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The D Line: Gang Green Again?

Posted Jun 18, 2012

No more contract talk or concern that there will be a rookie no-show when training camp begins. All the draft picks are signed, and now we can discuss what might be ahead ...

Let's begin by looking ahead with what is right in front of the defense. I'm starting with a defensive line that is truly looking like anything is possible.

Now, for those of you who have read this space for years, you know I've written this before. I'm waiting for the Eagles to produce their next "Best Defensive Line In The NFL," and I reckon this group has as good a chance as any since those Gang Green days of the 1980s and early 1990s.

There is no Reggie White in this group -- or any defensive line group in the NFL -- but the Eagles are pretty darn good. This line has a chance to be very good, to be great,

Last year's group was downright nasty rushing the quarterback. Ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole were prolific off the edges, combining for 29 of the line's league-high 46 quarterback sacks. Tackle Cullen Jenkins was a Pro Bowl-caliber player who added much-needed toughness and leadership.

The Eagles showed some depth and promise with young players and role players and went after offensive lines with waves of pass rushers. Even with the truncated teaching period, the players understood enough of what line coach Jim Washburn wanted to turn up the volume in the pass-rushing game.

It would have been perfectly understandable, then, had the Eagles gone in a different direction in April's draft. Had they looked to the offensive side of the back, or the back seven on defense, nobody would have argued. Instead, the Eagles continued to load up along the defensive line, adding Fletcher Cox in the first round and Vinny Curry in round three, youngsters at tackle and end who every analyst has raved about.

Those two, combined with the re-birth (in a football sense) of end Brandon Graham gives the Eagles some fresh, young blood to work with up front. Babin and Cole are still the starters at end, but all of a sudden the Eagles have Curry pushing Graham who is pushing veteran Darryl Tapp and it's a really, really healthy situation. The Eagles are loaded with pass rushers with talented pedigrees. Babin and Cole have been in the Pro Bowl. Graham is a first-round draft choice. Tapp is an accomplished NFL veteran. Curry went in many mock drafts as a first-round draft pick.

The Eagles added another end on Monday, claiming Monte Taylor off of waivers from Seattle. Taylor is a raw talent who went undrafted and then didn't fit into what the Seahawks were doing defensively. The Eagles want to get him into camp and see how he responds to Washburn and his unique coaching style.

At tackle, Cox immediately pushes veteran Mike Patterson, who is recovering from brain surgery, and veteran Antonio Dixon, fully healthy after a shoulder injury stymied his 2011 season. Then there's Derek Landri, who led the Eagles in tackles for loss last season despite minimal playing time, and second-year man Cedric Thornton, whom the Eagles begged to stick around last year on the practice squad rather than join another team's 53-man roster.

There are going to be some very difficult roster decisions to be made down the line. The Eagles can't keep 'em all. The coaching staff hopes that the competition is fierce and that the roster holds 9, 10 and maybe even 11 linemen who can rotate in and play the way Washburn demands: With relentless energy and tremendous brute force.

Can this line rival that Gang Green greatness from so long ago? That certainly is pie-in-the-sky thinking, but that's what this time of the year is all about. On paper, the defensive line sure looks promising, great even.

Nobody here matches White's all-time dominance, but the Eagles have waves of pass rushers and they have enough size and strength to play the run well. How they do when they are in the nickel could very well set the standard. Can the Eagles find that standout inside pass rusher who collapses the pocket and gives Cole and Babin the advantage on the edge? Too many times in recent years the weakness has been in that very instance, when the Eagles just couldn't come up with the inside pass-rushing standout.

You will see the Eagles try a lot of different bodies inside at training camp as they search for the right combination. If Cox can get up the field and make a difference, he is going to play. If Graham can slide inside, well, he'll get on the field quite a bit. If Curry or Tapp can stand up and be versatile, or if Phillip Hunt can expand upon the 10 to 15 snaps per game he got last year, well, the Eagles are going to be dynamic up front.

We know the standard here, the goal. We saw it 20-plus seasons ago. This defensive line, when it is all added up, represents the best chance the Eagles have had since then to replicate greatness up front.

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