There seems to be a feeling out there that the defense, the so-important Eagles defense, is what it is right now and that, for better or worse, this is how the group will line up in 2010. Not true. Not the case. With the big (well, not really that big) wave of free agency over, the Eagles still have a variety of ways to address Sean McDermott's group.
No question, every group needs to be improved. Having Stewart Bradley back on the field helps the defense from top to bottom, but bringing in some help is welcomed, too. Last year was a time for the offense to get its overhaul, and the Eagles did a very nice job without taking any steps backward. They promoted Brent Celek to the starting tight end spot, brought in Jeremy Maclin to add big plays at wide receiver, revamped the offensive line (not exactly according to plan, but still ...) and introduced the backfield (Leonard Weaver at fullback and LeSean McCoy at halfback) for the present and the future.
Is this the off-season for the defense to get its shake up? The signs certainly point that way, but you never know how the off-season winds are going to blow. The team has added defensive back Marlin Jackson in free agency, and while he is a terrific player when healthy, there is nobody who really knows if Jackson can recover from his ACL surgery in time and then stay healthy and be the explosive player he was prior to his injuries. Add in Bradley, who is feeling great after his knee surgery, linebacker Omar Gaither and nickel/dime cornerback Ellis Hobbs and the Eagles have a few pieces they didn't have last season.
From this perspective, the Eagles held together pretty well until the very end of the 2009 season despite a rolling series of setbacks. Jim Johnson's illness and death thrust McDermott into the role of defensive coordinator. He did a fine, fine job, but there really was only so much McDermott could do to make up for the manpower losses and the shortcomings at certain positions.
Now, with a year under his belt, McDermott should be an improved coach. His staff also made his staff better by hiring Dick Jauron to work with the defensive backs.
But all of that probably isn't enough. The goal is to have a dominating defense, and with the dearth of free-agency talent around, the Eagles have to find creative ways to improve the talent base on defense. Here are some suggestions ...
- Seriously examine the restricted free agent class. I do not advocate spending a first-round draft pick on a player like end Ray Edwards from Minnesota, but the Eagles owe it to themselves to take a look at every player out there. There is a huge risk here, yes. Financing a new contract for a restricted free agent is tricky, and then compensating a team with high draft picks in a draft that is said to be loaded with talent is also difficult to swallow. So are there some restricted free agents who might not require a high draft pick as compensation? Howie Roseman and his staff are on the case, I'm sure. There have to be some players out there who fit that bill.
- Why not use up a high draft pick for a proven player? I just don't know how often teams should use that approach. I think it is riskier than a draft pick. Andy Reid's track record with first-round draft picks is a pretty great. I think I'd like to keep the draft picks the Eagles have, at least rounds one through three.
- Acquire as many draft picks as possible, in fact. Perhaps that means the Eagles can move some players in trades, I don't know. Maybe they can package some of their later picks and add another pick in the first few rounds. Would the team consider trading a future high draft pick for a couple of selections this year?
- Start working the trade route. Teams are talking out there. Teams are moving players in trades so there is no question the Eagles are engaging in conversations. Andy Reid isn't ever afraid to make a move. The defense needs another couple of impact players to be great. How can the Eagles find those players?
I think we all agree that the Eagles have some areas that they can improve upon on defense. It was great on Monday to see some of these younger players report to the NovaCare Complex for the off-season conditioning program. Quintin Demps has already been here. Macho Harris is here now. So is Moise Fokou. Mike Patterson is already in. Dozens of players came and went and got in their workouts with new strength and conditioning coach Barry Rubin.
If it's me making the calls, I'm addressing every phase of the Eagles defense. I'm challenging every position. I'm not taking for granted, for instance, that Bradley is going to come all the way back from his knee injury. Joe Mays needs to be ready to go, and 100 percent ready to go, or the Eagles have to bring somebody in they trust to play middle linebacker should Bradley's knee show signs of wear and tear. Gaither? Yeah, maybe. Can he be that player inside for 10 weeks, if needed?
If this is a two-year roster overhaul, as it sure seems to me to be, the defense is next in the pecking order. It was the offense that got most of the attention last off-season. This time around, it will be the defense. Hasn't really happened yet, but it will. The Eagles have moves to make to get the defense up to speed.