Philadelphia Eagles Round Table Discussion: The Defense

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Monday after the Super Bowl! Now that the 2012 football season is officially over, we can turn the page to 2013. Not that we hadn't already. This week's round table discussion features four new guest writers, each answering three questions about the immediate future of the Philadelphia Eagles defense.

Close to 40 people responded to my round table application article, and I was so inspired by the level of interest that I decided I wanted to give everyone a chance to contribute. In order to make that happen, I'll be sitting out some of the articles. This is one of those times. Now, introducing James (@JeromesFriend), Joshua (@The_Reddgie), Ted (BGN name -- EaglefaninVA) and Anthony (BGN name -- redfireant).

1) With all the speculation that the Eagles will switch to a 3-4, what are your feelings on a potential move? Does it excite you, make you nervous, both? How do you feel about the Eagles beginning to follow the trend that defenses in the NFL are evolving into hybrid schemes with interchangeable front sevens?

James (@JeromesFriend): The 3-4 speculation does excite me somewhat, but not in the manner it would most. Chip Kelly has clearly stated that he is not a system guy, so for this reason I think the 4-3/3-4 debate is irrelevant. It appears to me that the Eagles will most likely feature a bit of both, and more, in order to confuse offenses. How cool would it be if the defensive unit opened the 2013 season with a 46 defense on first down, a traditional 4-3 formation on second, followed by a 3-4 on third? I don't know if "hybrid" would be the word to describe this type of defense (though an interchangeable front seven would be required, given the speed with which the offense will play). Maybe "transmutative" is better? Kelly's defense could be the "Mystique" of the NFL, morphing dangerously into whatever the situation calls for.

What really excites me about the potential of the Eagles defense is Kelly's role in offensive innovation. If Kelly has the intelligence to create a spread option offense used to attack current football defenses, then I bet he has some ideas on "read-option defenses" to counteract. Kelly's one overarching philosophy is "Play fast, play hard, and finish." It's how the Eagles defense will play within this philosophy that I look forward to most.

Joshua (@The_Reddgie): I would call the move to a 3-4 an exciting and necessary endeavor, with a small side of trepidation. It would be easy to look at last year's underwhelming 4-3 defense and say to one's self, "This shit needs to go", but we owe it to ourselves to explore the reasons for the collapse. The defense was obliterated from within by a combination of the Hillbilly Ignoramus's highly vulnerable Wide 9 and safety play that was so ineffective and inept that it pretty much negated the fact that we had Pro Bowl CBs in our secondary. However, as horrendous and hard to watch as the defense was for most of the year, it showed marked improvement over the last two games. Now, regardless of why they played better and whether it was an aberration or signs of a turnaround, I want absolutely nothing to do with it. I would hope we have learned our lesson when it comes to hollow, end-of-the-year "success." However, as with any change, there is always a cloud of uncertainty and questions that follow: Will it work? If so, how long is it going to take to be successful? What if we are making a mistake? Regardless of any uncertainty, this is a change that needs to happen.

With the hire of Chip Kelly and the seemingly organizational-wide changes that are underway, it would seem as if Serendipity has stepped in and waved her magic wand -- now is the absolutely perfect time to switch to a 3-4. It seems lately that the majority of successful teams in the league have incorporated some sort of hybrid philosophy into their defensive schemes. As such, it is also time for the Eagles to get on board with a defensive front that can adapt to each opponent's offensive strengths while also presenting the opposing offense with looks that will be harder to analyze at the LOS.

If you think about it, offenses in the league nowadays have been evolving, moving towards highly adaptable, multi-dimensional, non-traditional fronts and looks that have outgrown the 4-3's ability to contain them*. I like to think in analogies, and for me, today's offenses are practicing Differential Calculus while the 4-3 defenses are still messing around with basic shapes in General Geometry.

The move to a 3-4, while incorporating hybrid concepts, is the best way to counteract the evolution of today's offenses. I am going to explain why when I talk about who I would prefer below.

*Obvious caveat, you have to have great defenders regardless of the scheme. I think we all understand this, right? Right. Good, let's keep this moving, shall we?

Ted (BGN name -- EaglefaninVA): If the Eagles are thinking longer term rebuild, I'd welcome seeing a 3-4. But if they are trying to win it all inside three years, there's just too much scheme mastery and personnel change to move away from 4-3. We all talked of the need for the defense to have time when we changed DCs over the past few years. Going to 3-4 would be similarly significant.

