There are times when you watch this Eagles defense and think, "Hey, it's not that bad. There is a real base for greatness here." And then there are times when you wonder how in the world the defense lost its nastiness and how a defense can go more than half a season without forcing a turnover.
You can bet that the Eagles will address the defense heavily in the months following the 2012 season, which continues Sunday against a Redskins offense that has made the most of its personnel, and that had great success with the big play against the Eagles one month ago.
Around whom, then, do the Eagles build the defense moving forward? Which players from this defense will be here next May? How can the Eagles take what they have now and put a foundation for greatness in place for 2013 and beyond?
Here are some candidates to lead the way for the defense into the future ...
BRANDON GRAHAM, DE: Four sacks in the three games since he's become the starting left defensive end have given Brandon Graham some credibility, and the best should be yet to come. Graham is playing at a high level, with a great burst off the line of scrimmage and excellent effort. The time he has spent with emergency line coach Tommy Brasher will prove invaluable in Graham's career.
MYCHAL KENDRICKS, LB: Whether Mychal Kendricks is a SAM or a WILL linebacker remains to be seen, but what we know of the rookie is that he is a physical player, a playmaker and someone who goes after it 100 mph. The Eagles are stretching Kendricks' versatility and his skills, and in the big picture they need to find a way for him to get around the football more, maybe use his blitz skills and become a player to look at to make the big play when needed.
TRENT COLE, DE: His numbers aren't anywhere close to where they've been in his career, but Trent Cole remains a quality defensive end in this league. His technique clearly eroded in the last two seasons, and offensive linemen simply carried Cole out of harm's way and past the quarterback. Cole has been energized by Brasher's presence the last couple of games, and he's been more productive than at any time during the season.
FLETCHER COX, DT: Quality player. Star talent. Should Fletcher Cox put it all together -- tenacity, technique, effort -- he's going to be a top defensive tackle in the NFL. He has the strength to win hand-to-hand battles inside, and he has quickness to get off the line of scrimmage and win the quickness battle.
DeMECO RYANS, LB: Caught up in the madness of the Wide 9 alignment up front, DeMeco Ryans has admittedly had an up-and-down season. He has been really good at times and, in fact, ranks among the top 15 in tackles made in the NFL. But he's also missed some plays and has had moments where he hasn't gotten off of blocks, so we're left wanting more from him. There are some salary-cap questions with Ryans, but he's a piece who deserves to be here next year as the Eagles add more to the defense. Ryans can still run and he's a positive influence in the locker room. He has more football left in him, for sure.
VINNY CURRY, DE: The second-round draft pick has only played in four games, and in those games has gotten only a handful of snaps, so it's hard to get a real feel for Vinny Curry. He may not even be a starter next year with Cole and Graham in place. But Curry has undeniable talent and the Eagles need to find a way to bring the best out of him. He plays with great joy for the game and has superior hustle and good quickness.
NATE ALLEN, S: Year number three has been a struggle for Nate Allen, and nobody would say otherwise. He hasn't been around the football enough and his instincts haven't blossomed. It's fair to say that Allen's career could go either way. But the Eagles have so many question marks in the secondary -- both of the starting safeties Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie may or may not be back in 2013 -- and the safeties have been up and down all year. The Eagles can't replace them all. Allen is worth developing and seeing what he can do.
BRANDON BOYKIN, CB: Not once through a challenging rookie season has Brandon Boykin hung his head, and he's seeing the rewards for his hard work and resolve. Boykin has played well in the last half of the season and he's come a long way since September. Used as the slot cornerback, Boykin could move outside with his speed and athletic ability, if needed. The Eagles need to know going into the offseason if their young cornerbacks -- Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes included -- are able to step up and add more responsibilities to their games.
CEDRIC THORNTON, DT: Raw and talented, Cedric Thornton needs a Brasher-like coach to develop to his maximum ability. He started the season off very well and then tailed off, and now he's coming back into the picture. The defensive tackle position is an interesting one looking ahead. Keeping Cox is a must. But where, then, do veterans Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson and Derek Landri fit into the future? That's why it is important that Thornton stays and develops and shows that he can be a factor here.