The investment along the defensive line for the Eagles has been admirable over the years, understandable and one that has, by and large, paid off. Whether it has been early draft picks or high-profile free agents or just plain luck that a late-round draft pick panned out to become one of the NFL's best, the Eagles have seen to it that their D line has been strong one year to the next.
But is it strong enough? And as we all focus on the changes the Eagles have already made, and ones they could make ahead for the offense, are we overlooking the bread-and-butter area on defense -- the line of scrimmage? I mean, would it surprise you, shock you, amaze you if the Eagles had a chance to grab a premier defensive lineman in the draft and took advantage?
It shouldn't, if you have been paying attention to Andy Reid's ways. And so while it isn't fashionable to suggest the Eagles will go defensive line early in April's proceedings, it may prove more likely than you think.
Why? Because you can never have enough good defensive linemen in this league. The Eagles were plenty good up front last year, ranking third in the NFL in sacks by their defensive line. They've been among the top teams in sack totals the last few seasons, and then last year the run defense caught up with the pressure package and the Eagles ranked third in total defense among the 32 teams.
It wasn't an accident. With a defense that returns 10 starters and is counting on some of its younger players to make an even greater impact in the season ahead, the immediate picture is a bright one for the defense and, yeah, for the guys up front.
They have a Pro Bowl player in right end Trent Cole, who produces with his numbers and who also opens so many things up for other players because he draws constant double-team blocking and because his effort is so great that he chases ball carriers into his teammates' waiting arms. Cole is a premier player, and he is the only player of that caliber among the ends on this team.
Oh, the Eagles are plenty good enough otherwise. Juqua Parker is a hustling veteran who has done a good job in this system. His downfall has been, and it has been noted many times in other circles, that Parker's sack totals have dropped dramatically during the course of a season. He has been good early and then his numbers have fallen. The remedy?
On one hand, it seems logical: Give Parker fewer reps and allow him to be fresher from week to week. It is a plan the Eagles used with great success for Darren Howard last year, and he was extremely productive with a team-high of 10 sacks. For the Eagles to reduce Parker's reps, it means somebody else has to step up.
That somebody could be third-year man Victor Abiamiri, who probably would have pushed Parker for a starting job last year had Abiamiri not suffered the wrist injury in the summer. The Eagles expect big things from Abiamiri, who must demonstrate that he can stay healthy, and then that he can be productive every game as an end and as a tackle.
The other factor here is Chris Clemons, who came on strong late in his first season with the Eagles. He has that requisite speed Jim Johnson likes off the edge, and Clemons can also line up in the "A" gap as a Joker in the team's Okie package.
Second-year man Bryan Smith was a third-round draft pick last season. He played nary a snap in the regular season. We know that Smith is up to about 245 pounds and that he came on strong at the end of the 2008 preseason and that he then watched an entire season go by. Is he ready to contribute?
See, the Eagles have a lot of players they like at end. They have a rejuvenated Howard to go along with Cole and Parker and Abiamiri and Clemons and Smith. They're all good players.
But what happens if the Eagles think they can get a great player? The answer is the Eagles have to take that player, then. No matter if it means they fall out of love with one of their current ends. Imagine how imposing this defense would be with a great pass-rushing threat added to what is already here? Scary-good is the way I see it.
Certainly, the Eagles are going to have their options with the 21st and 28th pick in the first round on April 25. There are some very good prospects at defensive end in this draft. And there are probably a handful of tackles who could challenge the trio of Mike Patterson, Brodrick Bunkley and Trevor Laws. The Eagles may just have to think long and hard about just how good they are up front when it comes their turn to draft.
It is a little unnerving, to be honest, thinking that the Eagles could be in position to take one of the top two or three defensive linemen off the board, or that they could put together a package and select an upper-tier defensive lineman. Memories of Jerome McDougle come flooding back. The Eagles gave up two draft picks to move up and draft McDougle in 2003 and he never became a productive player in his time here.
Truth is, it is probably a long shot that the Eagles drastically alter the look of their defensive line. They have a good group, young and talented and expected to be better this season than last.
But when you are a team with 12 draft picks, including two in the first round, you have to go into the weekend thinking that anything is possible and to step back and honestly evaluate what you have. That's where the Eagles stand now. This is a good football team already, with a defense that should be as good as any in the NFL. Still, you just know that Reid loves adding defensive linemen, because he understands how much of a difference they make.
The draft buzz is about the other side of the ball. What are the Eagles going to do at left tackle? Are they going to draft a running back? A tight end? A wide receiver? How much, though, is anybody talking about the defense?
Not much. Not much at all. And knowing the unpredictable nature of Reid and the Eagles on draft day, I'm not putting it past them to do something completely unexpected, like nab a player they think can be a premier addition to the defensive line. History tells you that the Eagles won't pass on a defensive end or a defensive tackle if they think he can help make a good group even better.