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The mystery has finally been solved! The Eagles’ defense this year will be a … 3-4!
Oh, and a 4-3!
Minutes after his first practice as Eagles head coach ended, Chip Kelly spoke in detail Tuesday for the first time about the defense he’s planning to run this year, and he said that assumptions that defensive coordinator Billy Davis will run exclusively a 3-4 are mistaken.
Minicamp practice Tuesday was closed to the media, and Davis, the Eagles’ fifth defensive coordinator in six years, wasn’t available, but Kelly said he plans to run various fronts depending on personnel, opponent and situation.
That likely means we’ll see some pure 3-4, some old-fashioned 4-3 and also Davis’ pet 4-3 “Under,” a gap-control front that Monte Kiffin, Pete Carroll and others have also used with tremendous success that virtually eliminates read-and-react responsibilities from defenders.
“No. 1, it hinges on the players that we have,” Kelly said. “Then No. 2, it hinges on the situation of the game.
“There are no purists. No one runs a 3‑4 defense every single down. No one runs a 4-3 every single down. People have elements of both in there. It's the same thing offensively.
“So our job is to identify what are the strengths of our players on our roster and play to those strengths. It's still way too early to tell. But there are obviously advantages to both of those.
“In nickel, you may be in a four‑down [lineman] operation, but who are you playing? A team that throws the ball a lot. So we're going to be a more four-down this week. So 65 percent of our snaps will be four-down defense.
“Other teams are going to be a little bit more three‑down. But if you're going to play three‑down, you better make sure you got a nose that can two‑gap and defensive end that can two‑gap and those things, because if you don't have them, it doesn't matter how you deploy yourself defensively, you're not going to be able to hold up.
“So that's what this evaluation process for us is. Our minicamp, our OTAs and our minicamp in June, before we get to preseason camp and figuring out what is the best situation to put those guys in.”
Several front-seven guys now on the roster should be natural fits in a 3-4. Mychal Kendricks played comfortably in a 3-4 at Cal, 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox shouldn’t have any trouble adjusting to the five-technique defensive end spot in an odd front and free-agent acquisition Isaac Sopoaga is a pure zero technique, or nose tackle.
Then there are holdovers like DeMeco Ryans, Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, who either have no 3-4 experience or -- in Ryans’ case -- have not been productive in a 3-4 but obviously are too valuable for the Eagles to simply dispose.
Ryans was the Eagles’ best defensive player last year, Cole is a two-time Pro Bowler who’s third in franchise history in sacks, Graham is a former first-round pick who played well the second half of last year and Curry was a second-round pick who barely played last year.
Figuring out how these guys' function in multiple fronts will be one of the most important things the Eagles’ brain trust has to determine over these next several months.
“I think DeMeco's a natural linebacker -- doesn't matter if you have three‑down spacing or four-down spacing,” Kelly said. “He's played in both concepts with the Texans and here. So I think he can adapt.
“[We are] trying to see if Brandon is a guy that can drop and play good in coverage. Or is he more of a natural defensive end?
“That is more of what this process for us is about: Finally getting the chance to identify our talent on the defensive side of the ball and then put them in positions to make plays.
“If we really feel that Brandon can, then that's another weapon that Billy has to use in terms of what he can use defensively. But if we don't think Brandon's a great drop guy, then shame on us if we're making him do that.
“We did some three‑down spacing today, some four‑down spacing today. But we're by no means dialed into this is what we're going to do, because, again, it's Day 1.”
The tricky thing about playing multiple fronts is that it requires teams to find players with multiple talents.
So versatility becomes crucial. General manager Howie Roseman and Kelly need to find players who can do a number of different things and be productive in a variety of schemes. There just isn’t enough roster space to keep complete sets of 3-4 and 4-3 defenders.
“Decisions,” Kelly said. “If you're going to nickel or if you're a 3‑4 team, who are you taking off the field if you're bringing in that extra defensive back? But someone that has that versatility that can play in a three‑down front or four‑down front, that really helps.
“Can you be an outside linebacker and drop into coverage on first and second down and be a defensive end that rushes the quarterback on third down?
“So versatility is kind of the key to that. We think we have some guys like that, but we're not going to make that determination today. We'll continue to put them in situations and see how they operate.”