FanPost

New Defensive Strategy and our Current Roster

In a previous post, I provided a summary of several references discussing the new defensive strategy is appears we'll deploy going forward (the 4-3 under) and how that translates to position by position needs. Here I've provided an breakdown of how our current active roster (not including restricted or unrestricted free agents) aligns with those positional requirements, again trying to synthesize relevant references - I myself am no scout.

The conclusion includes a projected depth chart and list of needs to be addressed. If this is well received, I'll move onto a similar analysis of players available in the draft and free agency.

Defensive Line

Along the defensive line, our active roster includes:

# NAME POS. HT. WT. AGE EXP. COLLEGE
58 Cole, Trent DE 6'3 270 30 8 Cincinnati
75 Curry, Vinny DE 6'3 266 24 R Marshall
54 Graham, Brandon DE 6'2 265 24 3 Michigan
76 Hunt, Phillip DE 6'0 244 27 2 Houston
91 Cox, Fletcher DT 6'4 298 22 R Mississippi State
90 Dixon, Antonio DT 6'3 322 27 4 Miami (FL)
72 Thornton, Cedric DT 6'4 309 24 1 Southern Arkansas

3-Technique:

Beginning with the linemen that plays 3-technique, we need a guy who is "your premiere interior pass rusher" with "an explosive first step" (1). A post at Field Gulls notes:

"In terms of size, I'd say that over 6'2 and around 300 pounds would be the standard for the 3-tech. He must be strong and big enough to hold up against the run but also quick and agile enough to get off his block and get to the quarterback. This is one of the hardest players in the NFL to find" (1)

Many have suggested Fletcher Cox as a great fit for this role. He meets the suggested size criteria and certainly fits the bill as a premier interior pass rusher. Pulling from his draft profile:

"Cox is an impressive athlete who is capable of making big plays from the interior of the defensive line. He is extremely fast off the ball and can get into the backfield as quickly as any tackle prospect in the country. He has a high motor and pursues down the line of scrimmage with aggression. He can snap his hips into the offensive line to get a blowback effect; he can also dip and rip his hips around would-be tacklers to get into the backfield. Cox keeps blockers off of him with very active hands. He is a serious athlete who would immediately bolster the front of any defense and would work well in a rotation." (2)

While Cox may fit at other positions along the line as well (perhaps as the 5-technique), his skills fit the 3-technique perfectly. Given the noted scarcity of such players, it would be a waste to use him anywhere else. Since this position is so pivotal to the success of the 4-3 under to generate a pass rush, it will also be important to have depth.

The recently cut Cullen Jenkins had some much discussed success as a pass rusher in the 3-4 and also fits the size criteria. Although he's had his sacks fall from 7.0 to 5.5 and then 4.0 the past three years, he did rank 5th among interior linemen for hurries in 2012 (5) and was 4th best in pass rushing productivity (6). While he did not present a long-term option, he did represent a nice fit as insurance at a critical position; however, the Eagles clearly decided they did not want the potential $4.0M in cap savings invested in an aging reserve player.

Cedric Thorton another is a young DT some are excited about. One draft profile notes his deficiencies against the run: "Lacks the lower body strength to consistently anchor against the run. Plays a bit high at times and can get overwhelmed by bigger blockers in phone booth situations." (7). Others really liked his burst and ability to penetrate the line (8), and thought of him as a good backup for the 3-technique (9).

Our DE's are too small to play interior on a full-time basis and our other DT's can't generate a consistent pass rush.

1-Technique:

This is the nose tackle. In a 3-4, this player plays directly over the center and people often think of as a space eater in the middle of the defense. The role is similar in the 4-3 under, but the position is shifted to the strong-side shoulder of the center. The position typically has only 1-gap responsibility and does not necessarily need to be a huge body (relatively speaking). Pete Carroll describes what he looks for as:

"At Nose Tackle you have to find a player who likes to mix it up. We want a big guy in there who likes to get down and dirty. He is going to get doubled a lot on the run and pass and is going to get down blocked a lot. He has to be a tough player. This guy can be a short and stubby type of player" (1)

Before he was cut, Mike Patterson seemed to fill this role well. His value takes a dip being short (listed at 5'11" coming out of college), but being short seems to be fine with Carroll. I wonder if Carroll was actually thinking of Patterson when he provided the above description, since Patterson was once his NT at USC. His draft profile seems to fit the description perfectly:

"Explosive interior lineman limited only by a lack of height. ... Consistently doubled in the middle of the line yet stout and holds the point. ... Tenacious and goes hard until the whistle blows." (10)

However, at 29 he's not a long-term option, and his play-making ability seems to have slipped over the years. His contract seems to ultimately be what did him in as a cap casualty ($4.06M in 2013 increasing up to $6.35M in 2016, all with no dead money (4)).