As far as I can tell, there is no decided advantage to 3-4 vs. 4-3, based on results and the fact they are run today as both base formations and as permutations. It's been common for decades to see a 4-3 team deploy a three-man pass rush with an additional upright lineman or linebacker who decoys a blitz and/or drops off into short route coverage. The choice of either base package seems to come down to DC preferences and personnel capabilities. To the latter, for example, most everyone agrees that without a Wilfork-like (Editor's note: Wilforkian?) nose tackle, the 3-4 is susceptible to an inside run game; better to run a 4-3 than get ground up by lineman blocking down on linebackers three yards past the line of scrimmage. The Eagles do not clearly have that NT, and the secondary is a higher priority anyway.

I would welcome the Eagles considering a 3-4. I like the deception and aggression of the OLBs in the scheme. I'd welcome seeing more of the old Lawrence Taylor "where am I coming from?" approach, and I think JJ effectively delivered that with his back seven over the years. I think you can do more of that with a 3-4 given the versatility of OLBs. In the end, I think moving to a 3-4 would be a sign of Chip and the FO's willingness to patiently rebuild.

Anthony (BGN name -- redfireant): Since the passing of Jim Johnson I had hoped the Birds would hire a defensive coordinator that ran a 3-4 scheme. I have long believed that the 4-3 is antiquated and predictable. Young athletes today coming from the college ranks have a rare combination of size and speed that didn't exist in the past. Their athleticism is better served standing upright in a 3-4 where they can rush the QB or drop into coverage. Year after year I hear draft experts talk about how certain linebackers are made for a 3-4 but wouldn't hold up in a 4-3. This is the trend, so go with it.

Having said that, I also believe the Eagles need a coordinator that is capable of running both a 3-4 and a 4-3, so that on any given week they can adjust their game plan and personnel based on the best way to attack their opponent. There are a few teams out there that run a hybrid defense, including Baltimore and New England. With the NFL becoming such a pass-happy league right now, teams need to be versatile and have the personnel to run any scheme, including using their nickel package as a base defense.

2) Who's your ideal defensive coordinator candidate right now? It can be one of the rumored names from the 49ers (Donatell) and Ravens (Monachino) or a personal favorite that's available for hire. Tell me what you're looking for at the position that has caused so much consternation since Jim Johnson's passing.

James (@JeromesFriend): Hmmm (*deep sigh*). This is a tough one, mainly because I'm not married to any of the rumored candidates. In my opinion I think there are three possibilities at this point. I've written before how Donatell does not impress me. Even though he has a lot of NFL experience, the results don't seem to be there (4th and 26 aside). Monachino is interesting, but has no defensive coordinator experience. He did an OK-not-great job as DL coach in Jacksonville (one top five run defense, middling otherwise) and has done well with an established linebacker corps in Baltimore the past three years. He seems to be one of those rising stars that could also satisfy Kelly's requisite, "hiring smart people". But unless he has a commanding presence that demands results, I'm not sure I buy it. I've also written about how Jim Leavitt, linebackers coach for the 49ers, could be an intriguing candidate (Editor's note: I strongly suggest you all click on the link and read the post). Even though there are no reports linking him to the Eagles, he seems to fit the Kelly mold and potentially has the fire that Eagles fans want from a defensive leader. I'd like to know more about him. Of these three, I would have to say with a small level of trepidation that Leavitt is my best candidate. (Editor's note: It's really weird that you and Joshua both used a variation of "small ______ of trepidation"; can't make this shit up). In Philadelphia we have been spoiled with some really good defensive coaches: Buddy Ryan, Bud Carson, and Jim Johnson. Given his accomplishments, I think Jim Leavitt has the most potential to continue this tradition under Chip Kelly.

Joshua (@The_Reddgie): I am going to be perfectly honest, guys: I am not an expert on our coaching candidates. I am assuming that like most of you, the extent of my knowledge on each of our respective coaching candidates comes from reading a multitude of different Eagle blogs. So, rather than recreate the wheel, I would suggest checking out, among others, Philly's Inferno, Sheil and Tim's Birds 24/7 and of course, Tommy's Iggleblitz for educated, in-depth opinions and analysis on a few of the more popular candidates.

I am going to focus on Todd Grantham as my personal favorite, and I am going to use a quote that Tommy has in this article as the main reason as to why I want him to be our defense's Commander in Chief:

Grantham figured out he was a 3-4 guy during a stint with the Indianapolis Colts from 1999-2001. At the time, Peyton Manning was maturing into one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. In practice every week, Grantham watched Manning diagnose and pick apart even-front defenses. As soon as the defenders lined up, Manning recognized the coverage and could spot any weaknesses.

