On one side, Trent Cole is a Pro Bowl defensive end who is relentless and powerful and so effective with his extensive tool bag. He is a star player, one of the best in the league, and most observers wonder just how much better Cole would be with another like player on the left side of the Eagles' defensive line. Is that a priority for this team in the off-season, to complement Cole and his game?
It would seem a natural "yes," because every team is on the lookout for more pass rushers and more dynamic playmakers at the defensive line of scrimmage. Offensive blocking schemes can account for one good pass rusher, and even two, but when a defense uses three pass rushers who are legitimate threats, well, then you see a lot of three-step drops and max protection and all of the get-the-ball-out tricks that quarterbacks need.
The Eagles have a great pass rusher in Cole, and they need more than Cole on an every-down basis. When the defense uses its nickel look and has Cole, Chris Clemons, Victor Abiamiri, Darren Howard, Juqua Parker and even Jason Babin from whom to choose, the Eagles have some good pass-rushing options. Parker set a career high in sacks last season (8) and Howard had 6 1/2 and, well, the numbers say both are threats.
What the Eagles would love to add, though, is another star to work opposite Cole. Parker is probably more underrated than not, but he not a star. Nor is Howard, whose sack total dropped from 2008 and who really was not anything close to consistent in his production in 2009. Does he have the "it" factor the Eagles need? Is he a veteran to watch as we near the start of free agency and all of its unpredictibilities?
Abiamiri is a player who the Eagles have counted on for a couple of years now, but nagging injuries have taken away from his numbers and his snap count. At one point do the Eagles either increase his workload or, maybe, go in another direction? Abiamiri isn't a star player, but you wonder what is inside when he is healthy. Big and strong, Abiamiri plays the run well and has excellent technique and he is a smart kid who works hard. He plays well when he is on the field.
But how much do the Eagles count on him as they make their plans for 2010? Can Abiamiri stay healthy, completely healthy, for a full season so the defensive coaches can really see what he is all about?
Clemons has not been as much a difference-making end as we thought when the Eagles signed him as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2008 campaign. He sure looks the part, and there are times when he comes off the ball so quickly and absolutely plays great football. Those times, though, have been too few and far between for Clemons, who has not earned as much playing time as anticipated in his two seasons here.
Parker is the best option at left end. He plays the game the right way and Parker had a good, consistent season in 2009. He does not fit the "star" category the Eagles would love to add to the line, and the feeling from this perspective is that Parker would be an even better player taking a few snaps less in each game rotating between left end and defensive tackle.
Babin had a nice run midway through 2009 and then faded, and he is an unrestricted free agent in March with an uncertain future.
So where does all of that leave the Eagles? It leaves them with a good situation with their defensive ends, but not an ideal one. And the goal here is to challenge every spot on this roster. And that means what, exactly?
It means that the Eagles should be on the lookout for defensive ends. It means that when free agency opens and Julius Peppers is on the market, the Eagles should consider him as an option. It means that they have to do their homework with Howie Roseman leading the way on a deep, talented group of players expected to dominate the first couple of rounds in April's draft.
If Peppers becomes a free agent, what kind of market would he bear? What kind of player does he project to be in the next couple of seasons? As the Eagles line up their free-agent strategy, Peppers has to be part of their conversation.
We all have questions about the Eagles defense and about the goal to become the best in the league. You can point to a handful of positions and have genuine points to make. Should the Eagles upgrade the pass rush adequately, the entire defense will take a major step forward. The linebackers will be better, the defensive backs will have more takeaways and Sean McDermott's creative scheme won't have to rely as much on the blitz game.
The Eagles have certainly used plenty of resources on defensive end over the years. They have used high draft picks, free agency and just about every means possible to build a great line. They have a good one now, but the goal is to have a great one. By hook or by crook, that has to be a high priority for the Eagles in the months to come, to go out and get a special player to make the defensive line so much more dangerous.
It doesn't have to be Peppers, a fine player who is likely to look for a record-breaking contract in an uncapped year of free agency, but it has to be a player who can come right in and make a difference.