The other option people will suggest is Antonio Dixon, who has shown strong results against the run, ranking 8th overall for interior lineman in 2010 (while operating in a two-gap scheme) (11). Has never shown much against the pass, bounced around but did not stick elsewhere after being cut by the Eagles, and after tearing his triceps in 2011 it's possible he no longer has this run stuffing upside. There have also always been questions regarding his conditioning - if the offense is playing fast paced, many have wondered if that means the defense will be faster to get back on the field, making conditioning critical. For what it's worth, Howie Roseman has been quoted as liking Dixon here:

"That's his skill set. He's a big body, [makes] good use of his hands, he's a run stopper - he's kind of what you're going to look for if you're going to look for a 3-4 nose tackle." (12)

5-Technique:

For the 5-technique, run stuffing is most important and rushing the pass is less significant (13) (1). In some versions of the 4-3 under, this player also needs to play two gaps (where as others are only responsible for one gap). The player should be "bigger, significantly bigger, than a normal 4-3 defensive end" (1). This almost sounds similar to the responsibilities of the NT, but the player does need to have some ability to collapse the pocket on third and long rather than just hold his ground.

Cox could likely play well in this role, but as noted it would be a waste of his pass rush abilities. Our former DE's are too small, so with Jenkins and Patterson gone that leaves Dixon and Cedric Thornton. If Dixon is recovered, his skill set as a big, athletic run-stuffer does fit nicely for this role and he's only 27, so he's good for at least depth and could be a quality starter. Thornton could fit, but the questions around holding up against the run would be a deal breaker.

Unless Trent Cole can bulk up significantly, the Eagles don't seem to have an answer on the roster here other than Thornton, and have zero depth at the NT and 5-technique positions.

Predator:

The position appears to go by many different names, including the LEO or the Elephant, but since our defensive coordinator calls it the Predator we'll go with that. This should be the team's pass-rush specialist, rushing 94 percent of the time (dropping into coverage the other 6) (15). Davis explained that these guys are typically DEs by trade (16) and according to Carroll has to be one of your best football players with (1) with a more athletic and versatile body type (13). The player can be a little bit smaller than a normal DE (13).

As with Cox and the 3-technique, everyone has immediately inserted Brandon Graham into this role and he's a great fit. He's a tremendous athlete and was indeed one of our best players down the stretch. In 2012, he ranked best in the league for Pro Football Focus's QB Pressure Frequency metric getting pressure in almost 1 out of every 4 (22%) of his opportunities (17). He lacks the height some teams look for in a pass-rush specialist, but as Carroll notes this is not critical in his schemes. He played OLB in college, but he's not a guy the Eagles will want to drop into coverage 1/3 of the time so he is not a fit at SAM - Brandon Graham is our Predator.

Trent Cole is 30 and had a down year in 2012, so many are ready to move on. However, his dead money if cut ($6.4M) outweighs his cap value for 2013 ($5.35M), so he's not going to be cut (he likely isn't a candidate cap casualty until 2015, when his cap value explodes to $11.6M compared with a dead money figure of $3.2M). Given his contract, the Eagles can't realistically expect to get much in return via trade either. Howie is claiming Trent can handle the same role as Brandon:

"Trent's the same way [as Brandon Graham]. Trent can rush the passer. As you look at 3-4 rush linebackers, Trent has the skill set that a lot of those guys have." (12)

As like with Brandon, it doesn't seem wise to ask Trent to fall back into coverage on a regular basis given his well-documented failures when asked to do so under McDermott.

Vinny Curry was hugely successful as a pass rusher in college racking up 26.5 sacks, 49 tackles for loss and 10 forced fumbles over his college career, primarily playing defensive end. There are mixed reviews on his athleticism, as he posted the slowest 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash among defensive ends in his draft class (18) but was third among defensive lineman for the 3-cone drill (19). He would seem to be a great backup for the position. Phillip Hunt would also align well with the Predator as a backup, but is largely an unknown.

Linebackers:

The current linebacking crew includes:

# NAME POS. HT. WT. AGE EXP. COLLEGE
51 Chaney, Jamar LB 6'0 242 26 3 Mississippi St.
96 Dowtin, Marcus LB 6'2 226 24 R North Alabama
95 Kendricks, Mychal LB 5'11 239 22 R California
50 Matthews, Casey LB 6'1 245 24 2 Oregon
53 Rau, Ryan LB 6'1 230 22 R Portland State
59 Ryans, DeMeco LB 6'1 247 28 7 Alabama

MIKE:

The middle linebacker in the 4-3 under is described as follows:

"The MIKE linebacker needs to be the field general; very instinctual and savvy. He needs to be quick enough to drop back down the middle third of the field in pass coverage in the Tampa-2 coverage" (13)

"The Mike linebacker is a traditional middle linebacker. He is instinctive and makes a lot of calls for the defense. He may be the guy with the most experience or the best feel for the game" (20)

Our defensive coordinator has described the MIKE as "my thumper, more of a thick guy" (21). Despite the (incorrect) reaction some have had of "moving to a 3-4" being a detriment to him, this position appears to be a slam-dunk for DeMeco Ryans who was our field general last year, is a traditional middle linebacker and is indeed a thumper. However, he's 28 and has had some injury concerns in the past. He also has a $6.6M cap value for 2013, up to $6.8M in 2015. Since he has no dead money if cut, the Eagles may look to find a younger, cheaper replacement in the near future.