That wasn't the case in 2000 when the Colts faced the New England Patriots and first-year coach Bill Belichick. "When [Manning] went against an even front, he knew the coverage and what you were doing based on the alignment on the front," Grantham said. "But when he went against the New England Patriots and everything was balanced, he had a much tougher time. You could mentally and physically see the stress during practice of where the fourth rusher was coming from.

Now, I don't know about you, but if Peyton Manning, the modern day equivalent of Einstein when it comes to NFL quarterbacking and analyzing defensive fronts pre-snap, is having trouble with identifying the defense's intentions in the balanced front the 3-4 provides, to the point where it was mentally and physically inducing him to be stressed, then I think that is reason enough to make the switch. Making the QB uncomfortable and unsure as they line up to take the snap is, in my opinion, the very first step to developing a dominant defense. And as you can see, Grantham already understands this.

After watching opposing offense's pick apart our defense, primarily due to the predictive nature of the Wide 9, I want a guy who understands how beneficial a "disguised" defense can be. Grantham fits this specific criterion to a "T".

Ted (BGN name -- EaglefaninVA): The capability I'd prioritize here in the search is blitzing. The position coaches cover the fundamentals and the sub-schemes, those are the ante to get into the game. But it is the DC who calls the plays and must know when to blitz and in what way. Honestly, I think you have to be inside the league to assess Donatell vs. Monachino vs. Davis, etc. We can read all we want, but it's a lot like when I am hiring -- I can read resumes all day and hold interviews, but there is nothing like seeing someone in action and talking to their peers and their employees. And none of us have that insight when it comes to these candidates, we just don't. Probably not popular, but I would take an earnest look at Steve Spagnuolo. His failure last year with the Saints does not finish him off for me, given his successes with the Eagles and Giants.

The highest criterion is aggression (i.e. hitting/tackling and blitzing skills). Both the 49ers and Ravens defenses play like the Eagles used to, like we'd all like to see again, so I'd be happy to see either of their rumored defensive coaches come aboard.

Anthony (BGN name -- redfireant): Let me start off by saying this is the most important hire Chip Kelly needs to make. The D Coordinator needs to be someone with proven NFL experience, preferably as a defensive coordinator or head coach. Just like the Pat Shurmur hire. He was an excellent choice. Kelly will have enough to handle in his first year as a rookie NFL coach. It would be nice to turn the defense over to a well-respected veteran who can handle the duties by himself.

The coordinator needs to be able to run multiple schemes rather than be devoted to one philosophy. Versatility is key in the current NFL. To be honest, there aren't a lot of names out there that really excite me. I would love to have seen Mike Pettine come here, but he landed in Buffalo. Donatell and Monachino are solid candidates who I think have a chance to be good coordinators in this league. They both can run a hybrid defense, but they do lack the experience I think this team needs right now. I have no interest in Steve Spagnuolo or Billy Davis, NFL retreads who have not shown much recent success. Some names I'll throw out there are as follows. Raheem Morris in Washington, who runs a 4-3 but has head coaching experience. Keith Butler, the linebacker coach in Pittsburgh, has been studying under Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau for years and runs a 3-4. Ken Norton Jr., the linebackers coach in Seattle, learned under Gus Bradley. For nostalgic purposes, I'll include Ray Rhodes. Ray always had a great defensive mind and could evaluate talent.

3) Simply put, which players on defense are worth keeping and why? Who do you want to see cut or not re-signed?

James (@JeromesFriend): Not many surprises here. The Eagles defense gets worse the further you travel down field, which is scary. The last line of defense is not often the worst, so I would hire the Spectrum implosion team to take care of the secondary. On second thought, the Spectrum implosion team may not be necessary, given how weak the secondary is. However, I would like to see the Eagles bring back Rodgers-Cromartie and Boykin on the outside. Boykin showed promise, and to me Rodgers-Cromartie is more capable than his more expensive 2012 counterpart. Speaking of, Asomugha is gone. The NFL's version of Chuck Knoblauch, he has been exposed and can't be relied upon any longer. Also gone should be Donovan McNabb's reciprocal Nate Allen, as well as Kurt Coleman, Trevard Lindley, and Curtis Marsh. Nate Allen's case is a shame. There was so much promise his rookie year, but he has not been the same player since he tore his patellar tendon. It's possible he could improve in 2013, but to me it seems unlikely... and I'm inpatient. Kurt Coleman is a player who gives his all, but he's just not good enough (Editor's note: Not as a starter, but I like Kurt as a backup and top special teamer). When rookie (!) Trent Richardson de-helmeted Coleman at the beginning of the year, it reminded me of the practice montages in the movie Rudy; he receives more beatings than he gives. Ultimately, I would rather Roseman, Kelly, and his DC bring in new safeties and defensive backs through draft/trade/free agency to play alongside Rodgers-Cromartie and Boykin.

