Mystery surrounds Eagles' new defensive front

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Mystery surrounds Eagles' new defensive front

July 17, 2013, 11:00 am
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Trent Cole and Fletcher Cox were part of an Eagles' defense that allowed the third-most points in the NFL last year. (USA Today Images)

Fletcher Cox is either a three-technique in a 4-3 alignment or a five-technique in a 3-4 front. Cedric Thornton is a defensive end, unless he’s a nose tackle. Bennie Logan has no clue what he is. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham aren’t defensive linemen anymore -- unless, of course, they still are.

This is the state of the Eagles’ defensive line as the team prepares for Monday’s start of training camp, the first of the Chip Kelly era and, presumably, the first odd-front defensive scheme since the Marion Campbell regime that ended in 1985.

An NFL defense can’t be effective or imposing without an established front line, but the Eagles have nothing but question marks in the defensive trenches. Even their scheme classification, rumored to be a 4-3 under, isn’t acknowledged by the coaching staff.

The only certainty is that none of the linemen will be pigeonholed into one position. The coaches spent all of the minicamps rotating personnel -- and alternating three-man fronts with four-man looks -- to gauge which players can do what and which can’t.

“Everybody was moving around, nobody had one permanent position,” the second-year Cox said. “I’m an end or three-technique or nose. You never know, so many different things.”

The Eagles lack certainty up front, but at least they have options. Plenty of options. In Cox and Thornton, they have a potential starting defensive-end tandem, with newcomer Isaac Sopoaga plugging the middle.

Cox has played inside for most of his life but is strong enough against the run to play outside on rush downs and move inside to rush the passer. Sopoaga is the only natural nose on the roster. Thornton spent the past two years being groomed into an interior pass rusher, but now his role is completely reversed.

“We’ve got a lot of athletes in the trenches,” said Thornton, who is learning the run techniques of a two-gap system for the first time. “It’s just being a man. Get our hands on [the offensive lineman] as fast as you can and you’ll be able to direct him whatever way you want to go. It’s just playing football. It's being an athlete.”

If Thornton can’t win the job, it’s probably because the rookie Logan or second-year pro Vinny Curry outperformed him. Logan and Curry are each more experienced in 4-3 schemes -- Logan as a tackle, Curry as an end -- but spent the spring camps adjusting to the new defense.

Other dark horses to push for playing time are Clifton Geathers, a 6-foot-8 journeyman who has experience at end and nose, and rookies David King, Joe Kruger and Damion Square.

Don’t expect the first few weeks of camp to clear up the picture. New defensive coordinator Bill Davis said he’s not married to one scheme or one specific personnel grouping up front. He called his defense a “multiple” front, and referred to rampant player movement as “cross-training.”

“Ends are playing tackles, tackles are playing nose. We’re trying to maximizing the learning curve,” Davis said. “The more we can cross-train our players -- they’ll major in one area but cross-train on others. We’re a little bit more forward-thinking.”

Davis assured that he’d put his players in the best position to succeed, which is more than can be said for the prior regime.

The controversial and unorthodox defensive line switch in 2011 to the wide nine, implemented by former defensive line coach Jim Washburn, not only isolated linemen from the rest of the defense but also planted a toxic seed that corrupted the entire unit.

The Eagles tied for the NFL’s third-most points allowed last year, one of the many reasons for the firing of head coach Andy Reid.

“I hate to talk too much about last season, not being here,” Davis added, “but just all the transition and all the different communications [breakdowns] that happened, I don’t know how you fight through that and play defense. I really don’t.”

Davis, who branches out from the Bill Cowher coaching tree and broke into coaching on the same staff as Dom Capers, Marvin Lewis and Dick LeBeau, tried to speed up the learning curve for his linemen by having them watch old footage of the Steelers, a franchise rooted in the 3-4 and known for consistently churning out hard-nosed, imposing defensive linemen.

“The main thing is just paying attention in the meeting,” Cox said. “We don’t meet long, but the time that we are in there I feel like everybody is locked in, everybody is paying attention.”

Having them learn all positions not only helps the coaches decide how pieces fit but also enables the staff to capitalize on their versatility and compensate for injuries.

Geathers had taken several reps at defensive end early in camp but moved to nose when Sopoaga missed the last organized team activity because of a death in his family. Thornton is up about 15 pounds from last year to 310 and plans to add more as he braces for more reps at nose tackle.

“It’s just that attitude in the trenches,” Thornton said. “If you got the attitude, and you bring it, you’ll surprise a lot of people. I’m definitely looking forward to having a better year than last year, that’s what I could say.”

Two staples of the defensive line -- Cole and Graham -- are making the uneasy adjustment to outside linebacker. So are Phillip Hunt and newcomer Everette Brown. But that doesn’t mean their days of playing with their hands in the dirt are over. Cole practiced at defensive end in three- and four-man fronts during the camps.

His future might be cloudy, but the team’s most proven pass rusher seemed optimistic that better days are ahead for the defense, regardless of the uncertainty.

“The only thing I could comment on that is that it’ll iron itself out in the end,” Cole said. “When it comes down to the summer, comes down to camp, when the franchise makes a decision, it’ll iron itself out. It always does.”

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