The Eagles defense struggled in a major way early in 2013. It got better down the stretch, but everyone who watched knew the unit needed help.
So the offseason came and went. The Eagles basically changed one starter, adding FS Malcolm Jenkins. How you interpret this is a matter of perspective. Phil Sheridan touched on this in a recent column.
During OTA practices the past two weeks, 10 of the 11 starters from the end of last year were still at the top of the depth chart.
And that’s how you know what coach Chip Kelly, GM Howie Roseman and defensive coordinator Bill Davis really think. If they believed the defense was simply devoid of talent, they would have done more in free agency to add some. Instead, they appear convinced that it’s more important for the current players to grow within Davis’ 3-4 defensive scheme than to shuffle personnel.
“Overall, the whole defense has grown because we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing,” inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.
Last year, Ryans was adjusting to the 3-4 after playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He wound up playing more snaps than any inside linebacker in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s because Ryans stayed healthy, but also because Davis desperately needed his awareness and knowledge on the field on every down.
Ryans will likely carry just as heavy a burden in 2014. But the addition of Jenkins will help ease the strain a bit. Jenkins replaces Patrick Chung, who was hampered by injury last year, and rookie Earl Wolff, who replaced Chung as a starter.
“Malcolm is going to be the leader in the back end,” Ryans said. “He’s a guy who gets the guys in the right position. He can make the plays you want to make. He’s a great addition to our secondary.”
That should help the entire secondary play as a cohesive unit. So should some more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Eagles began to identify and develop strong players in their front seven last season. That process should continue and bear fruit in 2014.
Defensive end Cedric Thornton will begin this season as a starter rather than as a curiosity.Bennie Logan will be the nose tackle. Cole will be in his second season as a linebacker after spending 2013 making the transition from defensive end. Ryans, Cole, Connor Barwin andMychal Kendricks should all be better after playing together for a full season.
Best of all, the defense experienced some success in that first year. The Eagles finished strong, earning the division title with a victory in Dallas in Week 17. Their first-round playoff loss to New Orleans showed them exactly where they need to get better.
“We understand what is expected from us,” Williams said. “We’re going to continue to build off what we did last year. I think we’re on the right path.”
Kelly, Roseman and Davis think the same thing. Their actions this offseason say so.
He’s dead on the money. If the Eagles brass thought the defense had no talent and no hope, they would have been more aggressive with their offseason moves. Instead, they are showing patience with the current players.
This isn’t to say they are definitively right and all the doubters are wrong.
The point is simply that the coaches and Howie Roseman were comfortable enough not to make a bunch of changes to get immediate results. They trust the young players on the roster to develop and improve. They trust the draft process to add talent. They are trying to build a good defense rather than cobbling together something that might or might not work on an annual basis.
Time will tell if the coaches and Roseman made the right decision, as well as if they made the right moves to back that decision. I just think it is important for some to understand the thought process behind the lack of big moves on the defense.
Too often fans mistake action for success. Just look south down I-95. The Ravens are one of the most patient teams in the entire league. Ozzie Newsome doesn’t panic. They win year after year. The Skins have virtually no patience and seem to have a different plan each year. They continue to struggle. Skins fans have a lot more fun in the offseason, but Ravens fans get to enjoy September through January.
One of the reasons I’m so willing to trust Chip Kelly and Roseman is that they have plans. There are long term plans and short terms plans. They have a rhyme and a reason for the things they do. Not all of the plans will work as expected, but I’m a firm believer that you must have long term vision to build a championship team in the NFL. The NBA and MLB are very different situations. In pro football, building a winning team takes time. That requires vision and planning. And some good moves.