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Examining Eagles' Defensive Line

In the many weeks before the draft, the experts discussed the strength of the NFL draft and started with the depth up front defensively. There was no question that for teams in need, the draft would provide aid along the defensive line. Indeed, 12 defensive linemen were taken among the first 32 players selected in the first round, and another 6 were drafted in round two.

And the Eagles passed both times.

So the common question after the Eagles picked offensive guard Danny Watkins and safety Jaiquawn Jarrett was this: How are the Eagles going to improve up front if it was such a huge need? Maybe a better question is this: How much help do the Eagles really need along their front four defensively?

It remains to be seen how the Eagles plan to address this group, because the NFL has yet to open its doors for free agency, trades and other ways of player acquisition. New defensive line coach Jim Washburn is a powerful figure to recruit premier talent, and the instant he was hired many speculated that the Eagles would try to acquire some of the players with whom he had success in the past (specifically mentioned in reports were end Jason Babin and tackle Albert Haynesworth) to make this defensive line better.

Maybe the Eagles will follow that path when free agency begins. Maybe they think Washburn can take a group into which the Eagles have invested so much over the years and improve them with his results-proven method of coaching.

Maybe it is a combination of the two.

Here is a look at what the Eagles have up front, and how these players fit into the big picture here.


An unquestioned top-shelf end in this league, Trent Cole has statistically worn down later in recent seasons. His sack numbers have dipped as his playing time has increased. So it stands to reason that Cole can use some help -- both with another pass rusher to come on board and to have someone step in and give him some rest. Washburn's new scheme will help as Cole is expected to line up outside an offensive tackle's shoulder, but he still can use a breather now and then.


Solid, steady and durable, Mike Patterson has been an anchor and a highly-productive player inside for the Eagles. He hasn't been as much of a pass rusher as some tackles, but he gets to the football and puts up big tackle numbers. Patterson isn't going anywhere. He is technically sound and someone who should benefit greatly with Washburn in charge.


How good can this raw-and-improving young tackle become? Antonio Dixon was a huge plus last year and became a big-time contributor right away, and his ability is largely untapped. One of the reasons the Eagles didn't use a draft pick on a defensive tackle was likely because of Dixon's enormous growth in a short period of time. Look for Dixon to start the practice season as a starter on this line next to Patterson.


A really good player who has made a nice place for himself in this defense, Juqua Parker is a work-hard player who has a respected place in this locker room. He recorded 6 quarterback sacks last season, but only two after September. The Eagles need more production from the left end position. Parker is probably best suited for a split in reps during the course of the season to keep him fresh and active.


The decline in Brodrick Bunkley's play the last couple of seasons has had a negative effect on this defense. The Eagles need Bunkley to be a standout, a force. He has a quick first step and some power, but Bunkley has not really put it together the last two seasons. He had lost playing time to Dixon even before Bunkley suffered a nasty elbow injury in 2010. Bunkley played through the injury for much of the year and deserves credit, but he now needs to take it to a new level under Washburn. Big and strong, Bunkley has not been a dominating tackle in this league. He's been good, and he has teamed well with Patterson, but there has always been the sense that Bunkley is talented enough to provide more to the defense. Maybe Washburn can help bring that out and Bunkley can realize his ceiling. At the moment, he is a backup defensive tackle on this team.


Acquired in a trade with Seattle last offseason, Darryl Tapp provided valuable reps at both end positions. He only recorded three sacks, though, and the Eagles are looking for more than that in year two here. Tapp has a great attitude and is a good technician. He plays hard. He is around the ball a lot. In fact, Tapp is a leading candidate at this point to be the starter at left end. However it works out, whether or not the Eagles acquire an end, Tapp is eager to work with Washburn and step up his productivity.


A third-round draft pick in 2010, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim played very little as a rookie. He wasn't entirely healthy, but no excuses: Te'O-Nesheim was not an impact rookie. Now, Washburn was high on Te'o-Nesheim prior to the 2010 draft and he wants to see the young man get his burst off the edge back and help this team with an explosive pass rush. Should be interesting. Too bad the work stoppage is here, because Washburn would really love to see how Te'-Nesheim's offseason work is coming along. Te'o-Nesheim has a chance to benefit from Washburn's presence as much as anybody on this team.


A nice bounce-back season put Trevor Laws back in the rotation in 2010, and he needs a similar improvement this year to help. Laws is the fourth tackle here, but that could always change based on his preseason work. Laws is the best pass-rushing defensive tackle here and he saw action in the nickel and did well. Another leap forward would be beneficial to Laws and this Eagles defense.


A former second-round draft pick, Victor Abiamiri has had his career stunted by one injury after another. Abiamiri is still working at it and he intends to give it another go in 2011. The Eagles aren't counting Abiamiri out, but they aren't exactly putting all of their eggs in his basket, either. When he has played, Abiamiri has looked promising. The injury bug keeps biting, though, and he needs to prove he can stay healthy and play with strength and quickness.


The Eagles are convinced that last year's first-round draft pick will be a standout, but it may not be immediately that we can see the best of Brandon Graham. His torn anterior cruciate ligament late in the 2010 season jeopardizes Graham's 2011 season, or at least the early stages. When will he be ready to go? The Eagles think Graham is special and they think he will benefit greatly from Washburn's methods. Washburn said he had Graham at the top of the draft class among defensive ends in 2010.


Who knows? The Eagles saw that Phillip Hunt dominated in the Canadian Football League and they went out and signed him prior to the work stoppage. Good move. He brings quickness and great success at the professional level. Hunt is undersized at about 255-260 pounds, but if he is quick enough and works the technique Washburn wants, he has a chance to stick and help this team.


Here is an interesting wild card. Ricky Sapp spent the year on Injured Reserve and used that time to add 10 pounds to his frame and a lot of knowledge about the NFL works. He was an explosive player at Clemson who was moved around in his first preseason. He showed up a little bit and impressed in the preseason finale against the Jets. Sapp has great athletic ability, and the question is how he translates that with his hand in the ground.


Signed late in the season when injuries depleted the defensive line, Jeremy Clark played pretty well in the regular-season finale against Dallas. Clark has been around the league for some time and he could stick around for another look in the summer here.


Talk about a tough injury. Jeff Owens spent most of last season on the practice squad and then was brought up to the 53-man roster late in the year. He suffered a serious leg injury, though, and has a long, hard fight back to make it to full health. That is his first priority. Owens is a great kid and has a lot of talent, but he has much work to do to play in the NFL again.


On the list because, technically, Bobby McCray remains on the Eagles' roster, it is hard to see him here. McCray signed prior to the game against Dallas and then was inactive in the playoff loss to Green Bay. He had a fine NFL career, but he could be strictly an emergency-list player at this point.

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