*Welcome to The Big Question. Every Monday during the offseason, Dave Spadaro, Chris McPherson and Bo Wulf will debate one of the hot topics surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles. We invite fans to continue the discussion in the comments section. Enjoy ... *
CM: Two weeks ago, we took a big-picture look at the entire team. Last Monday, the offense was in the spotlight. It's only fitting that we turn our attention to the defense with this simple, yet profound question – what is the next step for coordinator Bill Davis' unit in 2015?
DS: We're already seeing changes, as Cory Undlin has been hired as the defensive backs coach. It's the first of what is likely to be many changes in the months ahead. The defense needs to be a lot better and the Eagles know it. The real question is this: Can the Eagles solve all of their needs in a single offseason? The defensive line is good and talented and deep and that's an area to build around. And linebackers Connor Barwin and Mychal Kendricks are terrific. Trent Cole still has a lot of football in him. Safety Malcolm Jenkins added a lot of stability in the secondary. After that? Questions. Concerns. Needs. Can the Eagles find the solution at inside linebacker if DeMeco Ryans doesn't come all the way back after tearing his Achilles tendon? Can the secondary improve and limit the number of "X" plays allowed? Do the Eagles challenge the personnel at cornerback and at the safety spot opposite Jenkins? Does coordinator Bill Davis tweak the scheme? I see a lot of potential changes, but it's not easy to find those premier players at positions that nearly every team needs.
CM: I think the defense has evolved over the past two seasons. First, it was the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Last year, the front seven became very good with a young, outstanding defensive line. That being said, everyone wants to know what will happen to improve those "X" plays that Dave mentioned. Chip Kelly and Bill Davis have a better understanding of what they are looking for at each position. Dave also noted the hire of Cory Undlin and he will be tasked of sorting out if he can mine some of the talent that's already on the roster.
We still have to wait a while to see who exactly is going to shake free to hit the open market this offseason. The Eagles made the right call last March when it came to safety Malcolm Jenkins. Right now, fans want to see early draft picks used in the secondary. You have to be cautious looking at an early-round pick, especially in the secondary, stepping in and being a "savior" of sorts.
I don't want to see the front seven ignored in the process. Where does last year's first-round pick Marcus Smith II fit into the big picture? Brandon Graham is a pending free agent. Dave, you mentioned the DeMeco injury. I wonder how much that impacted what Davis was able to do from a game plan standpoint down the stretch? Would the dime subpackage been as prevalent? Casey Matthews is a free agent-to-be, does he come back? What will Najee Goode's return from injury mean? Up front, does Taylor Hart break into the rotation next season and challenge for serious playing time?
It's going to be a different team. You can't just count on the fact that the front seven was good last year that it'll be the same next season.
DS: I think you CAN count on the front being better than it was in 2014, actually. Fletcher Cox is just hitting his prime. Bennie Logan should be that next young defensive lineman to play at a Pro Bowl level. Cedric Thornton is right there, too. The coaches have spoken highly of Hart, so he'll have a chance to earn some time. Beau Allen should be a factor, too. I think having Barwin in his third year in the scheme will only help him, and Kendricks is a standout who will only improve with his comfort in the scheme.
I know that many fans want to change out the secondary - both cornerbacks and a safety - but it's not that easy. I wonder if Brandon Boykin could get some time outside at cornerback if Jaylen Watkins shows he can play the nickel position. I still think Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher can be productive if they are given some help and not asked to cover so much in space without a safety over the top. Nate Allen had his most productive season in 2014.
That's not to say I'm suggesting the Eagles keep the status quo. They want to challenge every position. I'm just saying that it's not going to be a simple snap of the fingers in free agency or the draft.
BW: If there's one thing I learned attending the Royal Rumble in Philadelphia last night, it's that good defensive linemen can only take you so far. With Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan playing the role of Brock Lesnar and Dwayne Johnson, the Eagles are, as you guys outlined above, in good shape up front. And it's no secret that the secondary was the defense's weakest unit in 2014. At this point, the cornerbacks have, unfairly, become as maligned in some part of the fan base as Roman Reigns. OK, enough of the wrestling analogies.
With regard to the "X" plays and the needed improvement therein, we've all heard many times how everything on defense works in concert with each other. A good pass rush improves the secondary and vice versa. But it's hard to really fault the pass rush when it comes to those "X" plays, given that they finished tied for second in the league with 49 sacks. So it's no surprise that all eyes then are on the secondary. Like Chris, I don't think the Eagles will rely on a draft pick to come in to make an immediate difference as a starter in year one. The NFL Draft, to me, is for stocking the talent cupboard for the future. If the Eagles want to fill an immediate hole, they will either do that through free agency or internally.
That's why I find Dave's mention of Boykin interesting. The "will he or won't he" question about Bill Davis moving Boykin outside has become tiresome, but if it's ever going to happen, now is the time. Sure, Boykin was not quite as outstanding in 2014 as he was in 2013, but I imagine he deserves a shot on the outside this offseason. And while his 5-foot-9 frame is a negative, it's worth noting that Cory Undlin helped Chris Harris, all of 5-foot-10, be a successful starter for the Broncos over the last two seasons.
DS: Let's throw this in: How much does Bill Davis tweak his scheme? He knows he has the horses up front to be physical against the run and the pass rush tied for second in the NFL in quarterback sacks in 2014, so maybe the Eagles think they can change up the coverage combinations and cut down on the big passing plays allowed. Is that possible?
CM: Certainly, that's possible, and Davis definitely added to the scheme from 2013. We learned after that first year that the defense had to be very vanilla early on as the players got more comfortable with the scheme. Getting Jenkins in free agency allowed Davis to be more flexible last season. There will probably be more of that this offseason. Getting or developing the talent that will give Davis more creative freedom.
I know we've harped on the "X" plays quite a bit here, but here's another stat that must be addressed. The Eagles faced a league-high 95 third-and-long (more than 10 yards) situations last season, but allowed the eighth-highest conversion percentage. Twenty-two times the Eagles surrendered a first down in such instances and I haven't done the math, but I wonder how many of those drives resulted in points.
DS: I'm sure the Eagles will add to the defense. They need an answer at inside linebacker, and they have to figure if Brandon Graham, a pending unrestricted free agent, returns. What role does Trent Cole play in the plans? Is Marcus Smith II going to be counted on to contribute in his second season?
As for the cornerbacks, yes, the Eagles will likely look for upgrades. Same at safety. My bottom line is this, though: As much as it is important to challenge the personnel, the same applies for the X's and O's. I think the Eagles can improve the defense greatly in the months ahead through a combination of personnel and playbook. It's going to be very, very interesting to see how the team approaches that side of the football.
BW: I too am curious as to what Davis will focus on in adjusting his scheme this offseason. From 2013 to 2014, the defense improved from 23rd in the league according to Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA to 10th. Over that time, the pass rush obviously improved (from 37 sacks to 49), as did the defense's ability to force fumbles (from 11 to 20). At the same time, the "X" plays suffered (broken record, I know). The third-down defense got better (from 24th in the league in 2013 to 13th in 2014) but the red zone defense suffered (from 12th to 23rd). All of which is to say that the big questions facing Davis this offseason are above my pay grade. I can't say exactly what Davis will focus on in molding the defense in his third season in charge, but after the improvement made by the defense last season, I trust that he's the right man to make those decisions.