The first topic of conversation is, of course, Juan Castillo. A year ago he was the shocking choice to be the defensive coordinator after an outstanding coaching career along the offensive line. Andy Reid ripped apart his coaching staff and named Castillo the man to run the defense.
The Castillo now is a lot different than the one who, 12 months ago, was drawing up defenses on whiteboards and walking through schemes on the practice field using other coaches as players and trash cans as offensive sets.
Castillo has been through the ringer of a full season of coaching players he barely knew and who hardly knew him. He earned their respect by working hard and by improving his defense throughout the season. He has furthered the bond in this offseason, and so from a chemistry standpoint the defense will be much improved.
The truth is, Castillo has a lot at his disposal. The front four produced a league-high 46 quarterback sacks in 2011 and then went out and added tackle Fletcher Cox and end Vinny Curry in the draft. Add those two pieces to players like ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin and tackles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, and the Eagles have the makings of something special up front.
Line coach Jim Washburn ideally wants to rotate eight linemen in a game. He has the tools to do so. Inside, Jenkins and Patterson will team with Cox (if he cracks the rotation), Antonio Dixon and Derek Landri. On the edges, the Eagles are going to use Darryl Tapp, Phillip Hunt, Brandon Graham and Curry, depending on who earns playing time.
Another player in the mix is tackle Cedric Thornton, whom the Eagles felt strongly enough about last season to keep on the practice squad. He has promise.
The point is, the front four has a chance to be special. And if the front four is special, then the Eagles are going to accomplish a lot of things on defense. They're going to be dynamic. The concerns you have about, for example, the safety positions, are going to go away quickly if the front four puts pressure on the quarterback every time he drops back to pass.
Is it going overboard to suggest that the front four could be special? I don't think so. Babin made the Pro Bowl last season, has made it the last two years, in fact, and is perfect for what Washburn does up front. Cole is fresh and ready and has a new contract about which to feel great. Graham has a ton to prove now that he is healthy and in great shape. Curry is the young buck hoping to push for playing time. Tapp is a solid veteran who does things right on the field. And Hunt is an X-factor after impressing in his first NFL season. With some added weight and strength, he is ready to be a major force?
Inside, Jenkins would benefit from a few less snaps during the course of the season. He's a nasty, physical player who still has a lot of game in him. Patterson is healthy after his brain surgery. Dixon is in fantastic shape, motivated playing with a one-year contract, and ready to push for time. Cox, the analysts think, should be an immediate factor. Landri was only the most productive player imaginable in his limited reps in 2011.
Behind the front four, sure, there are questions. There are questions with every team and every defense. But I feel a lot better about the back seven now than I did a few months ago. The Eagles have since acquired middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, drafted SAM linebacker Mychal Kendricks and sorted out their sticky cornerback situation by trading Asante Samuel to the Falcons.
Figure on Ryans to be the man in the middle to provide both outstanding football at an important position but also great leadership on and off the field. That's what he does. That's who he is. This is a natural transition for Ryans, back into a familiar 4-3 alignment.
I can't tell you how it's going to work at the other linebacker spots, but with Kendricks, a more experienced Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews and having Jamar Chaney in one place, well, I expect big things from that group.
Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie provided a preview for this season with two terrific games to close out 2011. They are both big and rangy and will be versatile for Castillo and cornerbacks coach Todd Bowles. Who plays the nickel? The Eagles have some options with veteran Joselio Hanson and rookie Brandon Boykin. Not a bad place to start.
At safety, the Eagles think that a healthy Nate Allen is going to be ready to take the big step in his third season. Allen has all the tools for success and he has enjoyed a tremendous offseason. Same with Kurt Coleman, now healthy after biceps surgery, and second-year man Jaiquawn Jarrett, who has an important summer in front of him.
Are there questions about the defense? Of course. There are questions about every defense in every NFL city. The Eagles have more going for them then they have going against them on defense. This could be a great defense. Why not? With a front four that should be coming off the ball like gangbusters and a back seven that has some sanity, not to mention improved talent, the Eagles have the makings of a fantastic defense.
Take the positive view and understand what the Eagles have, rather than go the other way and dwell on what you think they need. The Eagles have a lot on their plate for 2012 with an improved coaching staff and better talent. The key is how the front four comes around and if it can be as dominating as it looks on paper.