There aren't any glaring holes. Not with a defense that rounded into form during the 2008 season, one that ranked third in the league in total defense, one that stepped up in the takeaway department, that ranked high in quarterback sacks. One that is young and improving. The defense is good already. Yet there is this nagging feeling that ignoring the D in the off-season would be an Eagles' mistake.
It isn't because of the way things went in the NFC Championship Game. The defense wasn't at its best that day, but the Eagles as a team weren't on their "A" game, which is another story for another day. Yeah, the Eagles showed great improvement on defense last season, ranked high in all the measurables and certainly have plenty to feel good about as they stand today and look at the roster.
Yet, as the interest mounts on the other side of the ball, the Eagles can't ignore the defense. What's that old saying in the NFL? Something along the lines of, "When you stand still, the rest of the league passes you by." I'm going to use that philosophy here, and delve deeper into the defense and the personnel, in particular.
Up front, where it all begins, the Eagles have a good situation. They are deep, they are fast and they are relatively young. End Trent Cole is a standout player, whether he made it to Honolulu or not this year. The Eagles have success rotating the rest of their ends and they had good production last season from Darren Howard, Chris Clemons toward the end of the season, Victor Abiamiri when he was healthy and Juqua Parker, who dipped in his sack numbers but still played high-energy and technically-sound football. Waiting in the wings is Bryan Smith, a third-round draft pick last April who was inactive for his entire rookie season.
So what do the Eagles really have at the end positions? They have the real deal in Cole. They have Parker, who is best used as a situational player. Good player, and one who fits in here well, but somebody who could also be more productive. They have Clemons, who has to show up from the very start of the season in 2009 and make plays.
If it were just that group of players at end, I would say the Eagles have a need there. Parker and Clemons are good, but they aren't special, and the Eagles could always use another special end. What makes this a position that is in good shape for me is the promise of Abiamiri and Smith. I'm saying that Abiamiri is going to push to be the starting left end in 2009, and that his skill set fits in perfectly here. He will get 6 to 8 sacks at end, and then he can add another 3-4 inside at tackle in the nickel. Had injuries not marred his second season, Abiamiri would have been much more productive in 2008.
Smith is a player about whom the coaches speak very highly. He exited the locker room the day after the loss in Arizona weighing 243 pounds and he should pack on a couple of more pounds before spring practice begins. Smith is a prospect who really only showed a glimpse of what the Eagles think he can do. His preseason was a process, punctuated by a strong effort in a game against the Jets. Then the regular season came along, and Smith vanished.
For the Eagles to get what they need at end, both Abiamiri and Smith have to step forward and challenge for playing time. Both Parker and Clemons have to respond to that challenge and become more consistent, more productive players. If all of that happens, and if Howard comes back with the same vim and vigor that he had last season, the Eagles are in good shape at end.
So it is a leap of faith a bit, an educated guesstimate based on the next steps for Abiamiri and Smith, and for the expectation that Howard has gas in his tank and that Clemons will be better in his second season here.
At tackle, it is very straight forward: The Eagles have a good trio of tackles who play hard, who are excellent against the run, and who could help take this front to another level with more production rushing the quarterback. This is a very solid position with Mike Patterson, Brodrick Bunkley and Trevor Laws. Good, young players. High-motor players. Fine production. Laws should challenge for more playing time this year. Could the Eagles use another bigger body at tackle as another piece? Sure, if he comes along. But it is not the highest of priorities. The Eagles need all three of their young tackles to advance, and if they do that, this will be a real strength of the defense.
Linebacker is a promising position with youth, size and speed. Stewart Bradley is a future Pro Bowl player. Akeem Jordan made great strides at WILL in a short time and should have a bright future. Chris Gocong is a totally different player than he was a season ago. He will continue to improve in space and may get some more opportunities to rush the quarterback, but Gocong certainly took major steps forward in his read and recognition and play-making skills against the run.
There is depth here, too, with Omar Gaither a starter-caliber player at all three positions. I can't wait to see Joe Mays in the summer and see how much he has progressed. The coaches think both Tracy White and Tank Daniels can play linebacker, as well as play well on special teams.
If you want to shake things up in this off-season, and I mean really shake things up, would you sign a big-time free agent at linebacker (Ray Lewis, if he makes it that far?) and move Bradley to the SAM position and go from there? That is radical thinking, but it is thinking to consider.
See, I'm in that kind of state of mind right now. I see the free-agent possibilities dwindling in a big, big way. Seems to me that most of the talent in free agency is likely to be on the defensive side of the ball, so why not add to the talent pool here?
The secondary, of course, is in a bit of flux right now because Brian Dawkins, Joselio Hanson and Sean Considine are going to be free agents on February 27. The Eagles will sign who they sign this week from their group of UFA's to-be and they will they go about filling some holes here. The draft is said to be deep in cornerback and in safety prospects. I'm not sure the Eagles, even if Hanson or Considine or, please don't say and it hurts to even type it, Dawkins leaves, will go the route of free agency. There is some depth here with Quintin Demps the heir apparent at free safety.
Then again ... if it is time to have one of those 2004 off-seasons, maybe the Eagles do something a little bit nutty here. Would they challenge, say, Sheldon Brown at one cornerback spot? Would they shake things up at safety?
These are just idle thoughts, but maybe they are born of boredom, but why not? I think this defense is very fine after a strong 2008 campaign and I think it has a chance to be outstanding next year. There are questions, though and there are player issues -- Lito Sheppard, step up! -- that need to be resolved.
My thing is this: Don't stand pat on defense. Like what you have, but don't fall too deeply in love. Challenge everywhere and see what you can do to make this Eagles defense the very best it can be in 2009.