The case can be made pretty easily that the most successful position group for the Eagles in 2011 was the defensive ends. Jason Babin set a career high with 18 sacks, backed up by Trent Cole's 11. The defensive ends racked up 35 sacks in total for a defensive line that led the entire league in sacks (Cole and Darryl Tapp also ranked near the top of run-stopping defensive ends according to ProFootballFocus). The good news is that the Eagles' defensive ends can get even better, with four players who accounted for 33.5 of those 35 sacks returning, bolstered by a healthy Brandon Graham and second-round pick Vinny Curry. So what's in store?
1. Will Trent Cole Win Back Bragging Rights?
Cole and Babin are good friends who both enjoy hunting in the offseason and on the field during gamedays. In fact, Babin name checked Cole as one of the reasons he chose to return to Philadelphia last summer (though Jim Washburn deserves the lion's share of that credit). Before joining forces with Washburn in Tennessee prior to the 2010 season, Babin had never surpassed 5.0 sacks in a season. By comparison, in Cole's seven-year career, the only time he failed to notch at least 8.0 sacks was his rookie season when recorded 5.0 of his own. But since 2010, only DeMarcus Ware (35.0) and Jared Allen (33.0) have more sacks than Babin's 30.5. Cole "only" has 21.0 sacks over the last two seasons, but after receiving an extension this offseason, he's set his sights on bragging rights with Babin.
Of course, playful rivalry aside, Cole and Babin form one of the most feared pass-rushing duos in the league. Cole is also one of the best in the league in defending the run, having ranked as the very best 4-3 run-defending defensive end in the league in both 2009 and 2010, according to ProFootballFocus. As long as both stay healthy, opposing offensive tackles figure to have their hands full all season long.
2. What Can A Healthy Brandon Graham Do?
It's easy to forget, following his injury-wiped-out 2011 season, that Graham was promising during his rookie season in 2010. The former first-round pick, whom the Eagles traded up to select, had 3.0 sacks and 26 quarterback hurries in 2010 – promising numbers for a rookie. Consider that Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants, to whom Graham is often compared because of their draft proximity, had 4.0 sacks and only 16 quarterback hurries as a rookie, only to break out in 2011. But then Graham tore his ACL late in the '10 season and never fully recovered to contribute in '11, after opening the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
Now, Graham is fully healthy and coming off a productive offseason during which he re-shaped his body to a toned 6-2, 265. He's also plenty motivated by the too-early talk that he might be a “bust,” though he's acknowledged this is put-up-or-shut-up type of season for the former Michigan captain. With Cole and Babin ahead of him, Graham won't be counted on to lead the league in sacks. But as a member of Washburn's defensive line rotation, Graham will have every opportunity to make a positive impact for the Eagles.
3. How Many Ends Can Stick?
The Eagles have the luxury of a deep crop of defensive ends, how many can the team afford to keep? As the team prepares to eventually whittle down the roster to 53 players, one has to wonder how many defensive ends a team needs. Last year, there were five (Cole, Babin, Phillip Hunt, Darryl Tapp and Juqua Parker) for most of the season, until Graham's PUP return made for six. With Parker gone, the Eagles have added promising second-round pick Vinny Curry, 6-3, 266. The 2011 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year at Marshall, Curry profiles as the kind of player who could make an immediate impact.
Tapp, 27, is as steady as they come and provides the most veteran presence beyond the starters. He's also a good run defender, which will help his chances of remaining on the roster. But pass rushing is where defensive ends make their money, and the Eagles have another promising pass rusher in Phillip Hunt, the former Canadian Football League sack champion who finished his first NFL season strong with two sacks over the final four games for the Eagles in 2011. Hunt was recently tabbed as one of the 25 best prospects in the NFL by Football Outsiders, who wrote "In limited time, Hunt had two sacks, 6.5 hurries, four quarterback hits and drew two holding flags … He's a good power and leverage guy, and he's flashed a bit as an inside crasher."
So the competition for a coveted roster spot will be intense, with rookie Monte Taylor a longshot but also in the mix. The Eagles showed last season they could carry six defensive ends on the roster, but a deep group of defensive tackle also figures into the mix since players like Cullen Jenkins can play end in a pinch. As such, training camp will be of plenty importance for the Eagles defensive ends.
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