They have never been about the glamour. It is not the nature of the position of defensive tackle. Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley are the grunts, measured by the effectiveness of the entire defense rather than individual numbers. And so, as the Eagles dot the I's and cross the T's preparing for the off-season of personnel moves ahead, what do they think of the defensive tackle positions?
It is something that not many are discussing out there. The focus has been virtually everywhere else, of course, but nobody inside the walls of the NovaCare Complex ignores the importance at defensive tackle. It is why, in back-to-back drafts, the Eagles used first-round picks on Patterson and Bunkley, respectively. It is why the team used its first draft pick in 2008 on Trevor Laws.
And it is why the Eagles won't hesitate to add another piece to the group and challenge the starters if they have an opportunity to do so in free agency or the draft.
But defensive tackle is one of the most difficult positions to upgrade in the NFL. The Eagles like where they are with Bunkley and Patterson. They know that it is a critical off-season for Laws, who certainly took a step backward last year. They think that raw, brutally-strong Antonio Dixon has a chance to develop into a pretty good player.
At the same time, the Eagles have to look at the numbers from the 2009 season and figure out why the run defense slumped to ninth in the NFL rankings after a 2008 campaign when the Eagles were the fourth-best run defense in the league.
From this standpoint, the drop-off was more a product of the injuries at linebacker rather than the play of the defensive tackles. A season earlier, Bunkley and Patterson controlled blockers and Stewart Bradley played downhill football and cleaned up and the run defense thrived. Without Bradley, as we witnessed, the Eagles went through a variety of players but never had an answer they truly liked at middle linebacker.
And in those two losses to Dallas, the Eagles' run defense gave up way too much. Felix Jones had two great games running at the edges of the Eagles' defense and getting into the second and third level of the defense. It was not a pretty scene.
How does this defense improve against the run? They've got to be better up front, Patterson and Bunkley included, and they need Laws to step up and they need Dixon to make strides. Becoming a bigger and more physical defense isn't going to happen overnight, but having Bradley back on the field helps in both respects.
What the Eagles have with Patterson and Bunkley are a tandem of hard-working, technically-sound players. They don't rush the quarterback as well as they would like and in fact don't get many chances when the Eagles use four ends in the nickel package and take Patterson and Bunkley off the field. But as far as solid work against the run, Patterson and Bunkley are good players.
The defense at times last year played so very well and had all of those takeaways and made so many big plays. But there were also a lot of missed tackles and the group as an entity seemed to wear down late in the season. Third down was a real problem late. Sean McDermott tried everything to devise creative, effective schemes to throw offenses off of their rhythm, and sometimes it worked.
Not in Cowboys Stadium, though. And after those losses, the Eagles took a hard line in their evaluation process. What they know now that they didn't know then, we'll find out soon enough.
The bottom line is that Patterson and Bunkley are likely to be around for a long, long time. They're both good players. They fit this system very nicely. They're not the 330-pound tanks that every team would ideally love to have, but both Patterson and Bunkley are quick, effective players who hold the line of scrimmage well.
That said, the Eagles can't turn a blind eye to the position. This is said to be a good year for defensive tackle prospects. If the Eagles have a chance to get a tackle to upgrade the position and challenge the depth chart, hey, they need to do it.
My guess is that tackle is not high on the "need" list the Eagles are compiling. My guess is that if something happens in the draft and the Eagles have a chance to move up and get somebody that *nobody *expected -- as it happened last year with Jeremy Maclin -- they would have to think long and hard about the opportunity.