The Ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview Part 7: Defensive End edition

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As we move along the trenches, the seventh part in our ultimate Eagles Training Camp preview examines arguably the most explosive position on the roster, defensive end. The team spent their 2017 first round pick on Derek Barnett to bolster the pass rush, but some extra additions and headlines through the Spring make it an even more exciting position to watch.

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 Ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview Part 6: Defensive Tackle Edition

The players

Derek Barnett:
The 14th overall pick in the Draft comes into this season with his role unclear, but what he brings to the table is not. Barnett was a sack machine at Tennessee, recording 32 in just three seasons. Not only is that number astounding, not only did it break the record of the legendary Reggie White,but 19 of those came against SEC opponents. His dominant 6’3, 259 lbs, frame only adds to the explosiveness, and it’s something that the Eagles needed running deep into the position after last year.

 

It’s absolutely clear that Barnett has been drafted to be a long-term contributor in the Eagles pass rush, but just how soon will he be named a starter? That in itself may be answered in training camp. Barnett hit the ground running during OTA’s and Minicamp, drawing praise from Lane Johnson, D-Line coach Chris Wilson, and Jim Schwartz, who went on to say the following during camp:

“…We’re really excited about him. He can turn a corner and be like this high off the ground. You guys will notice that when you see him out there. He’s also been giving great effort in practice. We’ve pointed out his effort a couple times – chasing the ball and those kinds of things. For a rookie to do that kind of stuff has been pretty impressive so far.”

Barnett will likely be competing with Vinny Curry for those first team reps opposite Brandon Graham, but with Pederson’s coaching environment being built to thrive on competition and drive the best out of everyone in the building, don’t be surprised to see him start slightly lower down the depth chart in a bid to help him push his way to the top. The rookie was dominant without pads…and if he can be just as explosive when the pads are on and live tackling is enabled, we could easily end up watching Barnett surge his way to a starting role.

Brandon Graham:
With 77 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 16 games, Graham finally had the breakout year fans were waiting for. The first year under Jim Schwartz led Graham to stunning success, constantly playing in the backfield and making life incredibly difficult for opposing QB’s. With a flurry of pass-rush moves in his arsenal and a supporting cast to elevate his game, we should expect big things from Graham.

Surprisingly though, Graham has watched as the Eagles signed Vinny Curry to a monster extension and bought in veteran Chris Long over the last two years. The case for Graham’s long-term future to be secured is a valid one, making this season all the more important…and that starts at Training Camp.

Graham should be getting first team reps, but there will be a natural chip on his shoulder after his dominant year went unrewarded. It will be interesting to see how ruthless Graham performs with a revitalized pass-rush surrounding him, and if OTA’s are anything to go by, he will very much be setting the standard for the rest of the group.

 

Vinny Curry:
Just over one year ago, the 28-year old signed a five-year, $47.25 million contract extension with the Eagles..but the season that followed was underwhelming at best. The general consensus is that the Eagles drastically overpaid for the defensive end, but the waters aren’t as clear as that when you take a closer look at the situation.

Despite playing in a career high 43% of snaps, he ended the year with just 2.5 sacks and 26 tackles. Statistically, Curry was near invisible at times and he had just 1.5 sacks in 12 weeks. But while Brandon Graham led the league and the Eagles in QB hurries last year with 40, Vinny Curry amassed 19. For contrast, Connor Barwin and Marcus Smith combined for 16. Curry also had 40 QB pressures according to PFF. It wasn’t all bad…and that was something that was noted by Jim Schwartz during OTA’s.

“A lot of times with Vinny, his pressure numbers were high, but his sack numbers were low,” Schwartz explained. “He didn’t do as good of a job finishing the rush as he did starting the rush.”

With a chip on his shoulder following an underwhelming year, its back to basics for Vinny Curry, who enters Training Camp having to push himself up one more spot on the depth chart and stop Derek Barnett or Chris Long from securing the second starting role. This is by no mean’s a walk in the park, and we can expect Curry to be back to his best as a result. The pressure is certainly going to be felt from all angles…so how will the local-town hero respond?

Chris Long:
With a youth infusion well underway at defensive end, the Eagles replaced the veteran presence lost in parting ways with Connor Barwin, bringing in the now Super Bowl winning, Chris Long. In 130 games played (102 started), Long has 281 total tackles, a whopping 58.5 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries, and 11 pass deflections. Equally dominant in both the run and pass game, Long is what you consider a complete player at his position…and that’s something the Birds could use in the heart of the regular season.

Although having one of his worst statistical years in 2016 (35 combined tackles, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery and 3 pass deflections), it was clear Long had a crucial role to play for the Patriots. Rotating in and bringing the tenacity he was so renowned for as a Ram, catching tired out offensive lines off guard and constantly disrupting the run.

