Eagles Preseason positional preview: Defense edition

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The Eagles preseason opener is now just one day away. The atmosphere is set to be electrifying tomorrow night when the Eagles meet the Bucs and that’s exactly the word many use to describe the Defense of Jim Schwartz. It’s going to be an extremely interesting night for Schwartz and his fired up Defense..but what can we expect to see? If you missed last night’s Offense edition, you can check it out here..otherwise; here’s your all-in-one guide to the Eagles preseason Defense.

 

Defensive Tackle:

What to expect:
The starting spots are locked in. Fletcher Cox signed a new contract that reflects his “Man-dog” status while Bennie Logan could be the next in line to have his future cemented in the City of Brotherly Love. With that in mind, the Eagles will want to keep the two as fresh as possible for the regular season while making sure they set the tone early on.

With Mike Martin out, look for Destny Vaeao and Aziz Shittu to get significant playing time as they compete with Taylor Hart and Beau Allen for the depth spots on the roster. A lot of rotation and plays that demand athleticism and explosiveness off the line are going to really separate the men from the boys.

Technique is important and it’s something that has been a concern for the the undrafted rookies, but what they may lack in fundamentals, they make up for in sheer physical dominance. Whereas Hart and Allen are arguably in an opposite situation, making this one of the more interesting spots to pay close attention to during the game.

 

Player to watch:
Destiny Vaeao came into Training camp as an undrafted rookie after a season of 83 tackles, 7 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles becoming his Washington State resume. Vaeao has had a strong Training camp and if the stats don’t prove it, a 35.5 vertical leap does. The man defines explosive..and in a system that demands it, watch for Vaeao to do more than raise a few eyebrows on Thursday night.

 

Beneath the surface:
It will be interesting to see who sees the bulk of snaps here. The Eagles need to ensure that the backups to Cox and Logan are the best options without a doubt. Mike Martin will be watching from the sidelines as Shittu and Vaeao do everything they can to make the roster, but what way are the coaching staff leaning? That will be reflected to some extent in the snap count of the opening game after the initial rotations are set. Keep an eye out to see who’s consistently making plays on the field and even on special teams..it all counts.

 

Defensive End:

What to expect:
The Defensive End rotation looks to be one of uncertainty. Connor Barwin has lined up on both sides of the line and with Marcus Smith sustaining a concussion earlier in the week, guys like Bryan Braman, Steven Means and Alex McCalister have a real shot to prove their worth.

Vinny Curry is the only real lock here and while we can hope to see a lot of him, working out who is going to be lining up on the opposite side is important. Versatility is going to play a huge part here, but we can expect to see a lot of rotation..not just in guys getting snaps, but in getting snaps on both the left and right hand sides.

Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin have both moved over from the LB spot..but can they prove to be just effective rushing the passer from the outside? For Barwin, the transition is treading familiar ground, but he’s still going to need to show the same level of efficiency he did two season’s ago if he’s to really cement a starting role.

 

Player to watch:
Normally, I’d root for Bryan Braman here..but Steven Means has really intrigued me during Training camp. After being signed by the Eagles in December, Means survived the Chip Kelly shipwreck and is now looking to find long-term security after bouncing around the NFL. With Smith on the sidelines, the 6-3, 263 pound pass rusher brings extreme physicality to the table, something Schwartz loves. Watch to see just how “mean” this DE can really play on Thursday night.

 

Beneath the surface:
According to the first unofficial depth chart released by the team, Brandon Graham appears to be a backup to both Barwin and Curry (the default DE backup if a starter needs to come out, regardless of which side) but it will be interesting to see if Barwin starts on Thursday. If Graham is a backup to both Curry and Barwin, then he’s probably going to see a lot of playing time. It’s also going to open the door for Means, Braman and company who will want at least one of those roles for themselves. Are the Eagles comfortable with the “less is more” mentality, or will rotation be the key?

 

Linebacker:

What to expect:
Pass rushing..and lots of it. Jim Schwartz is renowned for his attacking style of Defense and the linebackers are an integral part of that. However, depth is light. With Kendricks missing the opening preseason game, the door opens for guys like Joe Walker, Najee Goode and Myke Tavarres.

There’s less of a focus on coverage here..and more focus on hard hitting, finishing tackles and stopping the run game. The Eagles surrendered more rushing yardage than any other team in the NFL last year, to prevent that happening again..the Linebackers have to plug those holes efficiently. How will Schwartz adapt to make sure history doesn’t repeat himself..and is there a certain linebacker set he sends out for run plays and another for pass plays? It’s something worth keeping an eye on.

 

Player to watch:
Surprisingly, instead of looking for a rookie or an underdog, the linebacker attention should all be focused on Nigel Bradham. No, not because of “umbrellagate”, but because as noted in my All-22 a while back, he’s easily the most underrated addition to the Eagles roster. Bradham is likely going to become the quarterback of the linebacker core and is easily the most established run blocker of the unit.

