Warning: Eagles’ Defensive Dominance may be Closer than it Appears

Kurt Coleman was a weak spot in the Eagles' secondary last season.Since the passing of beloved defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in 2008, there has yet to be an Eagles defensive unit worth boasting of. The 2012-2013 Eagles were no different from their underwhelming predecessors, and were a large part of the reason Philadelphia finished 4-12, bad enough for the fourth worst record in the NFL. As the draft draws near, the Eagles will have a chance to improve drastically, due to the fact that this year’s collegiate class shows much promise on the defensive side of the ball. Furthermore, Philadelphia will have plenty of cap room to work with, as GM Howie Roseman has cut much of the fat from the Eagles roster and washed his hands of the Birds ill advised spending spree in the 2011 free agency period.

Surprisingly enough, Philadelphia’s secondary was better than over half of the league last season. This surely comes as a surprise to Birds fans, as I myself probably developed an irregular heartbeat watching the likes of Kurt Coleman, Nate Allen, and Nnamdi Asomugha attempt to cover players well beyond their skill levels. On average, the Eagles secondary gave up just 216.9 yards per game through the air last season, good enough for 9th in the NFL. While this surely is a bright spot in an otherwise pitch dark season for Philadelphia, their high ranking in the secondary department, can be more attributed to their lack of run stop ability. The Birds finished just 23rd overall giving up an average of 126.3 yards per game on the ground, well below the league average. Furthermore, Philadelphia gave up 444 total points last year, tying them with the Jacksonville Jaguars for third worst in the NFL last season.

Do not fret Philadelphia, as abysmal as your Eagles were last season, a silver lining can be found in their playbook, and I don’t mean Bradley Cooper. Along with the departure of Andy Reid just after the season ended, Philadelphia also terminated the contract of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who took over for oft criticized, and misplaced defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. Former Browns Linebackers coach Billy Davis will take over for Bowels, and that change in power should result in a change in responsibility for the members of Philadelphia’s defense.

Chip Kelly and Billy Davis are expected to implement a scheme change, and walk away from the four down lineman set  used by Andy Reid‘s teams for over a decade. Time will tell if Billy Davis can be as successful as Jim Johnson was in Eagle green, but switching to a 3-4 or a hybrid of the 4-3 seems to be the next step for a 21 year NFL coaching veteran. Davis will surely bring along his 3-4 defense, as he helped implement it with Wade Phillips in Dallas, and turned Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into  a pro-bowler in Arizona. While this is purely speculation, the players currently on the Eagles defensive roster fit perfectly into a 3-4 set.

Lets start in the area that will be most affected by a scheme change on defense: the defensive line. For the past decade, the Eagles have run a defense with four down lineman, and three linebackers. Davis will implement the opposite of this scheme, and the change could be welcome for the Bird’s veterans. After Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins were released to make more cap room this past week, the defensive line starters become more clear. Trent Cole will resume his starting role at DE, and will be matched on the other side, presumably, by all-rookie DT and Eagles first round selection of a year ago, Fletcher Cox. Cox’s move to the outside will be augmented by the addition of  Antonio Dixon to the starting lineup as nose tackle, a position he was brought up playing at the University of Miami. Dixon would be an immovable force on the Bird’s defensive line, and keeping Fletcher Cox on the line as well, would make it exponentially more difficult for opposing teams to run up the middle on Philadelphia.

With only three down lineman, the Eagles linebackers will be all the more important to the integrity of the Eagles defense in the upcoming season. Former pro-bowler DeMeco Ryans led the team in tackles with 113, and will return in 2013-2014 as the Eagle’s defensive leader. Of the remaining defensive lineman, Brandon Graham seems to be the best fit to switch to outside linebacker in the upcoming year. Graham was the first round selection of the Eagles in 2010, but has often been the odd man out on the defensive line, and has spent the majority of the past two seasons riding the bench behind over hyped, and over paid Jason Babin, who was released mid season. Graham is 6’2″ and 280 lbs, and with his great outside speed, would be an excellent OLB in a 3-4 set. Mychal Kendricks should return as another linebacker for the Eagles in the upcoming year, as in his rookie season, Kendricks had 75 tackles, good enough for third on the team. That would leave the fourth and final LB position empty, and the void should be filled through the draft, which has a surplus of talent within the front seven, or through a very deep free agent class, which beings in March. If neither of these options seem viable to coach Kelly, Philadelphia could turn to former Oregon LB Casey Matthews,  or veterans Jamar Chaney or Akeem Jordan. While all three of these options seem to be a worse-case scenario,  Eagles fans would be happy with one of these three filling the last starting position if holes in the secondary were addressed with a big name free agent, like Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd.

Could just a simple scheme change be the answer to the Eagle’s defensive woes? Will Billy Davis have the ingenuity and expertise to build a winner on the defensive side of the ball? Will Nnamdi Asomugha restructure his contract, or pay the iron price and be released? Only time will tell the true answers to these, and many other questions surrounding the future of the Philadelphia Eagles, but one thing is for sure: if Davis and Kelly use the arsenal at their disposal to its utmost ability,  and can patch the secondary through free agency and the draft, Philadelphia’s defense should return to the ranks of the elite in 2013-2014.

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Benjamin Haley

Ben Haley is the Sports Director for 91.3 FM WVUD. Ben also serves as a sports broadcaster for the University of Delaware. . He is the main Philadelphia Eagles contributor for HighPhive.com! You can follow him on Twitter @BenHaley11.