Three Eagles Defenders Poised to Emerge in 2014

Rich Schultz

Two of these picks are obvious, and the third is curious.

Andy Benoit of The MMQB released a list of young defensive players he expects to emerge in the 2014 NFL season. Three of his picks were none other than Eagles players. Here's a look at what Benoit had to say about these three Eagles.

DE Cedric Thornton

Thornton emerged last year, but few noticed. Assuming he continues to develop at his current pace, he’ll be impossible to overlook in 2014. The undrafted fourth-year pro is primarily a strongside defensive end in Philly’s one-gap style 3-4 (i.e. the J.J. Watt position), but he can also play nose tackle or shoot gaps as a nickel three-technique. He has country strength, good initial burst, sound east-west movement skills (critical in run defense against spread attacks), natural leverage and a relentless motor that’s best exhibited in the way he sheds blocks late in the down. Thornton is already one of the league’s premier point-of-attack run-stuffers; soon he’ll be considered one of the premier players period.

Not much to add here. Thornton was a big part of the reason the Eagles were very solid against the run. An area where Thornton has room to improve is as a pass rusher.

CB Brandon Boykin

Boykin improved in man coverage over the course of his sophomore season, at times defending top-tier receivers down the seams with no safety help. He displayed strong adjustment skills against pick and rub routes, which is crucial for playing inside. He was also used in blitz packages, which likely will expand in Billy Davis’s second year as Philly’s defensive coordinator. Most importantly, he was a playmaker, intercepting six passes, including the game-clincher at Dallas that secured the NFC East title.

Not only did Boykin make big plays, he made them at clutch moments. The fact that Boykin(g) finished second among cornerbacks in the NFL with 6 interceptions is very impressive when you consider he only played 51% of the Eagles' defensive snaps. It would be nice to see Boykin on the field more, but the Eagles would rather keep him in the slot than move him on the outside.

OLB Brandon Graham

It wasn’t supposed to take this long for Graham to emerge; the Eagles drafted him 13th overall in 2010. But his development was halted by a late-2010 knee injury, and he never quite found a niche in the 4-3 schemes that Andy Reid’s defensive coordinators ran. In Billy Davis’s hybrid 3-4, Graham operates primarily as an outside linebacker (though he’s also been effective lining up with his hand in the dirt). He should see more playing time with Trent Cole coming off a somewhat inconsistent 2013 campaign. And if he can’t take snaps from Cole, he’ll take them from someone else. Simply put, Graham will be the Eagles’ most dynamic pass-rusher in 2014.

Now this one is an interesting pick. I'd argue that Brandon Graham would be a very good starter as a 4-3 defensive end. Prior to the 3-4 switch, Graham showed he can really get after the quarterback while staying honest to the run. Graham's fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker just doesn't seem to be an ideal one. He's adept at rushing the passer still but he's not much of an option in coverage. It's hard to see Graham getting off the bench as much as Benoit seems he will be. Perhaps the Eagles will increase Graham's role, but I'm expecting him to still be used in limited snaps. And that's assuming the Eagles don't trade him in the offseason.

The Eagles' defense in 2013 was far from perfect but it was often "good enough." The Eagles will be active in free agency the 2014 NFL Draft in order to improve this side of the ball, but player development will also be key to building an improved unit.

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