Jordan Hicks is going to be a pivotal part of the Eagles Defense and will learn a lot from Bradham. A man who knows the system and has performed emphatically when under the command of Jim Schwartz. Bradham may not see a lot of playing time, but expect to see a flash of the explosiveness that is to come in 2016..something that sets the tone for the rest of the guys competing for depth spots.

 

Beneath the surface:
There are some very hungry rookies on the roster all vying for roster spots..and all have varying skill sets. Does Schwartz have a preference? With no Kendricks and Hicks likely being rotated a lot in order to keep him at 100%, who is going to emerge from the depth chart to show that they can be of huge depth value to this team? Myke Tavarres? Joe Walker?  The rookies are going to be in the spotlight here, but make no mistake..there’s much more on the line than just snaps.

 

Cornerback

What to expect:
Where do we begin?! This is easily one of the most anticipated battles on the roster. Eleven defensive backs are all competing for what could be as little as 5-6 roster spots and to make things even spicier..many of them have impressed during Training camp.

What we really want to see here is who can find the balance between intelligence and physicality. It’s easy to let the aggression take over and go for a big hit, opening yourself up to be burned by a receiver or embarrassed if it’s mistimed. With a group of rookies this hungry all competing, things are going to be tenacious..but watch for the guys who are able to shadow their receiver stride-for-stride before opting to leap up and knock a ball down.

Rookie Jalen Mills as really taken the fight to the rest of the backs and appears to be ahead of Eric Rowe on the depth chart. He’s asserted that it’s a starting role he wants..and it’s a starting role he could secure if he outshines Rowe in preseason. The cornerback battle isn’t just over spots on the roster anymore, Mills vs Rowe is almost becoming the headliner on a night of individual showdowns. Can Rowe extinguish the fire that Mills has began to light before he permanently makes that spot his own.

McKelvin and Brooks are set to be the starting cornerbacks alongside Nolan Carroll, but with so much at stake further down the depth chart, I can’t see there being much in the way of playing time for any of these guys. Their roles are secure and with health being a factor..the Eagles would be smart to let the rooks battle it out and hold the fort.

 

Player to watch:
Aaron Grymes is the guy I’m going with here. It’s all too easy to praise Jalen Mills, but the former CFL standout has been consistently strong during Training camp and appears to bring the perfect blend of intelligent cornerback play with the speed and physicality needed to get the job done. Interceptions, big hits, pass deflections and lockdown coverage..Grymes has done it all. Can he do it on Thursday night and push himself even further up the depth chart? We’ll see..

 

Beneath the surface:
The Eagles secondary endured a rollercoaster season in 2015. When the injury bug bit, it sucked the lifeblood out of the unit and drained it until it was barely standing. TO ensure that doesn’t happen again, the Eagles need to have a lot of depth at the position..not just cornerbacks, but guys who can make plays when the pressure is on. Look for heavy rotation, but also the players a bit further down the chart..Denzel Rice, JaCorey Shepherd, Randall Evans.

These are the players who could be called upon in the latter stages of 2016 when there’s more than just roster spots on the line..so their progress in preseason is important, even if they’re not “directly” in contention for a spot on the final roster..but every big play helps tilt the scales in their favor.

 

Safety

What to expect:
This is one of the positions I’m most looking forward to seeing in action. With Jenkins absent, the battle for the third string spot has elevated drastically in terms of intensity. We’re all pumped to see the heavy hitting Rodney McLeod take to the field and do his thing but what’s really going to be important..is who else can follow in his footsteps.

Safeties under Jim Schwartz HAVE to be physically dominant. Big hits, quick tackles, forced fumbles and an ability to blitz and make plays all over the field. Ed Reynolds showed flashes of great play in 2015 otherwise shrouded by mediocrity while Jaylen Watkins and Blake Countess are both transitioning over from corner..aiming to unseat the special teams ace Chris Maragos or force the Eagles into carrying five safeties.

What we’re really looking to see here is physicality. Beyond McLeod, who are the guys who can light up opposing receivers and make the big plays when the lights come on? We want to see heavy hits, secure tackling and a will to contribute however the Defensive Coordinator needs.

 

Player to watch:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Jaylen Watkins can absolutely be a valuable asset in helping the Eagles contain the WR beasts in the East. He proved it against the Giants, the Cardinals and the Bills. (Seriously, read this all-22 if you don’t believe me.) The transition from corner appears to have been a successful one after enjoying  big week in camp. Watkins made plays almost everyday and if he can do so against the Bucs, he’ll be one step closer to securing what was previously an insecure spot on the roster.

 

Beneath the surface:
It will be interesting to see how much Rodney McLeod actually plays. Without Jenkins, McLeod is the lone starter and would theoretically see a lot of action..but the Eagles may also see sense in letting him explode onto the scene and then cooling the chaos to keep him fresh for the regular season. That would mean that the battles further down become even more prominent, but rotation and overall depth order are going to be key here.

 

Mandatory Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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