Similar to Nate Allen's case is Mike Patterson's. I don't think there is anyone in Philadelphia who doesn't want to see him back on the football field as a significant contributor. But given his persistent health issues (how many NFL players continue playing after brain surgery?), I think Patterson is taking up roster space better utilized by someone else, and he offers nothing to a defensive line that I otherwise consider solid. Another player I would cut is Casey Matthews. I don't quite understand Andy Reid's affinity for drafting college players based on genetic makeup (see also Lloyd, Greg), but it didn't work. Drafting Casey Matthews was a poor decision, and one that Kelly needs to correct immediately. Aside from Mathews, I think the linebackers on the Eagles showed promise and would like to see what another year together does for the unit.

Joshua (@The_Reddgie):

Keepers: (I'm not going to go through every guy we have under contract, just highlight a few that I feel can be key contributors and have to be kept. I am going to disregard the secondary altogether. I don't think the 3-4 effects much of what they do, and to be honest, I would be completely okay with four new starters back there next season.)

Fletcher Cox - Starting DE - This is a no brainer. The kid can play in any front and be productive on a Pro Bowl level.
Cedric Thornton - Starting DE - He has shown flashes of being a penetrative DL that can make plays at and/or behind the line of scrimmage, and could be a great fit to play the DE opposite of Fletch.
Brandon Graham - Starting OLB - Was at times dominant at DE in 2012, and now that the Hillbilly Ignoramus's pet project is (Bab)out, he should get the playing time he deserves. While some may question if Graham can transition to the pass rushing OLB in a 3-4, I think he will be just fine. (Editor's note: Also, everyone needs to remember that the Eagles will likely still be showing a lot of 4-3 looks, so it's not like Graham is about to become exclusively a 3-4 OLB).
Michael Kendricks - Starting ILB - He isn't going anywhere, regardless of what scheme we employ. Is athletic enough to cover and can be a sideline to sideline tackling machine at ILB.
Cullen Jenkins - Rotational DE/Nickel DT - While he may be on the downside of his career, he has experience (and success) playing in a 3-4 and can either start at DE or be the first sub for our rotation. Jenkins can also play DT in the nickel and obvious pass rushing situations. His veteran presence and experience in the 3-4 makes him a good guy to have in the first year of this transition.
Casey Matthews - Nickel LB - Yes, that's right, Clay's seemingly useless little brother. Put down the pitchforks and torches and hear me out for a second. He played for Chip Kelly at Oregon, so he is going to be familiar with what is wanted from the ILBs and can help coach up the rest of the LBs during the transition. Also, he was successful enough at Oregon in a 3-4 to become a fourth round pick. I wouldn't want him on the field in obvious rushing situations, but he could provide a sound pass covering ILB to pair with Kendricks.
Jamar Chaney - ???? - While he is the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde of our LBs and I have no idea if he should be inside or out, I just want to see if the move to a 3-4 can unlock some of the potential that we saw when he made his debut a few years ago. Plus, Chaney is ultra cheap, so it isn't going to be expensive if he falters in the new defense.
Vinny Curry - ???? - Honestly, I just love the fact that he is a die-hard Eagles fan and plays non-stop. Has enough natural ability that we should be able to deploy him in a manner that can produce on the field. Could probably play OLB or at least be a pass rusher at DE for us.

So, let's talk about two of our defense's top performers and why they aren't listed as Keepers; Trent Cole and DeMeco Ryans. If we are indeed moving to a 3-4, then I think the best thing to do at this point is try to get as much value as possible in trades for these two and then use those resources to add young, up and coming guys who are better fits for the 3-4.

Whether it was Ryans' contract or that he was a better fit in a 4-3 or the emergence of Cushing in Houston, DeMeco was shipped off for a surprisingly small price last offseason. However, he showed everyone last year that he is still a top MIKE LB in a 4-3 and did so on a struggling defense, often being one of the only bright spots week in and week out. We should take advantage of Ryans' elevated value right now and maximize what we can get back in a trade for him. He isn't necessarily cheap, which will theoretically decrease his value, but I think there would be at least one team out there who would want to add him to their existing defense. Especially if they believe they are a MIKE away from being dominant.

