The rookies and selected veterans report to the NovaCare Complex a week from Monday for the start of Chip Kelly's first Training Camp as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. As part of our Training Camp preview, we are looking at the three biggest questions facing each position group. Here, the focus shifts to the defensive side of the football beginning with the defensive tackle position.
1. Are The Eagles Prepared To Play A Hybrid Front?
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis is going to run a hybrid scheme with a mixture of four-man fronts and three-man fronts. The Eagles were exclusively a 4-3 defense prior to Kelly's arrival in Philadelphia. The Eagles acquired some players prior to this offseason who are scheme versatile such as Fletcher Cox and Antonio Dixon. On the first day of free agency, the Eagles signed defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga, who at 6-2, 330 pounds, is ideal for occupying blockers in the middle of the line.
In fact, impressive size can be found up and down the depth chart at the defensive tackle position. Each of the defensive tackles on the Eagles' roster is listed over 300 pounds. Fan-Demonium columnist Tommy Lawlor did an outstanding job of extrapolating what that will mean for the Eagles.
Defensive line/assistant head coach Jerry Azzinaro was known for rotating his lineman while at Oregon and is expected to do the same in the NFL. Sopoaga, who is entering his 10th season, played 395 snaps last season per Pro Football Focus. He played 489 snaps in 2011. Sopoaga will bring passion and leadership to the defensive line, but others will have to contribute. As a rookie last year, Cox played 526 snaps per Pro Football Focus. There's Dixon who ascended to a starting role in his first tenure with the Eagles before being miscast to play in former defensive line coach Jim Washburn's system.
Cedric Thornton came on strong at the end of his first full season on the 53-man roster and is in position to start at end along with Cox when the Eagles show a 3-4 look. Thornton can slide inside when the Eagles go with four down linemen. Third-round pick Bennie Logan is another versatile piece who can play the nose and defensive tackle as well. Logan was a key cog on some very good LSU defenses and had no problem doing the dirty work while others cleaned up the accolades. That selfless mindset will benefit both he and the Eagles moving forward.
With the transition to a hybrid front, the interior of the defensive line is one of the key positions which must be addressed. The Eagles have pieces in place who should be able to make the transition a smooth one in 2013.
2. What Will Year Two Bring For Fletcher Cox?
Unfortunately, the Eagles learned just how valuable Cox was when he wasn't on the field as a rookie in 2012. Cox started nine of his 15 appearances after being the No. 12 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. He led all Eagles defensive linemen with 65 tackles and had 24 quarterback hurries. He was tied for the team lead with 5.5 sacks which was tied for fifth among all rookies and also among all NFL defensive tackles.
Cox's play was a bright spot for the Eagles as he was named to the Pro Football Writers Association's All-Rookie Team. Cox thrived as a rookie despite dealing with family tragedy off the field and the struggles of the team overall on the field. Cox won't turn 23 years old until December. He is slated to play end in the 3-4 look and can move inside when the Eagles go 4-3.
General manager Howie Roseman raved about his ability to play strong against the run as a rookie. Cox has shown he can play on the other side of the field. Cox took a very workmanlike approach to the offseason and has full understanding of what's expected thanks to that whirlwind first year of experience.
The success of the Eagles defense in 2013 will depend on how well Cox performs whether in the middle of the line or on the edge.
3. Is Antonio Dixon Ready To Bounce Back?
One of the most inspiring stories on the Eagles' roster, Antonio Dixon utilized his raw power and strength and earned playing time as a rookie in 2009 which became a starting job in 2010. When the Eagles transitioned to a more upfield, attacking style of line play in 2011, Dixon wasn't a fit. He returned late last season and is in prime position to fulfill his potential once again in Davis' new scheme.
As pointed out earlier, the Eagles will rotate their linemen. It remains to be seen how often the Eagles will utilize each front, but they will need depth at both the nose and defensive tackle. Dixon earned plenty of reps in the spring camps. The question is can he regain the spark that he had as a player on the rise in 2010 or will Logan have to pick up the slack?
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