One of the things that Howie Roseman, Chip Kelly and the Eagles have gotten right this year is the defensive line. The Eagles have a lot of young, talented players. They look great at times, but still have lots of room for growth.
Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan can become one of the premiere DL’s in the league if they continue to develop. All 3 of them can play the run well. All 3 are athletic enough to get after the QB. They have a good combination of size, strength and movement skills. Backups Vinny Curry, Clifton Geathers and Damion Square are a notch below. Curry is a potentially great role player. I don’t know if he can ever start in the 3-4, but there are enough sub-packages played these days that he can be an impact player even off the bench. Geathers is a project that may never pay off. He flashes at times, but isn’t consistently good. Square is undersized, but plays like a veteran and is a polished 3-4 player. He can handle NT or DE.
Right now the DL is better at stopping the run than rushing the passer. I think a big part of that is adjusting to the 3-4. That means playing a variety of roles. As a 4-3 DE or DT, you are going to have a more defined situation. Davis has these guys lining up all over, which is part of the charm of the 3-4 scheme. You move players around to make life hard on the offense. It can also take time for young DL to figure out rush angles and how to beat certain blocks.
Look at some of the best 3-4 DL in the league. Calais Campbell didn’t even start as a rookie, let alone offer impact. He took off once he adjusted to the scheme. Cam Jordan of the Saints is having a breakout season this year in a hybrid 3-4/4-3 role. Muhammed Wilkerson of the Jets is in Year 3 and has 10 sacks. Even the great JJ Watt didn’t explode until Year 2 and he’s clearly a physical freak. It takes time.
Cox, Thornton and Logan have the potential to be big time players. They need to continue developing the skill set needed to play in the 3-4. They need to hone their technique. They’ll also get stronger and tougher as they get older.
Cox is the one player who has a chance to become a dominant force. He has special potential because of his athletic ability. And he’s still young. Fletcher just turned 23 last week. Watt will turn 25 in March. Campbell is 27. Jordan will turn 25 in July. Fletch is still just a pup. The sky really is the ceiling for him.
Curry is an interesting player and situation. If he can stay focused and really work hard in the offseason, he could take a big step forward next year. Right now Curry is making plays with his quick burst and relentless motor. As he gets stronger and learns how to play with better technique, he’ll become even more disruptive. The Eagles do face the question of what to do with him. Do they trade Curry to a 4-3 team if a good offer comes through? Or do the Eagles see the value in his skills and keep him around even though he may never project to being a full-time starter. Could he be the DL version of Brandon Boykin?
I think they would be foolish to deal him. If a player proves he can get to the QB, I want him on my team. That may change when he hits free agency and money becomes an issue, but he’s signed for 2 more years. Curry is a player I’m keeping and creatively using.
The Eagles can upgrade on Geathers and Square if they want, but there is something to be said for keeping the whole unit together and seeing how the players develop in a stable setting. DE Joe Kruger will be part of the mix next year and he could challenge Geathers for a spot. I think the Eagles would be smart to see if they could find a natural NT type who has some bulk. Square is undersized. He’s tough, but that’s only going to carry you so far when a G and C double-team you.
The other consideration is that the DL has stayed healthy this year. How would the backups do if forced to start? That’s the one concern that may have the Eagles still looking for players in the upcoming draft, even though the team feels somewhat set up front. Curry is the biggest X-factor in this regard. If the Eagles think he could be an effective starter, that would make them more comfortable with DL depth.
I’m excited to see what Jerry Azzinaro can do with this bunch. He had made great progress with Thornton, Logan and Curry in less than a full year. Kruger isn’t practicing since he’s on IR, but he’s allowed to do the classroom stuff and that should help him to be ready for the offseason. Imagine what can happen next year, when these guys actually know what they are doing and Azz can shift from teaching them technique to improving their technique. Year One is about learning. 2014 will be about improving.
The Eagles need a better pass rush in 2014. I think they can expect a step forward from the young DL already in place. Things will really be good if Cox can make the jump to being a consistent impact player. He’s got that kind of potential. Exciting times up front.