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D Line: How Great Can It Be?

Posted May 1, 2012

I can only imagine the first time Jim Washburn stands in front of his defensive line players, some of them fuzzy cheeked and with visions of their path to greatness defined in their minds ...

... and tells them the way things are going to be done if they intend to be member of the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles roster.

It will be a colorful one-way conversation. And it will be real, very real. Washburn is in his second season in charge of the Eagles' defensive line, and if you don't know his way by now, you haven't been paying attention.

Washburn is a passionate coach who, quite frankly, was put on this Earth to do what he does. He is in the best defensive line coach in the world -- a matter that even to debate is the ultimate compliment to Washburn -- and he suddenly has this outrageously talented group of linemen with which to work. The man has worked wonders in his coaching career and he made an instant impact with the Eagles last season, as we all saw.

In the matter of two offseasons, the Eagles have overhauled their defensive line. Additions like Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Phillip Hunt, Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry have changed the face of the line dramatically, both in tangible production and in sky-is-the-limit potential.

Of course, around the world of the NFL, "potential" is a dirty word. So it is up to coaches like Washburn to bring out the most in every player, to maximize that potential and to make reality the only chatter worth having.

When you look at all the moves the Eagles have made, whether it was retaining the pieces in place, or trading for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, or continuing their talent assault to aid Juan Castillo's defensive cause, the most relevant is the way the Eagles have addressed the defensive line which, if all works according to plan, should give the Eagles something special for years to come.

But there are a lot of steps to take to get from here -- which is a pretty darn good defensive line that led the NFL with 46 sacks (of the team's 50, which ranked second in the league) -- to a group that dominates game in and game out. The Eagles, conceivably, could make the case right now to pencil in 11 roster spots to the line, five to the tackle spots and six to the ends, but you know that the picture is going to change a bunch from now until the end of the preseason.

Certainly, defensive line has been an area of priority for Andy Reid's Eagles. He's invested six first-round draft picks on d linemen, five of them on tackles. It is a strategy that has paid off for the Eagles as they have been, in Reid's time here, among the best NFL teams in quarterback sacks and consistent, productive play from the defensive line.

So now what do the Eagles have? At tackle, the starters are Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, a pair of good-to-very good players who have seen it all in the NFL. They have Antonio Dixon, in great shape after a tough 2011 campaign, who should thrive under Washburn this season. They have Derek Landri, the most productive tackle on the roster last year with limited snaps, a player who is all hustle and quickness and desire.

And they have Cox, a first-round pick who many analysts believe will work his way into a starting spot very early in his career.

It's not fair to omit Cedric Thornton, whom the Eagles did everything they could to successfully keep him on the practice squad in 2011. He has a lot of what Washburn likes -- quickness, technique, tenacity.

At defensive end, the picture is even more impressive. Curry comes in to push a pair of Pro Bowl players in Jason Babin and Trent Cole as well as a former first-round pick in Brandon Graham, a proven veteran in Darryl Tapp and a second-year NFL player in Phillip Hunt who, from this perspective, can be an extremely dynamic pass rusher and complete defensive end in this league.

I've been around long enough to watch the Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown, Mike Pitts and Mike Golic line crush offenses play after play. That was an awesome group, one of the best in the history of the franchise. Since then there have been good groups and better individuals, from William Fuller to Hugh Douglas to Corey Simon to Cole and now to Babin and Jenkins and even Patterson, who I have always thought an underrated player.

Never, though, has there been a combination since those Gang Green days a combination of sheer talent and coaching genius.

And that is why, with everything the Eagles have done with the defense, the line is going to lead the way in 2012. I love the Ryans addition, and I think Mychal Kendricks will be a big part of things to come at linebacker, and Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as well as Joselio Hanson/Brandon Boykin will do a terrific job at cornerback. Safety is a bit uncertain, but there is promise with young players still developing.

Make no mistake, though: The line keys everything on defense. And the Eagles have invested so much there, with draft picks, free agency and a huge coaching addition, that it is going to be -- or as least has a chance to be -- versatile and dominating this season. The Eagles already have great pressure with Cole and Babin off the edges, and if they can gain production inside with their pass rush and still attack the running game, the line can truly be special.

In charge of all of this is Washburn, who is exactly the coach you want to run the show here. He knows how to kick 'em and he knows how to kiss 'em. As ornery and nasty as Washburn can be, the players know that there is nothing but love in his message. He demands that players perform to their maximum ceiling, at his tempo and his level of desire, or they aren't going to be his players.

Enjoy the show, Eagles fans. The defensive line is about to return to its glory days when it took over games and didn't let go.

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