It’s unclear if Long will start, but he has the potential to. While Barnett and Curry are likely the two leading candidates to start alongside Brandon Graham, don’t write off the savvy veteran just yet. However, Long would be better suited to rotating in as a fresh pair of legs and maintaining the pace and pressure the Schwartz scheme has built a reputation for. It was a role left to Marcus Smith and Vinny Curry one year ago, and one that largely struggled to find consistent production.

Long may be the perfect Philadelphia prototype, as well as a physically tough defensive end who hasn’t lost a step despite his age. This year is a big one for Long, knowing that he’s only signed a prove-it deal with the team, his NFL future may rest on the upcoming season. Long is one of those guys who can make a hard hitting highlight play out of nowhere, and we should expect more than a few flashes when camp opens.

 

Alex McCalister:
An injury cut the cord on McCalister’s rookie season before it had a chance to start, however he did stand out during the early stages of training camp. Now, with Derek Barnett and a flurry of depth, McCalister’s odds of making the roster have lengthened…but so has his frame.

McCalister was often regarded as slim for his position, so after bulking up after recovering from his injury, McCalister brings that same level of explosiveness off the edge, with a slightly thicker base to help push past offensive linemen. Entering the league at 239 lbs, he now stands at around 260 lbs, which is a big leap. Add in to this an impressive 36″ wingspan and you have a pass rusher with all the right intangibles. With 12.5 sacks in his last two season’s for the Florida Gators, it was clear that McCalister had a knack for getting to the QB, especially considering that he played in under 40% of snaps during that time.

It will be interesting to see how the former University of Florida standout performs and whether or not he can turn heads in the same way he did one year ago. The depth may see McCalister buried on the depth chart to begin with, but if he can force his way into contention, the Eagles may well consider keeping one extra edge rusher on the roster.

 

Steven Means:
There is a reason why the terrible pun of  “Steven Means business” has stood the test of time. Since he entered the fray last year, Means has done nothing but bring a relentless work ethic and flash at every opportunity earned. A former fifth round pick by the Buccaneers, Means quickly worked his way up the depth chart after being signed by the Eagles, forcing his way onto the final roster. From there, the 26-year old would rack up 3 tackles, forcing a fumble and earning his first career sack in the process.

Given the uncertainty surrounding Marcus Smith, it’s not hard to imagine Means once again shining under the Training Camp lights. Means was just as dominant in OTA’s as he was in Camp last year, constantly blowing up the run and getting into the backfield. If we learned anything last year, it’s not to write off Steven Means…and as he enters his final year, we could see his biggest breakout yet. If you want one sleeper at DE to keep an eye on, it’s the player who means business.

 

Marcus Smith:
This offseason was set to be arguably the most important of Marcus Smith’s career. With a new influx of talent at DE, including first round pick Derek Barnett, it was time for Smith to build on the flashes he showed during the first year under Jim Schwartz, and look to finally shake the bust label. In 2016, Smith set career “highs” of 2.5 sacks and 16 tackles, playing in all 16 games for the Eagles…however his future is anything but bright.

When Doug Pederson addressed the media ahead of the first team practice of the year, Smith wasn’t among the players listed as absent. In fact, it wasn’t until practice had started that people began to wonder where the former first round pick actually was. That trend continued into the heart of that week’s practices. The team were left just as puzzled as members of the media, with people scrapping to try and find what’s actually happened to Marcus Smith.

When the word Mandatory was thrown into the fray, the defensive end returned to action…but was it too late? If Smith was trying to force his way out of the City of Brotherly Love, a move that would actually save the cap strapped Eagles $1.4M, he has laid the right foundation. It’s not as if Roseman needs much in the way of ammunition to part ways with the DE who fell from grace, but if Smith has ANY chance of making the roster, he simply HAS to shine in Training Camp.

Even if Smith does stand out, the eye-popping flexion of Derek Barnett and new mindset of Vinny Curry make finding a role increasingly difficult. Chris Long, Brandon Graham and Steven Means are just three of the other names who are at this point ahead of Smith on the depth chart. If Marcus Smith has any shot at all of proving that there was a genuine reason behind his absence and that he intends to prove his worth to the Eagles one more time, it either all starts or ends next week.

 

Under the radar

Rotation
As we now already know, there are still plenty of questions that need answers at defensive end, and Training Camp will answer nearly all of them. Last year showed us that Jim Schwartz likes to run a pass rush by rotation, and with that in mind, there’s a lot of depth that needs sorting. Is Barnett going to rise to the top of the pile straight away, or will it be Vinny Curry who takes the starting reins to begin with? Is Marcus Smith at the end of his tether in Philadelphia, or is this the strange catalyst he needed to finally shed the bust label? (It’s easy to forget that Brandon Graham was in a similar position no too long ago.) Can Means or McCalister throw the Cat among the Pigeon’s and earn themselves a depth spot on the roster? Only time will tell, but it’s safe to say that the Eagles DE rotation is ANYTHING but cemented, let the games begin.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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