After an auspicious debut season for Jim Washburn, the Eagles defensive line is ready to take the next step after leading the league in sacks in 2011. Yesterday, we looked at what questions will dominate the preseason discussion of the defensive ends, and today we move inside to the guys who often do the dirty work and receive little credit for their integral role on the team – the defensive tackles. What's in store for the big guys as they head into training camp?
1. How Ready Is Mike Patterson?
Over the last eight seasons, perhaps no Eagle has been more dependable than Mike Patterson, who has played in 110 of a possible 112 games (including 99 starts) since coming into the league in 1995. Patterson won a starting job as a rookie and has never looked back, often being credited by head coach Andy Reid as one of the unsung heroes of the defense. At 6-1, 300, Patterson is generally considered to be one of the better defensive tackles in the league at holding the point of attack, but he was able to show his skills as a pass rusher too last season under Washburn, notching 2.5 sacks and 23 quarterback hurries, which ranked tied for seventh among NFL defensive tackles according to ProFootballFocus.
Of course, Patterson excelled last season on the heels of the scariest moment of his life, when he collapsed during last summer's training camp and had a seizure on the practice field. It was subsequently discovered that Patterson had been living and playing with a rare arteriovenous malformation (AVM) on his brain – a tangle of blood vessels. Doctors cleared Patterson to play in 2011, for which he was named the Eagles' 2011 Ed Block Courage Award winner in a vote by his teammates. In January, Patterson underwent surgery to rid himself of the AVM, leaving him fully cleared to continue his professional career. But Patterson was still recovering throughout the duration of the spring practices, and Reid said "There's a chance he's ready to go" for training camp. If Patterson is not quite ready for the start of training camp, opening the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list is an option, though the 28-year-old defensive tackle has said he doesn't believe it will come to that. In the interim, the questions will focus on who replaces Patterson's first-team reps on defense … which leads us to our second question.
2. How Ready Is Fletcher Cox?
The Eagles traded up three spots in April's NFL Draft for the right to select Cox, the athletically gifted former Mississippi State standout. Washburn is on record as saying that Cox, 6-4, 298, was "born to play in this system," and he'll certainly have an opportunity to make an immediate impact with the Eagles. With Patterson sidelined during the spring, Cox took the majority of the first-team reps alongside Cullen Jenkins, who signed a new contract with the Eagles himself this offseason.
Despite his pedigree as the 12th overall pick, Cox won't be counted on to be some kind of savior for the Eagles. The defensive tackle position is already crowded with good players, so Cox will be afforded time to develop at his own pace. But the Eagles expect Cox to be a game-changer down the road, so if the 21-year-old can begin that impact as a rookie, especially as a pass-rusher on passing downs, the Eagles will be very happy. Reid's notoriously difficult training camp will serve as a welcome to the NFL for Cox, after which he'll have a chance to prove himself in the preseason. With Patterson's status up in the air, how farfetched is the notion of Cox starting in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns? It may not be likely, but it's not off the table.
3. How Many Defensive Tackles Do The Eagles Need?
For almost all of last season, the Eagles kept four defensive tackles on the active roster. Patterson and Jenkins were the starters, along with the now departed Trevor Laws and, to begin the season, Antonio Dixon. When Dixon was lost for the year with a torn triceps, the Eagles brought back Derek Landri, who had impressed during training camp and the preseason with the Eagles before the final roster cutdowns. Landri impressed so much during his 12 games with the Eagles -- notching 2.0 sacks, 18 quarterback hurries and ranking as ProFootballFocus' fourth-best defensive tackle in the league – that he earned a new contract from the Eagles and re-signed with the team.
But with Cox taking the roster spot nominally filled by Laws, is there space for both Landri and Dixon, who was so impressive particularly as a run stopper in 2009 and 2010? Dixon took some time adjusting to Washburn's scheme last summer, but the 6-3, 322-pounder still has a lot of promise as a young defensive tackle. And then there's Cedric Thornton, whom the Eagles thought so much of that they kept him on the 53-man roster initially last September before carrying Thornton on the practice squad for the entire season (reportedly for more money than the minimum practice squad allotment, in order to keep Thornton in Philadelphia). At 6-4, 309, Thornton profiles as a pass-rushing defensive tackle, which is always music to Washburn's ears. Beyond those three, there are two undrafted rookies on the Eagles roster – 26-year-old Tevita Finau out of Utah, and 22-year-old Frank Trotter, Dontari Poe's former position mate at Memphis. As with Landri and Anthony Hargrove last summer, they too will have an opportunity to open some eyes during training camp. But how many inside guys can the Eagles afford to keep? That's one of the pressing questions heading into the next month and a half.
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