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Versatility Is The Name Of The Game

Posted Jul 27, 2014

The Eagles’ assault on the offensive record books in 2013 attracted most of the media attention last season, but the marked improvement on the defensive side of the football was worth a round of applause as well.

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis orchestrated the schematic overhaul to a 3-4 front as the Eagles finished last season as one of the league’s most opportunistic units by generating 31 turnovers, which was tied for third most in the NFL. In the latter half of 2013, the Eagles were seventh in the league in points allowed. At one point in the season, the Eagles boasted a streak of nine consecutive games of allowing fewer than 22 points.

The 2013 season laid the foundation upon which the Eagles were able to aggressively add players in the offseason. The Eagles made former New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins their No. 1 target in free agency. Jenkins brings leadership having been a two-time captain and Super Bowl champion with the Saints. He also boasts a versatile skill set with the ability to play safety and cornerback if needed. That will provide the Eagles’ coaches with flexibility in matching up with the opposing offense’s personnel packages.

"I was drafted as a corner so now I’m one of those guys where I can play deep – I’m a football junkie so I can be the quarterback of the defense – I can still cover receivers in the slot, I can cover tight ends, I can blitz. Whenever I can do all those things, I have the freedom to move around and not be stagnant. That’s when I’ve had my best years," Jenkins said. "So I’m not your typical safety, I’m kind of that hybrid that the league is moving to now with the bigger tight ends, the faster tight ends. You need guys that can be versatile, go down in the slot, so you’re not worried about them."

The Eagles also signed veteran cornerback Nolan Carroll II from the Miami Dolphins. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Carroll has started over 26 games in his four-year career adding more depth and experience to a group that includes last year’s starters Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher and nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin.

In the draft, the Eagles added to their pass rush by selecting linebacker Marcus Smith II, the AAC Defensive Player of the Year at Louisville last year, with the 26th-overall pick. Smith’s familiarity with rushing the quarterback and dropping in space will mesh well with Davis’ desire to confuse the opposition. Smith will have a chance to learn from two veteran stalwarts in Trent Cole, who led the team with eight sacks, and Connor Barwin, a jack-of-all-trades who thrived in his first year with the team.

Inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans set the tone as the quarterback of the defense last season enjoying what was arguably his best year as a pro. The two-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection posted a career-high 177 tackles and four sacks. Alongside Ryans in the middle is Mychal Kendricks, who is entering his third season as a pro. The athletic playmaker led the NFL with four fumble recoveries in 2013 to go along with his four sacks and three interceptions. The success from last season mixed with a year of experience in the scheme could be a potent combination in 2014.

"It’s another year in of understanding each other a lot better and understanding what Billy is trying to do defensively," Ryans said. "I think the relationship has grown a lot. I kind of know what he’s thinking and what he’s going to call in certain situations, and I think overall the whole defense has grown because we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing."

Ryans and Kendricks have to thank the performance of the defensive line for allowing them to make so many plays last season. Former first-round pick Fletcher Cox flourished at defensive end with a team-best 21 quarterback pressures. Cedric Thorton, a former rookie free agent, was lauded throughout the season, his first as a full-time starter. Rookie Bennie Logan showed lots of promise taking over as the starting nose tackle midway through the season. The Eagles allowed the fourth-fewest yards per carry on the ground in 2013. Even though Jenkins may be the only new starter from the end of last season, Davis saw in the spring a unit that was already improved from his first with the Eagles.

"I think we have more depth than we had (last season) and more experience and more people that can play versatile roles in the defense," Davis said.

This spring, the Eagles were able to hit the ground running. The coaches knew the players and the vast majority of the players understood the scheme. Instead of churning out a vanilla defense to open this season, the Eagles can sprinkle in plenty of sugar and spice and everything not-so-nice to aid a team with big expectations for 2014.

"I think that every team wants to focus on winning the Super Bowl every season, and when you fall short like that, it leaves a nasty taste in your mouth," said Williams, who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012. "We have a lot of guys that are hungry and that aren’t going to be satisfied with being mediocre. That’s a great thing to have in the locker room. I think we are all competitors, and I think we all want to get better each and every day."

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