With offensive line fortified, Eagles have to turn attention to the defensive side of the trenches

USATSI_9768292_168382939_lowres

Free agency has been an exciting period for the Philadelphia Eagles. The additions of Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery to the wide receiver corps have given Carson Wentz an arsenal of weapons on the outside, making the Eagles offense a force to be reckoned with in 2017. But it’s the moves on the offensive line that hold the most weight.

By solidifying the offensive line for years to come and ensuring there is starting talent throughout the depth chart, the Eagles are following the same trend as the most consistent teams in the league of building from the ball out. But that saying works on both sides of the ball..and is reflected by the team’s desperate need for playmaker help at corner. However, like the WR spot, the Eagles need so bolster the interior before adding stars outside.

Nolan Carroll’s three-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys means that for the third time in the last five season’s, the Eagles will begin the year with a new pair of starting corners. But that doesn’t mean the team should jump at the first free agent available. The team’s problems were mirrored between offense and defense during 2016..and as the offseason has progressed, it’s now the defensive trenches that need immediate attention.

The Eagles parted ways with Connor Barwin just last week in one of the most emotional roster moves in recent history. After an underwhelming season, Barwin finds himself wading through the free agency waters, while former teammate Bennie Logan has now officially signed with the Chiefs.

Logan’s new contract was way out of reach for the Eagles, who are beyond limited in cap space..meaning they will simply have to adapt an addition by subtraction mentality in order to create some breathing room.

Logan and Barwin were two of the key players on the Eagles defensive front during 2016 and combined for a total of 1,180 defensive snaps. The decisions to let Logan walk into free agency and to part ways with Barwin may be seen as necessary from a financial perspective, but now the Eagles face the same challenge as their offensive line faced one year ago.

The problem with the pass rush in 2016 was once Fletcher Cox received his shattering extension, he naturally received a lot more attention from opposing offenses. Double teams and triple teams placed new chains on the Eagles “Man-dog”..limiting his production. With Cox being held back, it was Bennie Logan who stepped up to the plate from an interior perspective, setting a career high in sacks under Jim Schwartz.

On the outside, it was Brandon Graham who flew the flag, as Connor Barwin failed to find consistency. The recently extended Vinny Curry failed to live up to the expectation that such a strong contract commands, leaving the depth at the position to suffer as a result. Marcus Smith was among those who flashed more than expected in the limited snaps he received..and even though he could see one final lifeline with a bump up the depth chart, it’s clear the Eagles need help.

Barwin may not have had the most impressive season of his career, but it’s not as if those below him set the field on fire on a snap-by-snap basis. If that were the case, Barwin would have seen a drop in snaps as the year progressed. Instead, he ended up playing in just 5% less snaps than Brandon Graham, who finally enjoyed his breakout year..which says a lot about how the Eagles viewed Barwin and what he did bring to the table in a year which many deemed a dip in performance.

With both players now out of the equation, the Eagles are left at a crossroads. At Defensive tackle, the team are said to be working on an extension for Beau Allen, while naturally being excited about UDFA Destiny Vaeao, who had two sacks in his rookie year. While both players rotated frequently into the frame in 2016, combining for 66% of defensive snaps, whether either can be regarded as a long-term starter is another question.

It took a while for Fletcher Cox to heat up last season, as he went on to amass 4 of his 6.5 sacks that season in his last five games. The question is, when Cox receives that same kind of attention from interior offensive linemen and offensive coordinators, will Beau Allen or Destin Vaeao be able to step up to the plate as Bennie Logan did? Then of course, there’s the depth.

If in a worst case scenario Cox were to get injured, the duo of Allen and Vaeao doesn’t carry anywhere near the same level of thunder or intimidation as Logan and Cox did last year. The Eagles do have Aziz Shittu and former Seahawk Justin Hamilton on their 90-man roster, but again..it’s a big drop off from the dominance of Cox and the consistency of Logan.

Shittu was able to stick onto the practice squad after leading Eagles defensive tackles in tackles during preseason and battling for that final spot on the depth chart with fellow UDFA, Destiny Vaeao. But if it came to a live-game situation, the Eagles would struggle to attain the same level of tenacity if both players emerged as key depth players on the roster.

At defensive end, the pressure is mounting now for Vinny Curry. Entering the second year of his large extension, Curry simply has to flourish in the way many expected him to last year. If he doesn’t, there’s no guarantee that his future is completely secure. Beyond the NJ native, Marcus Smith, Alex McCalister and Steven Means make up the rest of the depth.

While Means flashed during his opportunities on the field and Marcus Smith was finally able to show some hope of potentially still developing into a player worthy of a first-round pick, defensive end is now a position with huge question marks lingering over it.

Cornerbacks run deep into the NFL draft this year. The volume of talent is said to be among the highest it has been in the last ten years..which means the Eagles could easily find value in the mid rounds. It’s also important not to overlook former CFL stars Aaron Grymes and Mitchell White, who could do more than turn a few heads during Training camp, as the duo expect to compete for starting roles. Corey Undlin is extremely high on Grymes and CFL Grey Cup winner, Mitchell White, carries a similar reputation. 

The one area where the team need starting talent immediately and could struggle to find it due to cap limitations, is along the defensive front. It’s the heartbeat of the Jim Schwartz Defense and while upgrading the cornerback position is both expected and vital, doing so at the expense of a pass rush is only going to add even more pressure on a tandem that could very easily consist of two rookies, or one rookie and Jalen Mills.

The Jim Schwartz Defense is known for being absolutely ruthless..and that all starts in the trenches, where football games are won and lost. The Eagles have built from the ball out on the Offense and certainly have difference makers on the other side. But replacing the starting talent that has left the locker room HAS to be of the upmost importance when entering the draft.

It might not be that the Eagles take a defensive tackle in the first round, but the pass rush has gone from an underlying need, to the second most prominent behind cornerback..and with little in the way of cap space, the team simply have to add explosiveness through the draft if they’re to have any chance of sustaining the aggression that ensued in the early weeks of 2016.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

More from our Sister Sites