The case for and against defensive line with the Eagles first draft pick

The case for and against defensive line with the Eagles first draft pick

The Eagles have a glaring hole at cornerback and a desire to add playmakers on offense, so it's no wonder defensive line feels like a bit of an afterthought heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. At the same time, a strong case can be made defensive line is actually this team's biggest offseason need.
 
While the D-line is increasingly under the microscope as the draft draws near, it continues to appear overshadowed by more glamorous positions. Maybe that's because the Eagles have so much invested there already. Fletcher Cox became one of the highest-paid players in the NFL last summer, Brandon Graham enjoyed a career year and was named second-team All-Pro in 2016, and Vinny Curry is owed a ton of money, too.
 
In theory, those three players should've combined to anchor the unit. In reality, that's not quite how things worked out.
 
There were weeks where the Eagles' defensive line dominated the line of scrimmage and completely took over games. Then there were weeks where the front four played small and seemed to disappear. No surprise, the defense was aggressively average on the whole, ranked 15th in the league against the run and tied for 16th in sacks -- right down the middle.
 
If defense wins championships, that's not nearly good enough. Furthermore, in a wide-nine scheme under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, success starts up front. The Eagles can't afford to be inconsistent or merely average at the point of attack, which should be reason enough to go lineman in round one. Of course, that’s not the only reason.
 
Value
 
Currently in possession of the No. 14 pick overall, the Eagles are also in what you would hope is a rare position to draft an impact pass-rusher. There is such a premium on finding athletes who can get to the quarterback, the blue-chip prospects tend to fly off the board. Case in point, there's a very good possibility three of the first five picks in 2017 will be defensive linemen.
 
Half of the 16 players who recorded double-digit sacks in '16 were former first-round picks. In 2015, it was 11 out of 16. In other words, if the Eagles want a defensive end or tackle who has the potential to be a difference maker, their best chance is to strike early.
 
Even if cornerback or running back are considered greater needs, this year's class is supposed to be incredibly deep at both positions. The Eagles can wait and still find starting-caliber prospects at both spots. While that’s possible along the defensive line as well, the likelihood decreases dramatically.
 
Need
 
Three players does not make a front four. For that matter, four isn't enough, either. The defensive line is subject to a lot of rotation and substitution to keep everybody fresh, and as of right now, the Eagles are neither deep nor top heavy.
 
The line's interior is particularly concern after the departure of Bennie Logan in free agency. Cox will now be joined by Beau Allen, who might be a better fit for the wide nine in all honesty, but is relatively unproven as a full-time starter. Allen can also become a free agent next year, and behind them, only Destiny Vaeao has meaningful NFL experience.
 
End isn't much better. Graham is coming off of a stellar season, but still only had 5.5 sacks, while Curry's new contract is looking like a bust after a 2.5-sack campaign. Chris Long replaces Connor Barwin, which doesn’t really change things, and Marcus Smith is also in the mix. Simply put, opposing quarterbacks aren't exactly in fear of the pressure the Eagles are bringing off the edge.
 
Importance
 
If quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, what's second? Either protecting said quarterback, or getting the opposition's signal-caller to the ground.

A great pass-rush has both the ability to stifle the opponent's offense and cover up potential weaknesses in the defense -- particularly in the secondary. Think what guys like Von Miller, J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack mean to their teams. The presence of a perennial double-digit sack artists can completely change the complexion of a game plan.
 
As fantastic as they are, Cox hasn't become that yet, and Graham may never. There's still room to add a true force on the line, which would not only make a porous secondary better, but his teammates up front, too. If defenses win championships, like the cliché insists, adding a true, premier pass-rusher and all-around dominant force up front should be the Eagles' top priority this offseason.

Chris Long: Eagles give chance to 'prove myself all over again'

Chris Long: Eagles give chance to 'prove myself all over again'

Chris Long probably could have stayed with the Patriots and had a pretty darn good chance to rack up another Super Bowl ring.

Or two.

At this point in his career? Long was after something different.

It was fun playing for the Patriots and winning a Super Bowl in his ninth NFL season. But what he really wants is to finish his career with a team where he can really be a difference maker on the field.

And the Eagles, with whom he can be a pure pass rusher in Jim Schwartz's classic 4-3 defense, offered that far more than New England, where he spent most of last season lined up inside as a defensive tackle.

Is there really something bigger than having a tremendous chance at winning another Super Bowl ring?

For Long, there is.

"At the end of the day I have to follow my heart and that's served me well, for the most part," Long said. "Sometimes it gets me in trouble. But I think I just wanted to be in a situation where I was able to be proud of what I put on the field every Sunday.

"I think every team has a chance to compete for championships at the beginning of the season. It's no foregone conclusion you go anywhere and do anything.

"So I think that when I figured out there might be an opportunity for me to come to a great situation like this with a team that is on the rise and a lot of excitement in the building and the chance to compete for the role I was looking for, (that's) where I wanted to be."

Long had 50 1/2 sacks in his first six NFL seasons, including 13 for the Rams in 2011, 11 1/2 in 2012 and 8 1/2 in 2013. His 33 sacks during that three-year period were fifth-most in the NFL during that three-year span.

But injuries and a poor fit in New England limited him to eight sacks over the last three years.

Which led him to Philly.

"I had a great opportunity to go to New England and win a championship and that's the goal every year for every team in the league," he said.

"But at the end of the day, I wanted to get back to playing football the way that I played for a long time. And that's something that gave me great joy, taking the field every Sunday and playing to the best of my abilities and in a situation that schematically I felt like I was really being the best me I could be.

"It was a real blessing to be a part of that team last year, but I wanted to towards the end of my career be in a situation to prove myself all over again.

