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

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

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.

Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

The most impressive thing about the Flyers' 4-0 preseason win over the Islanders on Tuesday night was the play of the their young defense and the outstanding work by the penalty kill.

Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers each gave a strong accounting of themselves while veteran Andrew MacDonald proved why experience helps with some terrific PK work during an extended five-on-three Islanders power play in the third period.

“Overall, they did a good job,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I look at some of the opportunities we gave up, especially in the second period, we gave up three or four Grade A opportunities that Mase (goalie Steve Mason) was great on, but I put those on our forwards.

“We’re still not into regular-season form on our play without the puck. I thought as a whole, the group of defensemen did a good job and the young guys in there were good tonight.”

Sanheim had strong plays the entire game from the point and picked up two assists (see highlights). He gets the puck quickly on net and joins the play up front.

“It took me a little bit, even in this game,” Sanheim said. “As I play more, I started to jump up more and you start to see my game more. It’s something I want to bring to this next level.”

Provorov logged 21:43 of ice time following nearly 29 minutes at New Jersey. He had 5:17 on the PK. Some of his clears weren’t deep or hard enough, at times, possibly because of fatigue.

He also took a bad boarding hit on Joshua Ho-Sang in the third period that set up an Isles five-on-three power play. It became extended because of a trip call to Myers but MacDonald did yeoman’s work on the extended PK.

Provorov quarterbacks the first-unit man advantage for now until Shayne Gostisbehere joins the crowd. He had some very skillful passes. The Russian can find the seam up the ice on the breakout quickly and had a no-look, hard pass to Nick Cousins in the second period for a quality one-timer on net.

Expect Provorov to handle the second-unit power play during the season, should he make the roster.

The goals
Although the Flyers, using a better NHL lineup, were lacking for offensive chances early against the Isles' "B" squad, they found their way in the final four minutes of the opening period.

First, Dale Weise had one of those pinball goals as a bouncing puck hit a couple of players in the slot, including goalie Chris Gibson, to make it 1-0 during four-on-four play.

That was the Flyers' first goal of preseason in three games. A little more than a minute later, Wayne Simmonds scored off a rebound just as a Flyers power play ended. Simmonds had two goals in the game, including a wrister from the left circle to open the final period.

Smallish (5-foot-7) — but bullish — centerman Andy Miele, a former Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey’s top player (Miami-Ohio), made it 3-0, out-battling Thomas Hickey for the rebound of Michael Raffl’s shot.

The shield
Simmonds is wearing a visor for the first time. It’s an experiment for now.

“Everyone is all over me about it,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. It wasn’t too bad tonight. The only thing is trying to track pucks in the sky when you are getting the glare from the lights. A little bit of an adjustment."

He said neither his mother nor girlfriend had pushed him as hard to wear the shield as someone else: “Ron Hextall,” he said flatly. “He gave me a call.”

Because of his tenacious play in the slot where sticks are high and pucks are deflected, a shield makes sense.

“Yeah, I think so, being that front guy and doing work on the PK,” he said. “Getting sticks in lanes like that, the game is really fast and pucks get deflected.

“Sometime you don’t know where they’re going and can’t react to that. Obviously, the shield is good for that."

He added he would wear the shield in a fight, too.

“Every time I fight and someone has a shield on, I’m at a disadvantage so I guess this evens it up,” he said.

Loose pucks
Weise did a nice job sticking up for teammates late during a melee after a Ben Holmstrom crosscheck to linemate Nick Cousins. “It was a bad crosscheck and you’re defending your teammates,” he said. “The ref was in the way and I kind of went overtop him. That’s what I’m about. Guys take liberties on my linemates, I’ll stand up for them.” … Matt Read had just 6:54 ice time through two periods. Fourth-liner Boyd Gordon had more ice time there — 9:39 — but Read finished with 13:55 to Gordon’s 13:41. More than half of Gordon’s ice time was on the penalty kill. … Goalie Steve Mason faced some point-blank chances among the first 17 shots he faced and finished with 23-save shutout.  

Carson Wentz named NFC Offensive Player of the Week

Carson Wentz named NFC Offensive Player of the Week

Another week, another award for Carson Wentz.

This time the Eagles' electrifying rookie has been named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Steelers.

In the 34-3 win over Pittsburgh, Wentz completed 23 of 31 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 125.9. It was the first 300-yard game of his very young career.

Wentz is the first rookie QB in Eagles history to win an Offensive Player of the Week award, and the first Eagle to win the award since Jeremy Maclin in Week 9 of the 2014 season.

Through three games, the 23-year-old has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 769 yards and five touchdowns. He's the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to achieve those stats in the first three games of a career. He still hasn't thrown an interception in 102 passing attempts, which is a record for rookies.

It looks like Wentz will have plenty more opportunities for awards this season.