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#EaglesCamp Preview: Defensive Line

Posted Jul 27, 2015

In the days leading up to Training Camp, we will take a look at the most pressing questions facing each position group. Today, we look at the young but talented defensive line ...

A Look At The Defensive Line
Name Age Exp. Note
Brandon Bair 30 3 Smart, long-armed defender
Fletcher Cox 24 4 One of the league's top young defenders
Vinny Curry 27 4 Pass rush specialist; more playing time in 2015?
Taylor Hart 24 2 Added size entering sophomore season
Frank Mays 24 1 Tall defender spent time with the Eagles in 2014 Training Camp
B.J. McBryde 23 R Undrafted rookie looks to make a name for himself 
Brian Mihalik 22 R 6-foot-9 defender ready to show off his athleticism
Travis Raciti 23 R Started 45 of 49 career games at SJSU
Cedric Thornton 27 4 Quietly the most consistent Eagles defender
Beau Allen 23 2 Showed promise as a rookie; sturdy nose tackle
Wade Keliikipi 24 1 Stuck with the Eagles practice squad as an undrafted rookie
Bennie Logan 25 3 Starting nose tackle since midpoint of rookie season

1. What Will Year Three Hold For The Starting Group?

When Bill Davis took over as the Eagles defensive coordinator in 2013, he implemented his 3-4 defensive scheme, replacing the "wide-nine" that had been in place under the previous regime. Switching to a three-man defensive line made sense for Davis because he felt the Eagles had the right players to make the shift. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton were starters from the jump, and after Isaac Sopoaga was traded after Week 8 that season, third-round pick Bennie Logan was inserted into the starting lineup. Since then, the trio of Logan, Cox and Thornton has started all 25 games for the Eagles (including playoffs), and they’ve been getting better with experience.

Cox is the rising superstar along the defensive line. Though he was inexcusably snubbed of a Pro Bowl selection in 2014, he was undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. Cox recorded 70 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries en route to being named second-team All-Pro. The 12th-overall pick in 2012 has quickly risen up the ranks of the top young defenders around the league and has evolved into one of best all-around defensive linemen at the NFL level.

In the middle of the line is Logan, a solid nose tackle who has done everything he’s been asked by the coaching staff. The LSU product took over the starting job midway through his rookie season, and he’s never looked back. Over his first two seasons, he’s accounted for 104 total tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Away from the field, Logan is one of the nicest and friendliest people around, but inside the white lines, he’s a menace.

The unsung hero of the defensive line, and perhaps of the entire Eagles defense, is Cedric Thornton. Unlike Cox and Logan, Thornton wasn’t drafted in the first three rounds of the draft. In fact, he wasn’t drafted at all. He spent most of the 2011 season on the Eagles practice squad before getting signed to the active roster in December of that year. He didn’t start a game in 2012, but appeared in all 16 contests as a rotational player. Once the Eagles made the switch to a 3-4 in 2013, Thornton found his place in the starting lineup and he’s been one of the Eagles most consistent players since that time. Renowned for his run-stuffing ability, Thornton has tallied eight tackles for loss over the past two seasons.

Over the past two seasons, this young group has gotten better and better as they learn each other’s tendencies and playing styles.  Now they enter their second Training Camp as the established starters with a stacked linebacker corps and a revamped secondary. With all of that in mind, it’s fair for fans to have high expectations for the young defensive line.

2. Where Does Vinny Curry Fit In?

The story on Vinny Curry has been the same since he was drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft -- how will he find playing time? When Curry has been able to get onto the field, he’s been one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league. He’s recorded 13 sacks in his three seasons despite playing just 23 percent of the Eagles defensive snaps. In 2014, he finished second on the team with 9.0 sacks while playing in less than one-third of the Eagles total defensive snaps.

So why hasn’t Curry seen more time on the field? The talented three starters mentioned above have a lot to do with it. There are only so many snaps to go around, and it can be difficult for the coaching staff to take one of the starters off the field, aside from when the defense aligns in nickel and dime packages in passing situations.

Perhaps another reason why Curry hasn’t been able to see more playing time is his inconsistent rush defense. Curry is a machine when it comes to getting after the quarterback, but his play has been one-dimensional at times. However, he’s committed himself to becoming a better run defender and could be ready to see more time in 2015. Curry even saw some reps at outside linebacker during OTAs and mini-camp, which could be another way to keep him on the field.

3. Who Cracks The Rotation?

Depth is always a question at the start of a new season, but the Eagles defensive line features some interesting names that could play a big role this season. Position coach Jerry Azzinaro likes to keep a rotation going during games to avoid fatigue, so backups need to be ready to perform. Returners on the elite include second-year player Beau Allen, a stout nose defender who saw more and more playing time as his rookie season progressed, and Brandon Bair, a long-limbed veteran with a knack for knocking down field goal tries.

There are two young players among the group to keep an eye on. Taylor Hart spent all of 2014 on the Eagles active roster, but he was inactive for every game. Hart was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 Draft, after spending part of his college career under the guidance of Chip Kelly at Oregon. Hart has bulked up to 281, and at 6-foot-6, he is a physical presence for sure. Can he find his way into the rotation in his second NFL season? And speaking of physical presences, rookie Brian Mihalik, all 6-foot-9 of him, is looking to use his length to his advantage and work his way into the mix. For both Hart and Mihalik, special teams play could be the determining factor when it comes to playing time. 

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