"And that's what keeps me hungry and excited and I think this is a great fit because it gives me that opportunity."

The Eagles signed the 32-year-old Long last week to an incentive-laden two-year, $4.5 million contract.

With their starting defensive end rotation of Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry, Marcus Smith and Brandon Graham limited to just 15 1/2 combined sacks last year, the Eagles are desperate for pass pressure.

They released Barwin -- Long's close friend. Barwin signed with the Rams, Long's former team, and the Eagles essentially replaced him with Long.

"The No. 1 thing when I started free agency was a good football fit," Long said. "It wasn't about the money for me. I've been lucky to make a good amount of money playing football. It wasn't about anything but getting back to the player that I was or as close as you can be to that and that's something that I'm very driven to do.

"For me, No. 1 was the football fit and a team that is going to have a chance to win a lot of football games, and I feel like when you watch them play, it's obvious this organization is moving in the right direction.

"When we got ready for the Super Bowl and watching the Falcons, I spent a lot of time watching Philly's defense because they were obviously very talented and played Atlanta great and they really jumped off the screen at you.

"And you say, in free agency, once it starts, 'Yeah, I do remember watching those guys, and, 'Man, that would be cool to be a part of something like that,' and that’s where I wanted to be."

Long is at an age where most players are winding down.

Only two players 32 or older in Eagles history have ever recorded more than 6 1/2 sacks in a season -- William Fuller in 1994, 1995 and 1996 and Darren Howard in 2008.

But Long, who didn't miss a game from opening day 2008 through September 2014, said he's healthy and fit and ready to be a big part of this defense.

"I feel like I have a lot left, I really do," he said. "There was a time when I was injured and playing really bad and cut (by the Rams) -- rightfully so -- where I wasn't sure what my future in football was.

"But I was really lucky to take that stuff and for Coach Belichick to take that chance in me and I found out I still have a lot left in the tank. I didn’t miss a practice, didn’t miss a game last year, and that's something I was really proud of.

"I was able to play hard and I think at a pretty high level but I know I have to strike while the iron's hot. Being 32, I wanted to be in the right place, and this is the right place for me."

Connor Barwin: Eagles wanted me to take 'very drastic pay cut'

Connor Barwin: Eagles wanted me to take 'very drastic pay cut'

Even after he had already said publicly that he'd take a pay cut, when the Eagles cut Connor Barwin on March 9 it wasn't a surprise. 

Barwin's production had dropped and he was set to have a cap hit of over $8 million and the Eagles saved almost all of that space by releasing him. 

Appearing on 94WIP on Tuesday afternoon, Barwin, who has since signed with the Los Angeles Rams, detailed his final couple of weeks with the Eagles. 

"After the season ended, I said that I would take a pay cut," Barwin said. "Obviously, when I signed my deal, which some people don't understand, I signed six-year, $36 million deal that was backloaded with $18 million in the last two years, so I knew whether I was getting 10 sacks or five sacks, we were going to restructure at Year 5. And that's really what I was alluding to when I said a pay cut. The Eagles had only paid me $4 or $5 million a year my first four years, so they weren't just going to start paying me $8 or $9 (million). 

"So I said I would take a pay cut and obviously my agent met with (Eagles de facto GM) Howie (Roseman) and his staff at the combine and they were looking for a very drastic pay cut, so we decided to go our separate ways. Howie was great. He obviously took as long as he could to try to work out a trade to get some value for me and then he did the right thing to release me the day before free agency started and allowed me to kind of continue my career."

When Barwin said he would take a pay cut, it seemed like an overly optimistic thought. From the outside, it was always pretty clear that he wouldn't be on the team in 2017 unless he reduced his salary a ton. That's apparently what the Eagles asked and it's hard to fault Barwin or the Eagles for moving on.  

Barwin, 30, was understanding of the situation and thought the Eagles handled it well. 

"Obviously, I knew things were happening about a week before they happened last Wednesday," he said. "And that still made Thursday, the day I was released, a very hard day for me and my family. But Friday and Saturday, you move on and look to the future."

The future for Barwin is in LA, where he is reuniting with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Barwin played under Phillips with the Texans before he earned the big contract in Philly. 

Barwin seemed excited to be back in Phillips' 3-4 defense. Last season, Barwin had to transition from a 3-4 into Jim Schwartz's 4-3, but has continued to say that wasn't the transition that hurt him the most. Last season he also moved from the left side of the defensive end to the right, which meant going up against the best left tackles in the game. With the Rams, Barwin will be back on the left. 

While he will be living in LA, his foundation, the Make the World Better Foundation, will continue to do charity work in Philadelphia and Barwin said he's made Philly his home. That isn't changing. 

During the interview with Chris Carlin and Ike Reese on WIP, Barwin revealed he has an interest in joining management of a team after his playing days are over. So with that eye, he gave his assessment of where the Eagles are heading. 

"Now, I'm on the outside, I think it's smart what Howie is doing," Barwin said. "I think they've got a great quarterback or what could potentially be a great quarterback in Carson Wentz and they're giving him weapons. They obviously loaded up on the offensive line, which I think is smart. You're always going to get one or two injuries a year. I think that they've got seven or eight guys, good guys on their offensive line and obviously they've added wide receivers. 

"And lastly, I think the future is bright for Doug because just playing for him one year, I know that guys wanted to play for him. Guys enjoyed being around him. He enjoys being around the guys, he loves being around football. And I think that's important. 

"Obviously, as a defensive player, I'm excited to see what Vinny does with this opportunity, what other guys they kind of bring in to fill my hole. Obviously, Jim Schwartz has had a ton of success in this league and I'm excited to see what they do up front, adjusting to me being gone."