INDIANAPOLIS -- Entering the 2013 NFL Draft, it was known that the Eagles were going to make the transition from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 scheme. The Eagles were aware that they had to add pieces to the puzzle, but an even bigger mystery was how would the current players adjust? Would Fletcher Cox thrive as a 3-4 end? Could Trent Cole stand up at linebacker after eight seasons with his hand in the dirt?
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis' unit endured its share of growing pains, but made huge strides throughout the course of the season. At one point, the Eagles allowed fewer than 22 points in nine straight games. Timely turnovers helped seal victories including the NFC East championship over the Dallas Cowboys.
"A tremendous job and to (Davis') credit it continued to get better throughout the course of the year as the players picked up the scheme," lauded general manager Howie Roseman on Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "We're still building. We're still trying to get the right combination throughout our football team. That's our whole offseason. We have to get better. We have to get better players and continue to do the right things because we want to be a team that competes year after year. Doing things that are shortcuts probably aren't in the cards for us."
There is still room for improvement, but also plenty of reason for optimism. The Eagles can attack this offseason with a year's worth of game tape to evaluate. There are also young pieces who contributed immediately such as rookie nose tackle Bennie Logan, who had 43 tackles and two sacks.
"We think Bennie did a tremendous job as a rookie," Roseman said. "He's very strong, athletic. He's got a very bright future."
Logan is an interesting case study for the Eagles as they evaluate the free agent and draft prospects. The coaching staff provides a list to the scouting department of measurables and abilities that would be ideal for fulfilling specific roles. Logan is listed at 6-foot-2, which is an inch or two shorter than the norm, but his long arms give him a wingspan of someone who is 6-foot-4.
At the second level of the defense, the Eagles will look for a way to generate more of a pass rush next season. Cole finished the season with eight sacks to lead the team, with all of the quarterback takedowns coming in the second half of the season. Free agent addition Connor Barwin was second with five sacks and was the sparked that made the defense "go," according to Davis. Only one other outside linebacker had a sack and that was Brandon Graham, who had three.
"You look for people who can play on their feet, who can move, who can play in space who are strong enough to set the edge," Roseman said of what he looks for in pass rushers. "Ideally, you'd love to have 6-foot-4 guys who are 255 pounds, who have 35-inch arms, who have 10-1/8" hands and who run 4.55 (in the 40-yard dash). But there's not a lot of those in the National Football League, let alone the world."
The Eagles used free agency to remodel the cornerback position last offseason by adding starters Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. Roseman said the acquisitions aided in the defense's transition.
"We went into last offseason wanting to get size, length, ball skills, tackling at the cornerback position and I think both of those guys did a really good job," he said.
Nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin was sensational in the slot as he led the team with six interceptions as each one proved to be bigger than the prior one. In addition, Roseman acknowledged that Boykin is one of the best special teams gunners in the NFL. Even though Boykin's performance merits consideration for time on the outside, Roseman is quick to point out the importance of his current role.
"When you talk about the nickel position and the offenses in the National Football League, they're playing 60-65 percent of the plays. It's hard to find that role. That is a specialty role that's hard to find," Roseman said. "He has a big role on our team. He's a player who is going to continue to grow and get better."
The picture at safety is not as clear. Two players with starting experience in Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman are scheduled to become free agents. Rookie Earl Wolff showed promise before missing a lot of time in the second half of the season with a knee injury. Roseman said that the team can't afford to "force things."
"You can't make something that's not there. I think we've all seen the lessons learned from that. If you do that, you're going to make a huge mistake. Sometimes the option is just to get through the moment and do some stopgap things. I'm not necessarily saying that's what we have to do at a particular position, but when you look at the teams that have won the championships over the past couple of years they're not perfect at 22 spots. I think it's a big difference about having a weakness at a particular position as opposed to being solid and getting through," Roseman said.
"You're going to compound the problem because you're either going to put money or picks into it and you're still not going to have the right answer. We've got to find the right answers."
The Eagles defense made tremendous strides, but this is the time of the year to improve. And the Eagles have a beautiful opportunity if they can "find the right answers."