It was all set up so perfectly for Trent Cole as he entered his eighth season in the NFL. The scheme was one year older and, in theory, the fearsome defensive front four would be that much better after fine-tuning some technique issues and having an infusion of youth -- top draft picks Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry -- add depth and speed.
In 2011, Cole and fellow defensive end Jason Babin combined for 29 quarterback sacks, ranking them second among all-time Eagles duos (Reggie White and Clyde Simmons were first, 33, in 1992). The two would come back with even greater ferocity in 2012, and possibly even greater numbers. It just seemed like the perfect stage.
As we know, though, that stage crumbled amid a myriad of defensive problems. The front four struggled to generate pressure on the quarterback. Babin was released late in the season. Line coach Jim Washburn was fired shortly thereafter.
And Cole? He kept plugging along, working hard, playing with his usual great effort. But the stat sheet didn't reflect the kind of production the Eagles were used to receiving from Cole, who had reached double digits in sacks in three straight years prior to 2012 and whose four seasons with 10-plus sacks rank second only to White in franchise history.
Three quarterback sacks, and only 1 1/2 in the final 13 games for a man who ranks third behind White and Simmons on the all-time Eagles quarterback sack list? Just 38 quarterback hurries for a stud who started all 16 games?
What happened to Cole? What happened to this defense?
More important as team looks ahead, how much do the Eagles think Cole has left as they eye changes to the defense in 2013?
As we mull the Eagles of the present and the future and gauge just how much re-tooling this roster needs, Trent Cole's name as to be one of the most pressing at the top of the list. He isn't just any ordinary player on this defense. Cole has been a linchpin of production for years since the Eagles smartly used a fifth-round draft pick on him and then developed him from a 235-pound 'tweener to a 270-pound rock of a man at right defensive end.
Cole's rep, well earned, is one of a warrior on the football field who exhausts every ounce of energy and effort on every play. He is in the mold of former Eagle Hugh Douglas, a fighter on every play who finds a way to beat his man -- often, in fact, two men -- on the path to the quarterback.
Defensive ends, though, are a tricky breed to project. We've seen it many times as the Eagles have used high draft picks through the decades on defensive ends, only to see those players achieve varying degrees of success. Cole is one who made it in the NFL and stayed at a high level and now, as his ninth season waits in the distance, is a huge, very important question mark that needs to be answered the right way.
What if, the thinking goes from this perspective, the Eagles want to move to a 3-4 defense from what they've been running, the 4-3 front? Instead of putting his hand on the ground and emerging from the snap of the ball from a three-point stance, Cole would be asked to line up in space outside the tackle box as a rush linebacker.
It's something that Cole performed with great effectiveness in his college days at Cincinnati and the truth is that many projected him as a 3-4 rush linebacker in the pre-draft evaluations of 2005.
Said Si.com of Cole prior to that draft: "Undersized collegiate defensive end who projects to linebacker in the NFL. Plays with leverage keeping his pads low to the ground, displays explosion and moves well laterally. Rarely off his feet, fluid changing direction and has the ability to immediately alter his angle of attack. Pursues from the backside or comes off the edge with speed."
Cole has dropped in coverage many times over the years and he's done a good job in the occasional zone scheme. Now, though, the consideration is how he would perform on a full-time basis.
How effective would Cole be as a rush linebacker, at 270 pounds, at the age of 30 (31 in October)? You know how the NFL feels about players on the other side of 30 years old, no matter how superbly conditioned they are and no matter how hard they work or how technically sound they may be. In many circles, 30 is the age of concern in the NFL.
Even if the Eagles stay in their base 4-3, would they still see Cole as the cornerstone of the defensive line? How much of Cole's drop in production, as Chip Kelly and his coaching staff review the tapes of the 2012 season, is explainable and correctable?
The Eagles have some young and promising pieces to work with along their defensive front. They've invested high draft picks and free-agency dollars and trade assets to bolster the line over these last many years. The front four was seen as a strength heading into 2012, and the startling drop in production was a mystery to all.
It's fair to say, then, as the Eagles go through the process of evaluating their existing personnel and mulling scheme strategies that how they view Cole will play strongly into the direction they take in the offseason as far as free agency, the draft and the possibility of changing to a 3-4 front.