The Eagles have already made a flurry of moves this offseason. As general manager Howie Roseman said earlier this week, re-signing players like Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper and extending the contracts of Jason Peters and Jason Kelce came first on the Eagles' offseason to-do list. The front office wanted to keep their offensive core intact, and with good cause. The unit ranked top-five in the league in yards per game (417.3), yards per play (6.3) and points per game (27.6).
But what about the defense?
While the Eagles elected to address their offense by keeping players in-house, the team looked beyond the walls of the NovaCare Complex to help fill some holes on defense as well as special teams. Cornerback Nolan Carroll, safety Chris Maragos and linebacker Bryan Braman were all brought in to Philadelphia to add depth, but the first big move made by the team to bolster the defense was the signing of safety Malcolm Jenkins. For Kelly, Roseman and the rest of the Eagles personnel staff, Jenkins was priority No. 1. A versatile, intelligent safety with experience at cornerback, Jenkins agreed to terms with the Eagles just a few hours into free agency, much to Kelly's delight.
"We looked at everybody," Kelly explained on Wednesday morning at the annual Owners Meetings in Orlando. "I don't think we just said, 'Hey, we looked at one guy.' We did an extensive study, our coaches and personnel department, on everybody that's available and we all felt that when it came down to it that Malcolm was the best fit for what we do defensively and we were excited to get him. He was our number one guy that we went after and we got the number one guy we wanted."
Why was Jenkins the No. 1 target for the Eagles?
"There were a lot of things that went into it, but I think he's a former corner, I think his ability to be a free safety and a strong safety, his ability to cover, his football IQ - those are all factors that kind of led him to be our number one guy that we were going after," Kelly said.
The addition of Jenkins, Carroll and Maragos, along with the re-signing of Nate Allen, has helped shore up the Eagles secondary. Another way that the Eagles can help the secondary is through the pass rush. The Eagles finished with 37.0 sacks in 2013 (20th in the NFL), yet Kelly explained that he is optimistic about an improvement in 2014.
"I think our pass rush got better as our players got better, just like I think our defense got better at the end of the year than it was at the beginning of the year," Kelly said. "So I think our players will continue to improve. We're excited about where we are as a defense going into year two, in terms of those guys having a wealth of knowledge and understanding what we're doing. But can we improve our pass rush? Yeah."
With that said, Kelly also explained that finding a pass rusher who fits into a defensive scheme, specifically through the draft, is not always an easy task.
"The problem, or the issue when you're dealing with that, is sometimes its projection," Kelly said. "Guys were 4-3 defensive ends, but you're projecting them to be stand-up guys. There are some guys in the draft who you've already seen stand up, some of the higher guys in the draft, you've seen it. They've played stand-up. I think there are probably 12 to 15 teams in the NFL that play a 3-4, so you can kind of see it a little bit better here in terms of what we're doing. You're starting to see it a little bit more in college, but it's a cycle. All of a sudden, more teams are going back to 3-4 then more teams are going back to more 4-3. It just kind of goes back and forth."
By no means is the Eagles defense for the upcoming season set in stone. Offseason workouts, mini-camps, OTAs and Training Camp still lie ahead, not to mention the draft, giving the coaching staff ample opportunities to evaluate where the defense stands. But according to Kelly, that's what makes the start of a new season worth the wait - you never know what, or who, will surprise you once the players are back in town.
"I'm excited about a lot of those guys, but the great thing about our situation is until I see them on (April) 21, I may not be as excited as I was, then there's going to be somebody else and you're like, 'Holy smokes, this guy really had an unbelievable offseason. Look at him right now,'" Kelly said. "And it was the same way for me in college, when you get there – we weren't allowed to be with our players in the summer – so when you come back for year two and the kid's a sophomore, you're like, 'Wow, he had a real good offseason.' All of a sudden, when does the light go on? For young players, you're not sure where he is.
"But I think from a character standpoint and a work-ethic standpoint, there are a lot of those young guys that you're excited to see what they can do. What's Najee (Goode) like when we have a full year with him? We didn't get him until towards the end. What's Travis Long, who was on our practice squad? What's Brandon Bair? Those guys that showed glimpses and hints, and now they have a legitimate shot."