If he's on the roster, Casey Matthews is likely best as a backup MIKE. This is the position he played in college, where he was indeed the leader of his defense and had great reviews for his instincts and awareness. However, he's undersized for the position (the Eagles may be generous, listing him at 245) and his lack of athleticism has been well publicized since being thrown into early duty with the Eagles. He is not going to be a long-term solution.

WILL:

The weak-side linebacker is often smaller, as they are "a protected player in this alignment" (20). Pete Carroll looks for his WILL to be "a faster, smaller linebacker with range" (13). Pete also says "we want our fastest linebacker at this position" (20). Davis also views this as a protected position:

"The way the defense is set up, he has a nice protective shield to keep potential blockers at bay. "what we've done with Karlos is put him behind a three-technique, so basically - we call these anchor points - he's got a wall in front of him," Davis said. "So he can run and use his athleticism. The center can't get him because the nose is on him. The guard can't get him because the end is on him. And the tackle can't get him because the predator is on him. So this is your athlete that can run, go cover ground and make plays" (21)

This is another position which many expect to be a no-brainer: Mychal Kendricks. He is slightly undersized, but speed is his game. Mike Mayock raved about his production and speed coming out of college, he ran the fastest 40, had the best vertical and broad jumps (22). When the Eagles moved him from the strong-side to the weak-side in their 4-3 last year, he had his best game of the year (23). When they allowed him to run freely to make tackles he was at his best (24)

Jamar Chaney could backup the position. His draft report includes:

"Chaney has improved his run defense but is best in space as a coverage defender. He is inconsistent to take on and shed blockers and may be best covered up at the next level. Chaney plays with an excellent motor and is quick to pursue with solid instincts. He runs well and shows excellent range which should make him great in combination man schemes as well as special team's at the nest level." (25)

SAM:

The strong-side linebacker needs to be "athletic and rangy" and "great against the run but able to run with tight ends and running backs in pass coverage" (13). Typically, the SAM will rush rushed the QB about 70 percent of the time and drop back about 30 percent on passing downs (15). The player "has to be a good containment player. He has to be big and strong enough to play on the edge of the tight end" (20). They also typically need to be taller players, with Davis looking at guys in the 6'3" to 6'5" range (19). These are pretty high expectations out of a single player, and suffice it to say the Eagles do not have such a complete package on the roster. None of the candidate starting linebackers are over 6'1".

It's possible Curry could drop some weight and play the spot (19). If there's no room for him at the Predator, the Eagles may try him out here (or trade him). However, it would be dangerous to count on him since he has not had a significant role in coverage before, and today's TE's are not getting any slower.

Secondary:

Our much-maligned secondary currently consists of:

# NAME POS. HT. WT. AGE EXP. COLLEGE
24 Asomugha, Nnamdi CB 6'2 210 31 10 California
22 Boykin, Brandon CB 5'9 182 22 R Georgia
27 Hughes, Brandon CB 5'11 185 26 4 Oregon State
35 Lindley, Trevard CB 6'0 183 27 2 Kentucky
31 Marsh, Curtis CB 6'1 197 24 2 Utah State
26 Whitley, Eddie CB 6'0 191 23 R Virginia Tech
42 Coleman, Kurt FS 5'11 195 24 3 Ohio State
29 Allen, Nate S 6'1 210 25 3 South Florida
21 Sims, David S 5'9 204 26 1 Iowa State

Free Safety:

The free safety typically plays to the weak-side and has a lot of responsibility to make tackles all over the field, including frequently coming up at the line (13).

"The Free Safety is another player who makes a lot of tackles for us. He has to have good instincts. He is what we call a natural player. You don't have to coach this player too much. He has to have a feel for the everything and understand the big picture" (20)

Kurt Coleman is the closest fit on the Eagles current roster. He's tough and can tackle, but he's undersized and lacks the raw athleticism to be an impact player in the NFL (27). He's a backup in this league, or at best he can be your worst starter in the secondary.

Then there's Nate Allen. Coming out of college, he was described as "rangy defender with outstanding instincts and awareness" (28), and received rave reviews for his cover skills - many were very excited about his potential. However, his weaknesses in the same draft profile highlights why he lost his job during the 2012 season. "He isn't a consistent physical open field tackler and needs to finish better at the next level" (28). We could potentially get by with him, but unless he can suddenly add a physical presence to his game and learn to tackle, he's not going to be our answer at free-safety.