As for Trent, he is probably my favorite Eagle on defense, so it would pain me greatly to see him wearing a different uniform. But this is a business decision and thus, personal feelings have to be set aside. Even when eliminating from the conversation whether or not he is a fit for the 3-4 (I don't think so), that contract is going to quickly approach "Ryan Howard" bad (see Eaglescap.com for specifics) and be untradeable, regardless of how well he may play in the short term future. Given that, I think we have to explore trading DeMeco right now. Even if all we get back is a late pick, or we switch selections with someone else, we have to move him now.

(Editor's note: For the record, I strongly disagree with any "DeMeco Ryans can't play in a 3-4" sentiment. It's not that DeMeco was garbage in the Texans' 3-4 defense, it's that Cushing was an ascending player who already had replaced Ryans in the nickel. I happen to think DeMeco will be just fine as one of the two ILB in the Eagles new 3-4 defense).

Ted (BGN name -- EaglefaninVA): Making an immediate change at one safety and one CB spot are the very highest priorities. Anyone who has read my posts and comments know that I have completely lost it when it comes to Coleman being a starter. Simply put, I have rarely seen a player struggle so much with tackling and coverage techniques. I would limit him to special teams, even if it meant speculating on someone else with at least the potential to make it. I think Coleman has had more than enough time to show he can play safety at this level -- the leap from college to the pros seems to have left him behind. It is the opposite with Nnamdi as to why I don't think he can be our starting CB. Yes, he's been hurt by how he's been used and by subpar safety play. But even in man-to-man, when there's no doubt who he's covering, he is getting beat too often by speed (he is having to play off too much to avoid getting beat deep), by technique (trouble with finding the ball, positioning and timing) and aggression (bluntly, his receivers look like they want the ball more than he does). It's a shame to say but I think Asomugha's best days are well behind him and he's not going to get better.

On the other hand, there are many players showing promise -- Kendricks, Graham, Cox, Anderson -- and players that can still bring it with the right coaching -- DRC, Cole, and Ryans. There are many others who might be good but with the absolute mess we've had with Sean, Juan and Todd, we need a real DC for us to truly know what they can do.

Anthony (BGN name -- redfireant): I love this question, but it's difficult to answer. Obviously it would be easy to say wipe the slate clean and start over, but that's not realistic. The defense needs an overhaul, but it can't be done in one offseason. The D played horribly this year, but so did the entire team including the coaching staff. Would some of these players play better under a different coach or different scheme? Not knowing the answer to this question, let's assume they hire a coach who runs a hybrid defense. I'd keep veterans that played hard all year and have friendly contracts. I'd also keep young athletic kids who showed promise. Here's my list of defensive players to keep who are currently on the roster:

Defensive Ends

Trent Cole - Cole will be here simply because of the ridiculous contract they gave him last year. Over $5 million against the cap but would be $6 million if they cut him. Maybe they can unload him in a trade?
Brandon Graham - Graham is young, cheap and showed promise after finally recovering from injuries. Could thrive under new D Coordinator.
Vinny Curry - Unknown but young, athletic and cheap.
Phillip Hunt - Showed promise two years ago and is cheap.

Defensive Tackles

Fletcher Cox - This kid could be a stud for the next several years. Probably their best defensive player.
Cedric Thornton and Derek Landri - Cheap, serviceable rotation guys.

Linebackers

DeMeco Ryans - Expensive, but need a veteran presence to anchor the middle. Plays hard and shows leadership. Would try to rework contract.
Mychal Kendricks - Expected him to have a better year. Think he will flourish under new scheme and coordinator.
Ryan Rau - Something I like about this kid. Showed heart and hustle in preseason. Backup and special teams player. (Editor's note: Loving the Ryan Rau love. Agree that there's something here with him.)

Safeties

Colt Anderson - Played well last few games. Decent backup and special teams player.

Cornerbacks

DRC - Too athletic to give up on. I think the right coach can get him to play and I think they can sign him to a favorable contract. I'd give him a shot. They could do worse. (Editor's note: Forget signing DRC to a favorable contract, I'd rather just slap him with the franchise tag and make him earn a long-term deal.)
Brandon Boykin - Really like this kid as a nickel corner defending the slot. Would not move him outside.

I would cut or trade everyone else. This means the Eagles would need to add about another twelve players on defense this upcoming year. That will be extremely difficult to do, but in my mind no one else is worth keeping.

And thus concludes the first guest-writer round table discussion. Hope you guys enjoyed reading it as much as I did putting it together. More to come!

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