The first place you always look for improvement should be your own roster. If you have done a good job of acquiring young talent, the players should improve from year to year. I think too many Eagles fans are expecting outside help for the defense. The Eagles should see improvement from the guys already on the roster and that should be the biggest boost.
I remember having a discussion with someone at the Senior Bowl in Mobile about how there would be less change on defense than many expected to see. The Eagles like their players. Many of them are young, which makes you hesitant to give up on them and start looking for new faces.
You also have to factor in the move to the 3-4. That meant that no one knew what they were doing last year. There was no foundation for players to lean on. All of them were learning a new scheme and new roles within that scheme. 2014 will be very different. There will be less schematic teaching and the coaches can focus on honing individual skills. That can have a big impact on player development.
If you go back and study the best defenses, they take time to build. You get a couple of players in 3 or 4 straight drafts and then mix in a free agent or two. Suddenly you’ve got a strong group.
Look at Gang Green:
1983 – Wes Hopkins – 2nd round
1984 – Andre Waters – UDFA
1985 – Reggie White – brought over from USFL
1986 – Seth Joyner – 8th round
1986 – Clyde Simmons – 9th round
1987 – Jerome Brown – 1st round
1987 – Byron Evans – 4th round
1988 – Eric Allen – 2nd round
1990 – Ben Smith – 1st round
1991 – William Thomas – 4th round
Obviously times have changed. With free agency, you can sign and lose players much easier than you did in the past. That’s why I made the point of building a defense over several years and not 9 like that group was put together.
You can cobble together a group and turn them into a good defense, but if you build something long term, you’ve got a better chance at having sustained success. Just look at what the Steelers have done compared to the Patriots. Bill Belichick gets a piece here and a piece there and is able to turn them into an effective unit. Every now and then he’ll find a really good player and the defense will thrive. The Steelers started building their defense 20 years ago and it has been outstanding for those 2 decades. Continuity and player development are huge parts of that. Players aren’t rushed into the lineup. They are given a chance to develop.
The Eagles had to have Safety help. The cupboard was literally bare. They added Malcolm Jenkins and I get the feeling they’ll add another veteran. There will be some other depth moves in free agency, but it sure seems like the big moves are done. The Eagles will add talent to the defense in the draft. That might not mean instant impact, but it is how you go about building a good defense.
If there was a great or even very good ROLB on the market, I’m sure the Eagles would have made him the focus of their free agency plans. They know the pass rush must get better. But you can’t get blood from a turnip, as the old saying goes. Once Worilds and Orakpo were taken off the market, there just wasn’t much for 3-4 pass rushers. Most of the top players were LOLBs and effort guys. I know DeMarcus Ware did get cut, but we’re talking about a player who will turn 32 this summer and is coming off a 6-sack season. He only missed 3 games, but was slowed by nagging injuries all year. He could bounce back, but nagging injuries have started to slow him down in recent years. Ware could turn out to be a great signing by Denver or he could prove to be a waste of resources. The Eagles didn’t feel he was worth the risk.
2014 is going to be a key year for the Eagles defense. The players will be held to a higher standard this time around. They can’t use the “we’re still learning the scheme” excuse anymore. Put up or shut up. At the end of this season, the team should have a much better feel for whether Fletcher Cox can take the next step and become an impact player. Whether Bennie Logan is the answer at NT. Whether Ced Thornton can rush the passer well enough to consider him more than just a run defender. Whether Mychal Kendricks can clean up his game and become more consistently outstanding.
The Eagles will also get a better feel for young backups like Vinny Curry, Damion Square, Joe Kruger, Jake Knott, Najee Goode and Travis Long. How do they fit in? Do they belong?
There are still plenty of question marks in regard to the defense. The Eagles hopefully will get some answers this year and have a better idea of what must be done next March. We know some players will get better. 1 or maybe even 2 players will emerge in a big way. And there can be 1 or even 2 who go the wrong direction, whether due to performance, injury or off-field circumstances.
The Eagles defense must play better in 2014, but adding talent is only part of the answer. The current players have to take a big step forward if the group is going the kind of unit that Chip Kelly and Bill Davis want.