We love to talk about flashy running backs, speedy receivers, star quarterbacks, and playmaking defensive backs, but football is a physical game that is ultimately decided in the trenches. You must have a good offensive and defensive line if you want to have real success. There are some teams that have a good year here and there with mediocre lines, but title contenders need to be strong up front.
The Eagles addressed the offensive line. They kept all their veteran players. They re-signed Stefen Wisniewski and added Chance Warmack. I think you can make a legitimate case that the Eagles have the deepest line in the entire NFL. The skill players on offense have to be excited about getting to play behind this deep, talented group.
There is some work to be done on the defensive line. The Eagles released veteran defensive end Connor Barwin and need to add a pass rusher to the mix. Bennie Logan signed with the Chiefs, so there is going to be change at the defensive tackle spot. There is no need to panic. The Eagles have a good core of players, but they want to get deeper. They need to get better.
Logan's departure appears to leave more of a hole. The Eagles like Beau Allen and he could take the starting role. Allen made a smooth transition to the 4-3 scheme and proved to be a valuable backup last season. He won't have the job handed to him. Allen will have to earn it. Destiny Vaeao will be in his second year and that's the time when players generally make the biggest jump of their career. Vaeao flashed good potential as a rookie and could develop into a solid role player, if not something beyond that. The team signed Justin Hamilton to come in and compete for a roster spot. He's been in the league for a couple of years, but hasn't played in a regular season game.
There are still some free agents who could be of interest. Johnathan Hankins is the top defensive tackle still on the market. He's looking for a major payday and is probably out of the Eagles' price range. The longer he goes unsigned, however, the more he might be willing to sign a one-year deal with lots of incentives. The Eagles might be able to fit such a contract under the cap. We'll have to wait and see what happens there.
Roy Miller is a player I've always liked. He unfortunately tore his Achilles during the 2016 season and was recently cut by the Jaguars. Miller won't cost much and would pair well with Fletcher Cox on the inside. His injury status certainly makes him a tough evaluation. Sen'Derrick Marks is another former Jaguar on the market. He had 3.5 sacks last year and 8.5 in 2014. Jim Schwartz loves pass rushers, so you know he'd be at least interested in a veteran like Marks.
The Eagles might decide that the best course of action is focusing on the draft first and then looking for a free agent if things don't fall as they hope. This isn't a great group of defensive tackles, but there are some players who the Eagles will like. I think Montravius Adams from Auburn would be an excellent fit in this defense. He is powerful enough to stuff the run and athletic enough to be a disruptive force. Elijah Qualls from Washington is really interesting. He has a nose tackle build at 6-1 and 313 pounds, but is deceptively athletic. Jaleel Johnson from Iowa had 7.5 sacks in 2016, an outstanding total for an interior rusher. He is 316 pounds and would be a good mid-round target.
Remember that you don't have to spend a first-round pick to find a good player. Logan was a third-round pick back in 2013. The Eagles got Allen in the seventh round. Vaeao was a rookie free agent.
It will be very interesting to see what the Eagles do at end. Brandon Graham is coming off the best season of his career, but he is about to turn 29. Vinny Curry came off the bench last year, but could take Barwin's place this season. He will turn 29 in the spring, so neither of the ends is a young guy. Marcus Smith had the best season of his young career and could get better. You can't count on that, though. Steven Means got on the field last year and showed some ability, but he looks like a rotational player at this point.
The Eagles could use a young pass rusher with serious ability, so I doubt they will make a key move in free agency. They could sign someone to add to the rotation, but I think the team will spend an early draft pick on a pass rusher. That is obviously contingent on the right player being available. Howie Roseman pointed out this offseason that the team has to learn from previous draft-day mistakes. They can't force a pick just because of need. They have to draft the best players.
Because pass rushers are so critical in today's NFL, this is a spot where the Eagles could use a first-round pick, even with Graham and Curry already in place. Derek Barnett broke Reggie White's sack record at Tennessee and projects to be a mid-first-round pick. He is a terrific edge rusher. Barnett would be an excellent fit in the Eagles' defense. Unlike defensive tackle, the edge rusher group is loaded. There are a lot of really good players for the Eagles to target beyond the first round.
Jordan Willis had a good career for Kansas State and then a great showing at the Combine. He could be a second-round choice. I love Tanoh Kpassagnon, the huge defensive end from Villanova. He has a rare combination of size and athleticism. Kpassagnon has special potential. Carl Lawson had nine sacks for Auburn last year. He does an excellent job of mixing speed and power. Beyond that, there are still plenty of talented prospects. Daeshon Hall, Tarell Basham, Derek Rivers, and Keionta Davis are some good mid-round prospects the Eagles could have interest in. The Eagles should be able to find a talented pass rusher in this draft.
The Eagles got good line play at times in 2016, but it needs to be better moving forward. The offensive line is deep and talented. The defensive line has key pieces in place, but needs a few more weapons. If the Eagles can find the right players, they could be even stronger up front in 2017.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.