|A Look At The Defensive Linemen|
|22||R||Seventh-round pick will battle for spot at nose tackle.|
|29||2||Spent 2013 on practice squad, was at Oregon w/Kelly.|
|23||3||Could be breakout player in second year of scheme.|
|25||3||Had 4.0 sacks despite playing just 26% of snaps.|
|23||R||Fifth-round Oregon standout should pick up D quickly.|
|23||R||Former Azzinaro protege will fight for spot somewhere.|
|21||2||Great size and length. Player to watch in camp.|
|24||2||Rookie took over nose tackle job in middle of '13.|
|23||R||Long is operative word for this 6-9 longshot.|
|25||2||Rookie free agent was key reserve late in season.|
|25||3||Led the Eagles defensive line with 78 tackles in 2013.|
|25||R||U.S. Army Ranger gets chance to fulfill NFL dream.|
The Big Questions
1. Can this young unit, which performed so well in 2013, continue to develop and take the next step in 2014?
Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton were rocks for the Eagles defense throughout the 2013 season and emerged as one of the best 3-4 end tandems in the NFL. Cox ranked eighth on the team with 66 total tackles (45 solo), recorded 3.0 sacks and was first with 21 hurries, while Thornton ranked 6th on the team with 78 total tackles (60 solo), 1.0 sack and eight hurries.
The two were key in shutting down opposing run games and collapsing the pocket to pressure the quarterback on passing downs. Rookie Bennie Logan stepped in as a full-time starter at nose tackle following the trade of Isaac Sopoaga mid-season and did a tremendous job as a run stuffer and pass rusher. He finished with 43 total tackles (25 solo), 2.0 sacks and seven hurries. Vinny Curry rotated in and specialized as a pass rusher, recording 4.0 sacks and 11 hurries (third most on the defense) despite playing only 26 percent of snaps on defense, while rookie Damion Square spelled Logan at nose tackle on occasion.
Given the success of the defensive line last season, expectations have been raised moving forward. Can Cox, Thornton, Logan and company take that next step and be truly dominant in 2014?
2. What is in store for Fletcher Cox in his third season?
Fletcher Cox showed flashes of brilliance as disruptive, game-changing defensive tackle as a rookie in the Eagles 4-3 defense in 2012. However, in his second season he had to switch to defensive end in Bill Davis’ 3-4 scheme and learn a new position with different responsibilities.
Whereas in the 4-3 Cox was tasked with being a one-gap penetrator and primarily pressuring the quarterback, he had to incorporate two-gap assignments and focus on setting the edge and stopping the run first and foremost in 2013. It was a stark change for Cox, who was drafted because of his rare combination of quickness, athleticism and strength, not to be rushing upfield and attacking the quarterback every snap. However, he adapted brilliantly and, once he become more comfortable with his run-first responsibilities, started to flash that pass-rush ability as the season progressed.
He led the team with 21 hurries, the most important of which forced Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III into throwing the game-ending interception in the Eagles’ 24-16 victory in Week 11. Cedric Thornton is a tremendous run-stuffer as a 3-4 end, but Cox has the ability to be that rare player at the position – on the J.J. Watt (Texans) and Cam Jordan (Saints) level – who can be dynamic as both a run defender and pass rusher. Now that Cox has a full season under his belt and has settled into his role, it is time for him to take his game to the next level in his second year in the scheme.
3. Who among the backups and reserves steps up and becomes a consistent contributor in 2014?
While Cox, Thornton and Logan will all be relied upon as full-time starters, there is an opportunity for at least one of the backups and reserves to cement himself as a crucial component in the defensive line’s success. Clifton Geathers departed via free agency, so who will step in and fill his spot? Vinny Curry was among the NFL’s most productive per-snap defensive linemen in 2013, and his pass-rush ability is vital for a defense that wants to get to the quarterback with more regularity in 2014.
Damion Square is a player the personnel staff and coaches targeted as a priority free agent after last year’s draft, and his versatility makes him an intriguing fit. Joe Kruger, the first of the Eagles’ three seventh-round picks in 2013, has the size, length, athleticism and overall skills to be an effective chess piece along the defensive line. After a season on Injured Reserve to rehab an injured shoulder, look for him to emerge in 2014.
Meanwhile, a pair of draft picks will be expected to show their stuff during Training Camp. Taylor Hart was a standout at Oregon who should slide easily into a role as a run-stuffing end, while seventh-round pick Beau Allen will compete with Square to be the primary backup at nose tackle. And everyone's favorite longshot, U.S. Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, will do his best to make an impact while learning a brand new position.