Trent Cole (58) is entering his ninth season with the Eagles; Fletcher Cox (91) his second. (USA Today Images)
Both starting cornerbacks and one of the starting safeties are new. Two of the outside linebackers used to be defensive ends and another is in his first year here. Both nose tackles and a couple defensive ends? New here. Two backup inside linebackers? New here as well.
When the Eagles cut the roster from 75 to 53 over the past couple days, it continued the overhaul of the defense that began soon after Chip Kelly took over for Andy Reid.
Gone from last year’s moribund unit are eight players that started at least one game and 17 guys who got on the field on the defensive side of the ball. Added to this year’s defense are 12 new names, including five projected starters.
The Eagles are certainly different on defense. But are they better?
The secondary is stocked with players who were unwanted with their previous team and a holdover who’s been benched the last two years.
The linebacker position includes two converted defensive ends who’ve never played in a 3-4, a big-money free agent coming off a disappointing season, two unheralded newcomers and Casey Matthews, of all people.
Up front is a nose tackle coming off an ineffective preseason, a defensive end who’s never started an NFL game and a bunch of promising but untested young linemen.
There’s one Pro Bowl guy on the defense, and that’s Trent Cole, and he’s four years removed from his last Pro Bowl. And it came at a different position four defensive coordinators ago.
The first five quarterbacks the Eagles face this year are Robert Griffin III, Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.
Other than all that, the Eagles’ defense is ready to go.
“I do think that we have some good players on that side of the ball, and if they play at a high level, we’ll have a chance to compete,” general manager Howie Roseman said after the Eagles cut the roster to 53 on Saturday.
“You talk about our outside linebackers and some of our defensive linemen and our inside backers and then our secondary, some of those guys have played at a high level and played on championship caliber teams. It’s all about coming together and seeing how that all works out.”
The only projected opening-day starters who’ll be starting at the same position as last year are strong safety Nate Allen and inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans. Fletcher Cox, a 4-3 defensive tackle last year, starts now at defensive end, and Cole, a 4-3 defensive end last year, starts at outside linebacker.
On offense, the Eagles know exactly what they have. We’ve seen Michael Vick play quarterback and win playoff games earlier in his career. We’ve seen LeSean McCoy lead the NFL in touchdowns. We’ve seen DeSean Jackson set records for big-play touchdowns and go to a couple Pro Bowls. We’ve seen Brent Celek, Bryce Brown and Jason Avant. We’ve seen this offensive line in action.
On defense, on the other hand, the Eagles are doing a lot of projecting.
They’re hoping Mychal Kendricks and Cox can make big jumps in their second year. They’re hoping that Cole and Brandon Graham can be drop-back 3-4 linebackers. They’re hoping that Cedric Thornton can be a productive NFL starter and that newcomers Connor Barwin, Patrick Chung, Isaac Sopoaga, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams can all play better than they did with their last team.
But at least this year for the first time in a long time, the Eagles have a couple young guys on defense to get excited about. Roseman said he expects big things in particular from Cox and Kendricks, the top two picks from last year’s draft.
“I have extreme confidence in those guys,” he said. “When you talk about Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks, I don’t see any reason why those guys shouldn’t be big-time players in this league. Between what’s in their body physically, guys who have the traits to do it, guys who work really hard.
“There’s nothing I’ve seen out here or on the field during the games that says they shouldn’t take the step from first-year guys to really being core members of our defense for a long time.”
Roseman said also that just because we saw Cole and Graham lining up in coverage for most of the summer doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be doing it all the time once the games count.
In other words, the percentage that the Eagles revert back to a 4-3 during the regular season could be much higher than what we’ve seen at practice and in the preseason games would hint at.
“We have a lot of confidence in our defensive staff in putting … those guys in position to play to their strengths,” Roseman said.
“A lot of times what you see in preseason is working on not only the things they do well but also the weaknesses, to get a sense of what guys can really do. As you know, things change in the regular season.”