The Ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview Part 6: Defensive Tackle Edition

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Our Ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview now heads onto the other side of the field, taking a closer look at the trenches. The loss of Bennie Logan hurt the Birds initially, but the drafting of Derek Barnett, and a trade for Timmy Jernigan ensured that the team have a ruthless front seven heading into 2017…looking to build on last year’s hot start. Like every position on the roster however, there’s still plenty of questions, underdogs, and narratives to follow as camp approaches.

The ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview part 1: Quarterback edition

The Ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview Part 2: Running Back Edition

The Ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview Part 3: Offensive Line Edition

The ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview Part 4: Tight End Edition

The Ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview Part 5: Wide Receiver Edition

The players:

Fletcher Cox
To many, Cox did not play up to the level that was expected after signing a monster contract extension. But while the stats may not have jumped off the page, the often double-teamed defensive tackle still forced offensive lines into peril. In many ways, Cox helped spark the breakout of Brandon Graham, drawing attention while still asserting his presence in the backfield week in and week out.

In 16 games, Cox had a combined 43 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. Modest numbers considering his explosive year in 2015, but in his first season as a 4-3 Defensive tackle, Cox really picked up steam toward the end of the season. Steam that is now only going to expand with the offseason additions.

Teams can no longer afford to single out Fletcher Cox, with such a ruthless rotation of defensive end and the run-stopping presence of Timmy Jernigan alongside him. This in itself should open the doors for Cox to run riot as he did in 2015…and it’s safe to say that much is expected of the “Man Dog” heading into 2017.

As far as Training Camp goes, it should be business as usual for the Eagles highest paid player. It will be worth keeping an eye on if Cox and Jernigan can continue the dominance displayed in OTA’s, running over offensive linemen again and again, now that the pads will officially be on. The Eagles offensive line may actually be the perfect unit for the front seven to practice against, but that’s a story for another article. For Cox, it’s all about setting the tone and embodying everything Schwartz stands for, just as he did one year ago.

 

Timmy Jernigan
There has been plenty of excitement surrounding the potential that the Eagles pass rush now possesses, much of it stemming from the trade to acquire Timmy Jernigan. What’s going overlooked however, is just how well he fits the Eagles…a glimpse of which, we will see at Training Camp.

During his time at FSU, Jernigan was a dominant 3-technique tackle. Once drafted by the Ravens, Jernigan was forced to adapt to a 5-technique role and as his familiarity with the role grew, so did his production. Jernigan started only 11 games for the Ravens in his first two seasons, but came back in 2016 and started 15. He finished this past season with five sacks (eight combined in 2010-2014 off the bench).

Now suiting up for the Eagles, it’s back to basics for Jernigan, who will be doing what he does best and what got him drafted to begin with. Jernigan showed ability to rush the passer from the interior during his last season at FSU. He started all of the Noles 14 games his final season finishing with 63 tackles, 11 for loss, four and a half sacks and even had one pass defended.

Many are expecting Jernigan to be a pure Bennie Logan replacement, but he has so much more to offer than that, and could be a dominant pass rush weapon on unsuspecting Offenses. As mentioned above, our first preview of that will come at Training Camp, where Jernigan will be able to rip through the battles at Left Guard and Center in order to make an impression.

Surprisingly, Jernigan may be one of the sleepers of Training Camp, despite being a probable starter. It will be extremely interesting to see if Jernigan performs as reliable as he did in Baltimore, or as simply dominant as he did as a Seminole. Only time will tell, but Camp will offer the first insight into the kind of form we can expect.

Destiny Vaeao
One often overlooked offseason darling last year was Destiny Vaeao. After the UDFA beat out Aziz Shittu for a roster spot, Vaeao went on to have a very productive year for the Eagles.

Standing at 6’4 and 300 lbs, the American Samoa native may have only tallied 15 tackles, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble, considering he combined with Beau Allen for over 60% of defensive snaps, that stat line is impressive. Sure, the Eagles have bought in Timmy Jernigan and have a flurry of ruthless talent at DT, including rookie Elijah Qualls, but the consistency Vaeao provided cannot be overlooked.

All attention may be placed on the starters, the rookie, or the returning Beau Allen…but don’t overlook Vaeao. Jim Schwartz is extremely high on the powerful defensive tackle, and another strong camp while unsurprising, could see him move one step higher up the depth chart.

Vaeao turned heads last offseason with his ability to get past linemen quickly and efficiently using his hands, moving far more like a defensive end than a defensive tackle. His instinctive play saw him soar up the depth chart…and if he can do the same again, a secured spot in the rotation may be the ultimate reward.

 

Beau Allen
It goes without saying, but this is a big Training Camp for Beau Allen. After the team were reported to be in the midst of negotiating a new deal, Allen suffered an injury during OTA’s that would sideline him until the heart of Training Camp. He’s now entering his contract year.

If the Eagles are intending on extending Beau Allen, who also played in 32% of special teams snaps in 2016..it could well be seen as an insurance policy, but the former the seventh round pick simply has to put on a clinic when the green flag drops at the NovaCare Complex.

With five other defensive tackles vying for his job, including a rookie who could be following in his own footsteps, the setback Allen suffered meant that the rest of the corps got a leg up on him heading into Training Camp. A career year of 14 tackles and 0.5 sacks in 2016 may not be enough to keep Allen’s spot on the depth chart, but one last fiery camp showing certainly would.

