Jim Johnson has his master plan tucked away in the notebook he has spiral bound and packed in the crate that says, Training Camp, Defense. Among the secret language of formations and audibles and all of the exotic blitzes in his arsenal, Johnson has visions of how it will all work: He is going to use everything he has up front, and let his defensive line create mismatches and havoc that open four-lane avenues to the quarterback.
This is where it all begins for Johnson's defense, and it is no revolutionary thought process. A couple of weeks before the full-scale workouts are rolling at Lehigh University, the defensive line is on my mind.
I've written before how the perspective here is that the defensive line will show up and be special. Certainly, the Eagles have had some great lines in their defensive history. They've had some great pass rushers, some good tackles, a good mix of pieces that fit within the scheme. This group, this early, has a really interesting, unique look to it. The Eagles have overhauled the defensive line since the Super Bowl season of 2004, and now they have a mix that brings with it great promise and a whole lot of responsibility.
It is no secret what the game plan here is: Win with speed. This isn't a big group. There aren't a lot of lard butts along the line. The Eagles don't have a 375-pound anchor inside to clog up the running lanes.
What they have is a group that, well, has to prove itself. The seams are bursting with possibilities, but we don't really know how, for example, newly-acquired end Chris Clemons is going to fit in or how draft picks Trevor Laws and Bryan Smith will mature as rookies. We have only a cursory idea of the kind of player Victor Abiamiri can be, and we have probably seen only a relative glimpse into the ceiling of ability for Brodrick Bunkley.
So what do we know?
A couple of things that are very, very promising. Trent Cole is an emerging end who deserved his Pro Bowl appearance last season. There is every reason to believe that Cole is as good as it gets in the NFL at his position. He plays with the heart of a lion and has the energy and motor of a desperate player who has everything on the line on every snap. Cole has arrived, and should be in the prime of his career for years to come.
We know that Juqua Parker is a good football player, a tough guy with good speed and great energy. We know that Parker -- as Juqua Thomas -- was more productive in a reduced role the last couple of seasons, and that he seemed to lose his edge just a bit with so many increased snaps in 2007.
We know that Mike Patterson is a good, solid player at tackle. He is durable, he is relentless and his performance last year was a big plus for a run defense that made a giant leap forward from the previous season. We know that Bunkley took an important step in his second NFL season, but for the defense to really advance Bunkley has to continue to step forward on a more consistent basis now. Right now.
We know that Clemons, after a breakout year in Oakland that followed years of injuries in Washington, is here to be a pass rusher. Maybe he plays more of an extended role. Maybe he is a third-down specialist. Maybe, maybe.
We know that Abiamiri played pretty well against Buffalo in the season finale in December and that he is a highly-considered prospect and that he is the largest of the ends here and that the Eagles are going to try to get him on the field in productive situations.
We know that Darren Howard has largely been a tease, maddeningly inconsistent and disappointing in his time here. Howard started like a big-time player in 2006 and then faded, faded and was simply not much of a presence in 2007. He is in great shape now, maybe the best of his life. What does that mean?
We know that Kimo von Oelhoffen is a veteran who is tough as nails. He is here to play in short-yardage situations and to help the Eagles bust some chops in the trenches.
What else? That players like Jerome McDougle are in training camp to make another run at a roster spot, that the Eagles have the youngsters they are counting on for a rotation they need to be deep.
Johnson's front seven is totally new since '04. Back then the Eagles relied on veterans like Jevon Kearse and Darwin Walker and Hollis Thomas Jeremiah Trotter and Johnson understood what he had from one game to the next. Johnson is going to learn as much as we will learn from one day to the next in training camp and then from one play to the next in the regular season. His linebackers are young and bright and athletic. There is no Trotter inside to whom the ball flowed in years past. Instead, the Eagles are counting on Stewart Bradley to blossom with his range, speed, physical nature.
How good can Bradley be if the play up front falters? Not good at all is the answer.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you how great the defensive line will be this season. I've done that in the past, with a moderate success rate. Kearse wasn't the player the Eagles wanted him to be. Howard hasn't lived up to his expectations. Those are two key players upon whom the Eagles relied in the past several seasons.
Instead, I'm just as curious as everyone about this line. It is as diverse a mix of players as I can remember being here. They have been acquired via free agency, the draft, off the scrap heap. The Eagles need the kids and the veterans to mature together, to be productive right off the bat. The competition in training camp should be outstanding as the Eagles juggle the idea of keeping nine or 10 linemen on the 53-man roster. Jobs are, pun intended, on the line here.
And when it is all said and done, and when Johnson assembles his defense together prior to the regular season, he hopes to have the group he thinks he has right now. Something really, really good. Deep. Talented. Fast. Tenacious.
You can talk all you want about the secondary and Lito Sheppard and Asante Samuel and Brian Dawkins and the young turks at linebacker. They are all vital pieces in Johnson's scheme and dream. Make no mistake about it, the line is where it all starts. Right now it is an incomplete picture, with six weeks to come together as one.