This is the fourth in a series of five key Camp Questions for the Eagles heading into Training Camp.
Connor Barwin just didn't fit in as a defensive end. Bennie Logan had a groin injury that limited his production. Both players from the 2016 starting lineup are gone, yet the Eagles think they are better along their front four. Are they?
"I think we have a lot of interesting possibilities," defensive line coach Chris Wilson said in the spring. "I like what we've done so far. The next step is Training Camp, when the pads go on. I want to see us take the next steps."
The Eagles are relying not only their front four, which features new starters at defensive end (likely veteran Vinny Curry, the established pro Chris Long, or first-round pick Derek Barnett) and at defensive tackle (Tim Jernigan). With Jordan Hicks manning the middle and all three starters returning for a second season in the Jim Schwartz defense, the Eagles expect the entire front seven to dominate.
"I've been around and you can get a taste for what you have, and I think there is a whole lot to work with here," said Long, who won a Super Bowl with New England last season and then signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Eagles in March. "It's a very aggressive group. That's the way we're going to create some havoc."
Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are the returning starters and they should benefit from the additions made. Cox will line up next to the hyperactivity of Jernigan, who looks to be set loose in the 4-3 front that stresses getting off the ball quickly and shooting into the backfield. Jernigan had some good seasons in Baltimore's 3-4, read-and-react front, but this is the kind of scheme he is better suited for. Cox, then, could have some room to roam with Jernigan also commanding some attention.
Barwin played good, hard football for the Eagles, but he just didn't have the get-up-and-go that Schwartz needed off the edge. Enter Long and Barnett, the 14th overall pick in April's draft, and the Eagles think they have more juice to complement Graham's effort and production. For that to happen, Curry has to play his best football. For whatever reason, Curry's production dipped in 2016. He just never got into his groove. Curry lined up as a starter in the spring and could win the job in the summer with consistent production.
Beyond that group of starters and the depth at defensive end, the Eagles have some options. Beau Allen continues to rehab after suffering a pectoral injury that knocked him out of the spring practices. He will probably open camp on a reserve list, but hopefully he gets back on the practice field in the next several weeks. Destiny Vaeao played some quality snaps last season and hopes to come back early in camp after a calf injury sidelined him in the spring. Sixth-round draft pick Elijah Qualls is an interesting player to watch after a strong college career at Washington. He's a powerhouse with a sturdy lower body who showed a lot of versatility and athletic ability in college.
At linebacker, Hicks enjoyed a terrific 2016 season and he's flanked by Nigel Bradham on the strong side and Mychal Kendricks on the weak side. Depth is an issue after top backup Najee Goode, so that's something to watch in the weeks to come.
and Don Cherry and rookie Nathan Gerry.
This defense rides with the front seven. Winning at the line of scrimmage means the Eagles will win on defense.