contract that expires when free agency begins March 8 is safety Nate Allen, and the only other free agent is defensive end Cedric Thornton, who will be an exclusive-rights free agent, which means the Eagles control his salary for one more season.
The only starter likely to be shown the door is Patrick Chung, who had already lost his starting job to rookie Earl Wolff and only regained it when Wolff injured his knee, and the biggest overall loss will probably be reserve linebacker Brandon Graham, a former first-round pick.
Other free agents-to-be are reserve safeties Colt Anderson and Kurt Coleman and backup lineman Clifton Geathers.
“We were a new group this offseason, a bunch of new faces,” Connor Barwin said. “It’ll be great having everybody back and we’ll need to improve from where we left off, which was the Saints game.”
Trent Cole and DeMeco Ryans have high cap numbers for 2014 -- $6.6 million for Cole and $6.9 million for Ryans -- but both are coming off above-average seasons and each should return, even if takes some contract restructuring.
Everyone else -- corners Williams and Bradley Fletcher, linebackers Barwin and Mychal Kendricks and linemen Bennie Logan and Fletcher Cox -- enter 2014 either under rookie deals or one season into their most recent contract.
And don’t forget nickel corner Brandon Boykin and bench pass rusher Vinny Curry, who each enter the third season of their rookie contracts.
“It’s kind of rare to have that situation where we have the possibility of keeping everybody together,” Ryans said. “I think we have a good group, but we still have to find a way to get better. I think it allows us to move forward a lot quicker.
“It’s not that process of re-learning and re-teaching from the beginning. We already have that basis of our defense. Everybody has that knowledge of what Coach Davis is trying to do. I just see our defense really expanding, becoming even better and becoming more multiple in what we’re capable of doing.”
To improve next year, the Eagles need to upgrade their pass rush and stabilize their safety carousel, which has spun since the franchise let Brian Dawkins walk after the 2008 season and failed in every attempt to replace him.
The Eagles were the NFL’s eighth-worst third-down defense in 2013, allowing a 40.26-percent conversion rate. They also finished with the league’s second fewest sacks per attempt.
General manager Howie Roseman has already said this year’s free-agent haul will more resemble last year’s careful approach (see story), so forget about the Eagles breaking the bank for outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and safety Jairus Byrd.
The draft is the likeliest place to find the team’s outside 'backer or safety of the future, with some modest free agents mixed in for depth.
But with so many players returning, the Eagles already expect to be ahead of the curve when camp opens next summer.
“It’s huge,” said Boykin, who had six picks this season. “We won’t have to spend OTAs learning a scheme. We can spend it still kind of jelling together and getting a better feel for everybody, so that’ll put us ahead of the learning curve and ahead of where we were last year. We’ll know who’s beside us, know our personnel, know how other people communicate and play and just experience it together.”
The Eagles had already shown drastic improvement under Davis after allowing the league’s second-most points through four weeks (138) and averaging 34.5 points allowed per game. They cut that number down by more than two touchdowns, allowing just 20.3 points the rest of the way.
The 244 total points they allowed from Week 5 to the end of the season ranked eighth-best in the NFL. They still surrendered yards in chunks and struggled on some third-and-longs, but compensated by tying Seattle with the NFL’s most takeaways (26) in that span.
It’s a foundation they’re aiming to build on going into next season.
“Nobody expected us to even come in at .500 and they were talking about how we (the defense) were such a weakness,” Boykin said, “and we showed everybody we weren’t. As long as we keep people out of the end zone and force turnovers we’ll continue to be a good defense.”