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In Search Of More D Line Impact

Nobody can argue that the defensive line is in a much better place than it was 12 months ago. Washburn's group accounted for 50 quarterback sacks in 2011 and improved week by week against the run. End Jason Babin is in Hawaii now preparing for the Pro Bowl. Tackle Cullen Jenkins was a first alternate to the Pro Bowl. End Trent Cole again reached double figures in sacks and tackle Mike Patterson had one of his best seasons in his steady career.

More than that, rookie Phillip Hunt emerged as a pleasant surprise late in 2011 as a pass-rushing end, and veterans Trevor Laws and Darryl Tapp provided valuable depth. Juqua Parker got healthy late in the season and was spry and productive.

And yet ...

There is still room to grow for the defensive line. The great, great lines go after offenses in waves and have too many pass rushers for protection to account for. Injuries don't cripple the great lines, because there is always another player to step in and step up.

Do the Eagles have a great defensive line? No, not great. Good, for sure. Very good, at times. The goal is to be great, and the Eagles are closer to "great" than they have been in many years. What steps do they take to reach that level?

One of the main hopes of this offseason is that 2010 first-round draft pick Brandon Graham blossoms. Imagine the defensive with a healthy and fully-mature and productive Graham working in the rotation with Babin and Cole and maybe moving inside in the nickel to provide inside pass rush. Imagine the fun defensive coordinator Juan Castillo would have standing up Graham on the edge, or moving him over the center as a Joker, or using Babin and Cole and Graham all at once, moving them around in the pre-snap look.

It would be devastating.

Alas, Graham's rise isn't a sure thing. He is recovering from knee surgery that sidelined him for much of 2011 and then limited his burst and production for the final two months of the season. Graham must exhibit in the offseason that he wants to be a great NFL player and hit the weight room hard and build his overall body strength and gain back all the pre-injury trust in his knee.

How much, if you are Andy Reid and the Eagles hierarchy, do you trust that Graham will return to the player who showed enough that the Eagles traded up in the '10 draft to get him with the 13th pick overall?

At the end of the offseason, that may be the key question for the Eagles to answer with regard to their defense. If they think Graham is going to emerge, they can move on from the defensive end position and concentrate on other areas to improve with their early draft haul. If not, it's not out of the question that the Eagles could address defensive end again in the first couple of rounds in April's draft.

Parker is an unrestricted free agent who is a spot player at this point in his career. Tapp's numbers haven't been as strong as his play would suggest. Hunt is a 250-pound end who has some good years in front of him, but he is more than a pass-rushing specialist?

At tackle, the Eagles have some intriguing possibilities. Jenkins was an outstanding addition in free agency both for his on-field performance and his leadership in a locker room that took three-quarters of the season to find itself. Jenkins is a keeper, the kind of physical presence the Eagles need up the middle of the defense. Patterson overcame that scary incident in training camp to thrive under Washburn. He ranked second among defensive linemen on the team with 66 tackles, tied for third on defense with 24 quarterback hurries and he added 2 1/2 sacks. Remember, the Eagles rotated their linemen on almost every series, so while those tackle numbers aren't among Patterson's career highs, his grades were consistently outstanding.

Laws and veteran Derek Landri (both of whom are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents) provided value in backup roles; Laws as a pass rusher in the nickel and Landri as a hustle- and do-everything player at tackle and for a few snaps, at the end positions.

Combine those four players with the return of Antonio Dixon, who must shed weight and report to the spring conditioning program with a healthy shoulder and in great physical condition, and the Eagles have a good situation at tackle.

But it could be better. It could be great. What if the Eagles are sitting at No. 15 in the first round on April 26 and they have a defensive tackle on the board they absolutely love? Do they dare pass on that kind of player?

I know the Eagles want to improve what they have throughout the defense, and that includes linebacker and the secondary. I get it how the fans and the analysts feel about the linebacker situation, with some merit. No question the Eagles must improve in the middle of their defense.

But if the Eagles can get one more difference maker up front, wow, what an impact that would make for the 2012 defense. Maybe that player is Graham, who is in the weight room already working hard on reaching the top level. Maybe that player will be Dixon, whom Washburn liked so much prior to the 2011 campaign. Maybe that player is going to come from the draft or from free agency.

The Eagles haven't been this close to "great" up front in a long, long time. It's essential that they don't think they have enough up front defensively. They are good there, and at times they were great last season. But to be in that upper echelon, and that's where the Eagles need to be, they need another piece. Another piece, a very strong one, could lead this defense to greatness.

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