It wasn't exactly a shock, or particularly hard news, when defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said on SportsRadio 94WIP on Friday that he will run a 4-3 front and that he "can take the handcuffs off" of his defensive linemen and have them play attacking, penetrating football.
It was something suspected from the day the Eagles hired Schwartz, whose history suggested as much. The veteran defensive mastermind wants to bring the heat. His defensive linemen bring the heat. They play fast and they play aggressively and they attack up the field.
Everything about Schwartz and what he brings to the table sounds so promising, doesn't it? He knows the game and has the track record that suggests the Eagles' defense can be much improved from the 2015 version. The personnel on hand just seems to fit better in a 4-3, rather than in the 3-4 run in the previous three seasons, but there are some questions about what exactly a 4-3 means for this team.
Let's begin with this: It's going to be easier, it would appear, for the Eagles to transition back to a 4-3 than it was in 2013 when the Eagles changed their base front from the 4-3 used by then-head coach Andy Reid to the 3-4 desired by new head coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis. Players like ends Trent Cole and Brandon Graham who were drafted and played for years with their hands in the dirt were asked to play as standup defensive ends who had more responsibilities dropping back in coverage than they had ever experienced at any level of football. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft to be an up-the-field disrupter, would become a two-gapping end in the 3-4 with the prime job of occupying offensive linemen and allowing the linebackers to stay "clean" so they would have a clear path to the football.
The Eagles needed a presence off the edge, so they smartly signed Connor Barwin in free agency, and his all-around abilities eased the growing pains just a bit.
Beyond the players up front, there were adjustments needed. Mychal Kendricks played at SAM linebacker in his rookie season of 2012 and had eight tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed and generally looked like he was a player on the rise. A move to an inside linebacker in the 3-4 didn't slow Kendricks in 2013 as he contributed four quarterback sacks and three interceptions, and other than injuries that limited him to 12 games and 11 starts in 2014, he played well in that position. In 2015, Kendricks wasn't at his best on a consistent basis, part of a defense that had some major struggles in the second half of the season.
Graham took a full year and then some to come around to the 3-4. Cole, too.
The bottom line: It wasn't an easy flip, even as the Eagles added solid pieces like defensive linemen Bennie Logan (2013 draft) and then linebacker Jordan Hicks (2015 draft). They weren't able to bring in the top-shelf edge rusher, and that lack of huge punch off the edge hurt the defense in the long run.
How much of a transition will it be to go back to the 4-3 front? Cox is deliriously happy with the move, as it will allow him to take full advantage of his superior explosiveness and power. He is such a good player that he became an All-Pro lineman in the 3-4, but moving back to the 4-3 should allow him to thrive in his best environment.
Logan should have a lot of success in a 4-3 front as a penetrating tackle. Cedric Thornton started his career in the 4-3, and if he stays in Philadelphia (Thornton is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March), the fit would be natural.
At ends, Graham is best suited to play with his hand in the ground, although he certainly came a long way in the 3-4. Barwin said he thinks he will play with his hand down as a defensive end in Schwartz's "Wide 9," which means the ends line up outside the tackle box and on an angle toward the offensive tackles, but he could also play SAM linebacker and drop more in coverage. Vinny Curry was drafted in 2013 to rush the quarterback off the edge and was, quite honestly, underutilized in the team's 3-4 front the last three seasons. Curry is also scheduled to be a UFA in March.
There are questions, though, and Schwartz will find the answers. He's got some options, for sure. The Eagles have some defensive linemen who were added for their two-gapping skills -- among them Beau Allen, Brandon Bair and Taylor Hart -- so how do their skills translate to what Schwartz wants? Is Barwin's best position at defensive end or at linebacker?
How about Kiko Alonso? He was outstanding in Buffalo in 2013 and Schwartz, who became the defensive coordinator with the Bills in 2014, had big plans for Alonso for that season. But Alonso blew out his knee in the offseason, missed all of 2014 and was traded to Philadelphia prior to last season. And while Alonso was able to make it through the '15 season, he wasn't nearly as effective as the Eagles hoped he would be. He was tentative and lacked explosiveness, perhaps because he didn't completely trust the health of his knee or the scheme. Another full offseason distanced from the injury should help Alonso.
Kendricks, too, has to find the right fit in the 4-3. The leader of the defense, DeMeco Ryans, is a natural in the middle of the 4-3, but can he get healthy and get back to the level of play he showed prior to his second Achilles tendon injury? Is Hicks, a special rookie for the first half of 2015 before he was injured, the kind of "thumper" needed to play in the middle of a 4-3, or is he better at SAM or WILL?
And then there's 2014 first-round draft pick Marcus Smith, whom the Eagles hoped would be an impact edge rusher in the 3-4. Can he drop back in coverage as a linebacker? Can he play with his hand on the ground?
So, all is not without questions. But that's what Schwartz is doing right now, studying the tape, gathering some information and writing up his reports. The Eagles are going to add to the defensive mix, what with free agency and nine draft picks ahead.
One thing, though: Schwartz has some pieces to work with here. There is going to be a transition, a learning curve, but it may not be as steep as the one the Eagles experienced in 2013 into 2014 when they overhauled the defensive front and scrambled to fit some round pieces into round holes.