 

Elijah Qualls
The Eagles drafted one rookie to their defensive tackle talent pool this year, Washington’s Elijah Qualls. A former teammate of Sidney Jones, Qualls stands at 6’1 and weighs 313 lbs. Surprisingly, despite his impressive size, Qualls was used all across the Washington front four in 2016. A natural 3-technique, Qualls is beyond explosive, amassing 38 tackles, 3 sacks and 5 TFL in 2016.

Due to a policy that required Qualls to graduate before heading to Philadelphia, the rookie missed valuable time during OTA’s, making Training Camp all the more important. But this thick framed prospect may actually have a more exciting camp than many, as Jim Schwartz figures out how to get the most from his new toy.

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Qualls is incredibly athletic for his size and if he can show that during Training Camp, then it’s going to be a very fun few weeks to be keeping an eye on the pass rush. A roster spot isn’t guaranteed, but if Qualls can prove to be as physically imposing as he was during his time at Washington, he’ll arrive in good stead.

 

Justin Hamilton
Hamilton was one of the quieter offseason acquisitions made by the Eagles. The 6’2, 315 pound lineman went undrafted out of Louisiana Lafayette in 2015. Since then, he’s spent time with the Packers, the Bills and most recently, the Seattle Seahawks. Playing in 51 games for the Ragin’ Cajuns, Hamilton amassed 102 tackles and 14 sacks during his collegiate career. He was also named First Team All-Sun Belt Conference. In 2014, he had 39 quarterback hurries, which was the most for any 3-4 DE.

Hamilton signed with the Seahawks practice squad in 2015 and earned a futures deal at the end of the season. Playing at both DE and DT during Seattle’s training camp, Hamilton has shown plenty of versatility to coaches since arriving in the NFL.

Hamilton flashed in preseason with a sack against Oakland and 3 tackles against the Chiefs, but it wasn’t enough to earn him a spot on the final 53-man roster. Hamilton will now look to compete for a backup role, alongside the likes of Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao, in Philadelphia

 

Winston Craig
After trying out for the Eagles having gone undrafted, Craig was offered a contract by the team…and it’s easy to see why. This 6’4, 290 lbs, pass rusher simply exploded in 2016. With 8 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss in his final season alone, leading the team in those categories as well as QB hurries, Craig even added a pick and 3 passes defensed to his tally. A team captain for the Spiders, Craig ended his four-year career at Richmond with a total of 166 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 13.5 sacks and 2 picks.

It’s interesting that Craig completely contrasts the style of Elijah Qualls, the Eagles sixth round pick. Craig is a tenacious pass rusher, who carries his weight well and is extremely agile, using his long wingspan to his advantage. While the bigger bodied Qualls thrives in plugging holes and run Defense..although he may have a niche under Jim Schwartz.

Craig may be the biggest underdog of all defensive tackles listed, but his leaner frame may just contain enough overlooked explosiveness to thrust him into the picture once preseason starts. Craig will be battling a tough war, but if he can really show up against the likes of Dillon Gordan and Darrell Greene, two linemen favored by the Eagles whom he will most likely be lining up against, then who knows what the future holds?

 

Gabe Wright
The Eagles signed Wright to a one-year contract earlier in the offseason, giving them some needed depth in the trenches…but Wright will be out to prove to everyone that he’s much more than just a camp body.

After being drafted by the Lions in the fourth round by a pick that was traded to them by the Eagles, Wright would play in 7 games for the Lions before finding his way to Cleveland. Despite spending 8 weeks on the Browns practice squad, he would later be called up for some regular season action. In 12 career games and one start, Wright has amassed 10 tackles.

Having bounced around practice squads, Wright’s future is drawing thin…but he may find resolve in Philadelphia. At 6’3, 305 lbs, Wright certainly fits the bill of a tenacious pass rusher…and that’s exactly what many hoped he would be coming out of college. The Auburn product entered the 2015 NFL Draft with high praise of his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage accompanying strong words surrounding his durability. Playing in all 52 games in his four-year career, ending a stunning season with three sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss. While his production dipped in 2014, his sheer athleticism can’t be overlooked.

Very much a project player with a now prove-it mentality, Wright will be against the ropes from the get-go, but if he can set the tone early on, then there’s every chance of making some impressive ways during preseason and even beyond, if he can convince the Eagles to keep him around.

 

Under the radar:

The next big sleeper
Destiny Vaeao proved to be a steal for the Eagles last year, as he combined with Allen to play in 66% of defensive snaps. One year later, a 313 lbs, defensive tackle out of Washington, who has the versatility to play outside, is his direct competition. The Eagles have found great success in the late rounds and beyond recently at DT, just look at Beau Allen! Training Camp is going to be incredibly intense this year, and there’s plenty at stake for the Eagles DT’s.

The starting tandem may steal the show, but it’s the depth that is always so valuable in a 4-3 scheme that is constantly running at 100mph.

Qualls, Craig, and Hamilton, all have some eyebrow popping physical characteristics, but their journeys could not be any more different. While Qualls is entering the league, Hamilton’s previous experience has landed him an opportunity with a big chip on his shoulder, shared by UDFA, Winston Craig. There’s simply too many chemicals for there not to be an explosion…but who’s going to make the final cut?

If the Eagles plan on keeping four defensive tackles as they did one year ago, that means that there’s going to be at least one surprise…especially if we’re to assume Qualls makes the roster. Training Camp is going to be pivotal in deciding the DT rotation and more importantly, the next big sleeper.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

 

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