Whether the Eagles run a 3-4, 4-3, or hybrid scheme, the defensive line must play well for the defense to be at its best. Good defense always starts up front. That was true when the Eagles won the NFL title in 1960. It is true today. It will be true 50 years from now.
The good news is that the Eagles have some good pieces in place, starting with
We don't yet know how good Cox can be. Arguably the best defensive lineman in the NFL is J.J. Watt of the Texans. As a rookie, Watt had 5.5 sacks, 48 solo tackles and 9 tackles-for-loss. Watt exploded in his second year and played at an elite level. I'd love to tell you Cox will do the same thing, but that's not a realistic expectation.
Cox can be an impact player. He's got that kind of ability. Right now defensive coordinator Bill Davis and assistant head coach/defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro are trying to figure out how to best use Cox. He is the Eagles' best player on the line, so the coaches have to be creative with him. By moving Cox around, you can keep offenses from knowing where he is going to be and how they should plan to block him. Cox played for a very creative defensive coach in college and was moved all over the line. He would go from the left side to the right side. He would play end, tackle and even the nose. That brought out the best in him.
I don't think Cox has to be moved around quite that much in the NFL, but when you have a versatile player, you need to take advantage of him. Cox can be a playmaker for the Eagles, but can also be disruptive and help other players to make plays. We saw this last year a few times. Cox would get into the backfield and flush the quarterback to another defender.
Cox will primarily be a defensive end. The other end spot is likely to be handled by
Early on, Thornton struggled with double teams. He was willing to do the dirty work, but didn't have good technique and struggled to hold his ground. By the end of the season, Thornton was playing like a man in the trenches. He could hold his ground and made running inside tough. He played up to his size and strength. There was never a question of toughness, just technique. The more Thornton played, the better his technique got and the experience paid off.
Thornton was a defensive end in college so playing that spot isn't new to him. Obviously, he is doing it against a whole other level of competition, but Thornton is a bigger, stronger, smarter player now compared to when he was in college. I have re-watched some Eagles games in recent weeks and Thornton is one of the guys who stood out. He isn't likely to be a playmaker in the new scheme, but Thornton can be a good run defender and he can push the pocket.
The big man up front is nose tackle
Sopoaga is enterting his 10th season and only has 7.5 career sacks, so you can see that he's not going to be a force as a pass rusher. He is a run defender. He can push the pocket, but probably won't play all that much in passing situations.
When the Eagles go to a three-man line in passing situations, they have a host of choices for the nose tackle spot. Cox could slide over and handle that job. Thornton could be good in that role.
The benefit of running a hybrid defense is that you can be as creative as you want. If you run a specific system, you need to master that and that means sticking to base looks a lot of the time. The hybrid system is very adaptable and gives you maximum flexibility. Players expect to be moving around. They get used to it. Coaches can tinker with schemes and groupings and it is less intrusive.
One player I'm very curious about is defensive end
Will Curry play more on the left or right side? Will he play just the five-technique spot or will he get a chance at the three-technique spot? How will Curry be used when the Eagles play a four-man front? Some fans are concerned that Curry's talent will be wasted in the new system. I'm not so sure. Curry showed at Marshall that he is a disruptive player up front, no matter where you put him. That skill set should work in the new system. I do think the coaches will have to move Curry around, looking for favorable matchups.
Everything we hear from Curry makes it sound like he's got the right attitude. That is crucial when a player has to adapt to a new role and a new scheme. If the player doesn't fully buy in, he's not as likely to succeed. I think it helps Curry that he played for Azzinaro (and linebackers coach Rick Minter) at Marshall.
Curry could be a key player for the defense. Azzinaro rotated his linemen on a regular basis at Oregon. Thornton and Cox should be good starting ends. Curry needs to step up and show that he can be an effective part of the rotation. The better he looks, the more he'll play. Another player who is vying for time as an end is Geathers.
My buddy Jimmy Kempski goes to the open practices and says that Geathers is one of those players you have to see to believe. You can read that he is listed at 6-8, 340 pounds, but until you see Geathers in person, you just don't appreciate how massive he is. How could you not be interested in a player like that?
The obvious question is whether Geathers can play. His career has been up and down, to put it mildly. He played the best football of his career down the stretch for the Colts last year, which is very encouraging. You do have to wonder why they were willing to trade him for a fullback. All the speculation in the world won't mean a hill of beans when it gets right down to it. We'll see Geathers put on the pads for Training Camp and find out quickly if he can play or not.
Geathers could be terrific as a five-technique end. He has the size and strength to set the edge on run plays. The Eagles could use him the way Seattle does Red Bryant. That would make Geathers a crucial run defender. His size should make him tough to throw the ball around/over on pass plays.
Logan can play the nose or out at end. Logan will somewhat control his own destiny. He will be tested inside and outside. The Eagles will give him a chance to show where he fits best. Logan's future will also be affected by Geathers and
Dixon is in the best shape he's been in since 2010, heck maybe even before that. Dixon was simply too big in 2011 and 2012 to fit Jim Washburn's wide-nine system. Don't blame that on Washburn, though. Dixon was the one who came in out of shape. He finally got his act together late in 2012 and has carried that over to the summer of 2013.
Dixon showed tremendous potential in the middle of 2010. He was great in games against Atlanta and Tennessee, flashing a good combination of size, strength and athleticism. Was that a mirage? Dixon needs to show that he can be part of the rotation. If he ever gets back to being a solid starter, that's great. For now, Dixon needs to focus on one day at time. Win the day, as Chip Kelly preaches to his players. Dixon has talent. He must stay focused if he wants to win a roster spot and get regular playing time.
King is a player who is probably more of a long shot to make the roster this year. He is more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher. Generally those players take longer to adapt to pro football. Run defenders must be tough, strong and physical. The problem is that what worked in college won't work in the NFL. They are going against massive players that have tremendous power. You don't get used to that over night.
There are a lot of ifs in regard to how good the defensive line will be in 2013. The line can be good if they stay healthy. The line can be good if the young guys continue to get better. The line can be very good if the rookies play well and add good depth. The focus for me is still Fletcher Cox. If he breaks through and plays at a high level, that will make the whole line better. Having an impact player up front makes all the difference in the world.