Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 4, Defensive Line

Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 4, Defensive Line
February 21, 2014, 12:15 pm
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Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the previous installments on specialists, wide receivers, offensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and  running backs.

Depending upon your outlook, Philadelphia’s defensive line doesn’t have any glaring holes. Fletcher Cox has shown flashes of dominance, while the one-two punch of Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry form a nice combination at the opposite end. Even Bennie Logan held his own at nose tackle, the area fans are most likely to say needs to be addressed.

The oldest of those players are Thornton and Curry, who each turn 26 in June. Three of the four are signed through 2015, and Thornton is an exclusive rights free agent which means he is not allowed to negotiate with other teams.

But behind them, the cupboards are bare. There is essentially nothing in the way of depth to speak of.

Clifton Geathers is unremarkable but for his size (6’8”, 340 lbs), and an unrestricted free agent to boot. Damion Square made no impact in his rookie year. Joe Kruger spent his rookie season on injured reserve, and how much can we expect of a seventh-round pick? There’s something called a Brandon Bair on the roster as well, but he’ll be 30 and has yet to make it in the NFL.

Any of Cox, Thornton, Curry or Logan isn’t as much the issue as the unit in its entirety is starving for attention.

The Eagles need to bring in a minimum of two, possibly as many as three defensive linemen who can play this offseason. If in the process of adding talent, they find upgrades over what is already there, so be it. No expense should be spared, particularly in the draft.

Nose Tackle of the Future?

Few players on the Eagles roster provoke the sort of mixed reactions that Bennie Logan will. Depending who you ask, the third-round pick out of LSU was either a beast, or he had an okay rookie season despite being miscast as a nose tackle.

While it may not show up in terms of pure production—27 tackles, 2.0 sacks in 16 games—Logan certainly held his own, particularly after the Isaac Sopoaga trade gave him a home. Logan started the final eight games of the season for the Birds at nose tackle and played extensively in the Wild Card loss to the Saints.

And advanced metrics suggest he was even better than a lot of people probably think. According to Pro Football Focus, Logan ranked 15th in run stop percentage and 19th in pass rush productivity among all interior linemen who played at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps in either capacity.

That’s a strong showing for a rookie who is supposedly miscast.

The Eagles likely do not share that opinion of Logan. In fact, head coach Chip Kelly already had high hopes for the 24-year-old when they were able to land him in last year’s draft. Via John Gonzalez for CSNPhilly.com:

“We believe he has the ability to be a three-down player,” Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said in the NovaCare Complex auditorium on Friday. “He’s stout against the run, but on third down I also think he can be an inside pass rusher for us. That’s what we really liked about him. And getting him in the third round, we were really fortunate. We had him in the second round and we were fortunate that he fell to us.”

Listed at 6’2”, 309 pounds, there is a perception Logan may be a tad undersized to play nose tackle. However, he could bulk up in the offseason and get closer to 325, which is probably about average for the position.

If Logan continues to develop, the Eagles could very well have their answer in the middle of this defensive line. He has the versatility to shift to end if need be, but the coaching staff might give him the opportunity to get comfortable on the interior.

The One-Two Punch

One of the most pleasant surprises in 2013 was the emergence of Cedric Thornton as not only a viable starter in Philadelphia’s defense, but one of the league’s top run-stuffers. Among regular starters at defensive end in 3-4 schemes, only Houston Texans All-Pro J.J. Watt posted a better run stop percentage according to Pro Football Focus.

Not bad for an afterthought. The only problem with Thornton is he wasn’t very effective as a pass-rusher, registering just 1.0 sack for the season.

No worries. That’s where Vinny Curry comes in.

Curry was basically Bizarro Thornton last season. PFF’s rankings had the 2012 second-round pick second only to Watt in pass rushing productivity—a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries—among all 3-4 ends who played at least 25 percent of their teams pass rush snaps.

Together, they formed quite the duo, although one does have to question this act’s longevity. Long-term, there may not be room for the both of them.

Thornton will be back in ‘14 as an exclusive rights free agent. The Eagles could choose to work out a long-term extension with him now, but that might prove difficult. Thornton doesn’t have much of a body of work prior to this past season, and he was completely one-dimensional.

It might make sense for the Birds from a buy-low perspective, and for Thornton from the viewpoint that he’s going to get the shaft on a one-year tender otherwise. Meeting in the middle to find his true value could be another story though.

Meanwhile, there were doubts about having Curry bulk up to play end in a 3-4 and to this day whether the scheme truly suits his strengths, but he performed. The issue is he’s only under contract for two more seasons, and if he’s not a full-time player for the Birds by then, good luck getting him to re-sign.

Curry was a good enough prospect and has flashed enough NFL potential that he would likely be a big draw if he were just hitting the free-agent market. The reality is if we’re still sitting here this time next year and Curry is not going to be a starter, the Eagles will be better off trading him.

It’s not a terrible problem to have, but it does require that the organization think ahead. Thornton does not appear to be an every-down player, but he certainly has value if he continues to perform like an elite run-stuffer. Alternately, Curry can seemingly contribute in any scheme, but the coaching staff only trusted him to be on the field for 28 percent of the defensive snaps in ’13.

If Thornton is willing to sign a long-term extension for relatively cheap, it could be wise to lock him up. Otherwise, they should give him the one-year tender and wait to see exactly what they have in Curry.

Curry didn’t chart poorly against the run—29th according to PFF—so he may develop into an every-down player yet.

Fletcher Cox

You can probably go ahead and pencil that name in at right defensive end for the next 5-7 years. There were some reservations about how Cox would adapt going from playing defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment to end in a 3-4, but he handled the transition well.

Granted, Cox maybe seemed to make fewer impact plays in his second NFL season. His sack total dipped from 5.5 as a rookie to 3.0 in ’13, while tackles for a loss plummeted from five to just one.

However, it’s not as if the declining numbers was entirely unexpected. Learning a new scheme certainly played into the dropoff. There were also increased responsibilities in the new role, as opposed to the Wide-9 where the linemen’s sole job was to attack gaps and get after the quarterback.

Cox’s season was actually quite good when it’s not measured purely in terms of production. According to PFF, he led Philly in QB hurries with 39, seven more than the next best player on the team, and he ranked ninth at his position for pass rushing productivity based on the metrics site’s formula.

Again, this was a season where Cox had to re-establish himself at a new position. Yes, he was the 12th overall pick in the draft two years ago, but expecting him to dominate under the circumstances was unfair.

And he did dominate in spurts. Cox needs to continue to develop and be more consistent in year three, but he’s already one of the better all-around linemen in the league and could anchor Philadelphia’s unit for years to come. What remains to be seen is whether Cox can become the type of player that adds Pro Bowls to his resume.

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