This time last year, the Eagles thought they had the most feared defensive line in football. Jim Washburn was getting massive production out of Jason Babin, Trent Cole, and Cullen Jenkins. Then, 2012 happened. The team’s sack artists stopped producing and Washburn was fired in disgrace. Now, the Eagles are transitioning to a 3-4 defense and developing a new identity for the defensive line. Free agent addition Isaac Sopoaga and third round pick Bennie Logan are indications that the Eagles are willing to sacrifice pass rush for big, wide-bodied run defenders. The linemen won’t be glamorous players anymore. Instead, they will try to control the line of scrimmage and keep blockers from getting to linebackers. Here’s the full breakdown:
Who makes the team:
Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Joe Kruger, Bennie Logan, Isaac Sopoaga, Cedric Thornton
While the Eagles don’t have much elite talent along the defensive line, the coaching staff will be faced with some very tough decisions when final cuts roll around. Cox, Logan, Sopoaga, and Thornton are all locks and should be the top four players in the rotation. Kruger’s odds are also good. He was drafted (albeit in the 7th round) and has a high ceiling as a 5-technique. The final spot goes to Vinny Curry because it’s too painful to give up on a second round pick before he has a chance to prove himself. However, he doesn’t fit the 3-4 system and it’s hard to see him ever playing a major role on defense, so he could get cut. Antonio Dixon doesn’t make it because he’s strictly a 2-down nose tackle who has already reached his ceiling, and Clifton Geathers just doesn’t play up to his physical talent.
Who starts week 1:
Fletcher Cox (right defensive end), Isaac Sopoaga (nose tackle), Cedric Thornton (left defensive end)
Cox is the team’s best defensive lineman. It’s not clear which end position he’ll play, but the Eagles probably envision him on the weak side, where he can line up as a 3-technique and penetrate. Sopoaga will be the starting nose tackle. He’s a pure run plugger and will come off the field in sub packages (nickel and dime defenses). Cedric Thornton is the favorite to start at the final spot, but he may have to beat out Bennie Logan first. He’s a strong player with enough length and athleticism to play the 5-technique, but needs to show improvement in his third NFL season in order to stay in the starting lineup.
How the position stacks up:
The Eagles have youth and promise along the defensive line, but the group is no better than average right now. Fletcher Cox is a bit overrated by Eagles fans. He’s a solid starter with good athleticism, but he’s not a polished pass rusher, nor is he a monster against the run. Sopoaga will provide good veteran leadership for the group, but 2-down run stuffers like him are a dime a dozen in the NFL. Cedric Thornton made huge strides in his second year with the Eagles, but he is still no more than a fringe starter unless he keeps improving. Eagles fans can get excited about Bennie Logan and Joe Kruger because they both offer starting potential, but right now, neither will offer much of a pass rush. Expect Logan to be the primary backup at all three positions. The Eagles will need to take 2013 as an opportunity to assess their young defensive linemen since there are an awful lot of question marks on the depth chart.