Strong Safety:

Very similar story for the strong-safety

"The strong safety has to be good against the run but like the free safety, will move around a lot and have to defend against the deep pass a lot. He will need to be fast and have some ball skills" (13)

"If we are playing Cover 3 behind him the Strong Safety is going to have the middle of the secondary behind him but also fills off the linebacker's side as needed depending upon the play. If the Sam linebacker does get hooked for example the Strong Safety will then have to come up and make the play" (20)

This is really only included for completeness, as there's not much to write. Again neither Kurt nor Nate are clear fits for this need. Kurt could fill in if needed, but is best served as a backup.

Cornerback:

Corner seems to be one position where Carroll has a clear preference that differs from others. He's looking for physical, long players that are strong in run defense, but do not necessarily need to be all-world speedsters (13).

"They are protected over the top a lot of the time so typically they're not all-world defenders but need to be pretty fast. You see Pete running with solid, physical and tall corners but in his tenure at USC we didn't see any all-world prospects come into the NFL" (13)

Davis is also reportedly looking for big players (29), and we've heard Kelly is as well.

If we can resolve his salary cap and locker room issues, Nnamdi may fit. For one, he clearly has the size at 6'2". It's been well documented that his success in Oakland was playing man-coverage against the other team's top WR, but when coming to the Eagles the team asked him to play more zone-coverage. He's likely never going to be the player he once was, but if he has coverage over the top it mitigates any step he may have lost. Several of the big plays he gave up have been credited to missing safety help. In 2012 the Eagles did play him in press-coverage and the results were mixed, but with quality safety help he can still be a solid corner (30). Nnamdi has been inconsistent at best in the run game, so he fails that criteria. Going into 2013 (on a reduced contract) he's at best a big corner that needs safety help and isn't stellar in the run game. More realistically, and given recent lukewarm praise from the new regime, he's gone (EDIT: With Patterson and Jenkins getting cut today and Nnamdi surviving, perhaps they are trying to re-work his contract).

The only other corner on the roster that has size is Curtis Marsh, listed at 6'1" and nearly 200 pounds. Reviews of his ability in the run game are mixed, ranging from "willing tackler in run support that always wraps" to "takes poor angles in run support and struggles to break down ball carriers in the open field" (31). He has good speed, but apparently stiff hips. He can provide depth, but it would be risky to count on him for anything more. The same can be said for Hughes and Lindley - they've proven nothing that suggests they can be counted on as top three corners on an NFL defense.

The one player on the current roster that is currently well accepted going forward is Brandon Boykin, but he fails the first criteria size at 5'9". It should be safe to assume he retains his role in the slot, but is not a strong option to move outside.

Summary

If we had to line up and play tomorrow, it seems the best allocation of our current defensive players is below. Those (very few) in bold represent players that are strong bets to be long-term options (excluding players who have yet to prove their ability at the position).

DT (3-Technique) Fletcher Cox
NT (1-Technique) Antonio Dixon
DE (5-Technique) Cedric Thornton
Predator Brandon Graham Trent Cole Vinny Curry
SAM Vinny Curry Jamar Chaney
WILL Mychal Kendricks Jamar Chaney
MIKE DeMeco Ryans Casey Matthews
DB Nnamdi Asomugha Trevard Lindley
DB Curtis Marsh Brandon Hughes
Nickel Brandon Boykin
FS Nate Allen
SS Kurt Coleman

Needs:

Before cutting Patterson and Jenkins, the Eagles could have survived in 2013 without additions to the NT or 5-technique positions and invested elsewhere. With them gone, there's a desperate need for depth, and these should really be priorities in the offseason if they want a dominant defensive line (it would be unwise to depend so heavily on Dixon and Thornton)

Kendricks is a perfect fit for the WILL and they have a very solid option at MIKE for 2013, but Ryans is likely not going to be a long-term fit. That leaves two LB positions in need of long-term upgrades, and SAM is a big need for 2013. As is well documented, the secondary is a mess with only Boykin at the nickel back being a worthy player (potentially deserving of "bold" above).

Must Haves:

• Strong-side linebacker
• Defensive Back
• Free Safety
• Strong Safety
• Defensive End (5-Technique)

Important Upgrades:

• Nose Tackle
• Defensive Back (another)

Other good summaries for how the Eagles roster fits in the 4-3 under front-seven can be found at:
http://www.phillymag.com/eagles/2013/02/08/all-22-billy-davis-predators-and-the-4-3-under/

http://www.bleedinggreennation.com/2013/2/7/3965706/the-4-3-under-and-how-the-eagles-roster-pieces-might-fit-in-the

Bibliography

(hopefully the references are not lost during copy/paste)

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