Before 2007, stopping the run has been somewhat a thorn in the side of the Eagles' defense.
An abysmal ranking of 26th in the NFL against the run in 2006 raised some alarms, in an area where the Eagles have consistently struggled since 2002, when they finished ninth. Especially disappointing was the rookie season for first-round pick Brodrick Bunkley, who had come in as the type of player the Eagles felt they needed for their defensive tackles to get back to form.
But, in 2007, everything seemed to click.
Bunkley burst onto the scene as the impact player he had been envisioned to be, and cannonball Mike Patterson produced more than 100 tackles en route to the Eagles finally climbing back into the top 10 with a seventh-place finish. In the process, the Eagles slowed down big-number backs — Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Dallas' Marion Barber and New England's Laurence Maroney — while following through on a very important task – keeping the defense as fresh as possible.
With the run defense in place, the Eagles hope to improve on generating more of a pass rush from the middle, helping out Trent Cole and Co. on the outside.
Second-round pick Trevor Laws, the Eagles' top pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, provides a big, athletic body that can collapse a running play and disrupt the passing game. Laws figures to factor into the rotation immediately as the third tackle. Veteran Montae Reagor has been seeing second-team reps in spring workouts, a hopeful sign after making little impact in his first season with the team.
Kimo von Oelhoffen, a 15-year veteran, re-signed with the Eagles after the Organized Team Activities (OTAs). Despite not receiving a contract after last season, von Oelhoffen's nameplate never disappeared from his locker at the NovaCare Complex, which maybe indicatied that the Eagles liked what he did and intended on bringing him back all along.
Perhaps most interesting, however, will be two guys familiar with other positions. Dan Klecko has been a defensive tackle with the Eagles for all of a month, recently converted from fullback, after being converted to fullback from defensive tackle as an experiment. His transition back to the defensive side should be natural, but will be easier said than done after having learned the language of both the offense and defense now.
Darren Howard could see playing time on the inside as a second- and third-and-long pass rusher. Howard has not provided the Eagles with what they had hoped for since signing two offseasons ago, but assures that he's in the best shape of his tenure in Philadelphia.
A YEAR AGO ...
The Eagles finished with a stellar seventh-ranked run defense, but the defensive tackles generated only nine sacks between them (including Howard).
Still, the top two guys in Bunkley and Patterson are young and continue to show signs of improvement. Bunkley rebounded big-time from his disappointing rookie campaign.
BATTLE TO WATCH: The Final Two Spots
If last season's opening-day roster is any indication, only two of these guys - Howard, Klecko, Reagor and von Oelhoffen - will make the team, as the Eagles kept just five defensive tackles. Reagor seems to have the upper hand, gaining the most reps in OTAs. But Klecko will have another month of study under his belt, and von Oelhoffen will be reporting for the first time this season.
Howard could also be a favorite because of his versatility. The natural defensive end could provide some much-needed pressure from the tackle spot.