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Evaluating the Eagles: Part 6, Defensive Linemen

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Can Fletcher Cox continue to grow into the Pro Bowl player he has the potential to be? Is Bennie Logan the long term solution at nose tackle? Can Cedric Thornton continue his dominance against the run in 2014? Let's take a look.

This is part 6 of an 11 part series, this part will focus specifically on the defensive linemen on the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles and how the team can improve heading into the 2014 season. Each part will focus on a specific positional group with 11 in all (QB, RB, WR, TE, OL, DL, ILB, OLB, CB, S and ST [K, P, KR and PR]). Now let's talk Eagles' defensive linemen.

2013 Eagles' Defensive Linemen: Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan and Vinnie Curry. (Damion Square and Brandon Bair will also be discussed briefly)

How'd they do?

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Fletcher Cox: Ranked #13 overall 3-4 DE according to Pro Football Focus. 3 sacks, 10 QB hits, 39 QB hurries, 1 batted pass, 29 solo tackles, 10 assisted tackles, 5 missed tackles and 24 stops in 910 snaps according to Pro Football Focus.

During his rookie season in 2012, Fletcher Cox wasn't a full-time starter until late in the season. Cox saw spot time here and there all over the defensive line in a 4-3. He played very well but would be adjusting to a completely different defensive scheme in 2013.

The Eagles transitioned to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Billy Davis in 2013. Coming out of college, Cox was praised for his athleticism and ability to play anywhere on the defensive line, that was put to the test in 2013. He struggled at the start of the season to get pressure from his new position but he only got better with time.

Although he didn't always get the sack, Cox began to terrorize opposing quarterbacks and was consistently in their face at the end of plays. According to Pro Football Focus, Cox was tied for third overall in terms of QB hurries with just Cameron Jordan, Calais Campbell and Kyle Williams ahead of him. Yes, he did have more QB hurries than J.J. Watt.

Cox only got better in 2013 and I expect him to improve even more with another offseason in the 3-4 defense. He'll be allowed to work on his moves and technique this offseason instead of learning a new defense from scratch. Look for Cox to burst onto the scene in 2014 and become one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.

Overall Grade: A. Cox was the full-time starter in 2013 after a promising rookie season. He looked every part of the dominate player he was supposed to be coming out of college and will only get better with another season in the 3-4.

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Cedric Thornton: Ranked #9 overall 3-4 DE according to Pro Football Focus. 1 sack, 2 QB hits, 17 QB hurries, 2 batted passes, 48 solo tackles, 10 assisted tackles, 7 missed tackles and 36 stops in 739 snaps according to Pro Football Focus.

Coming into the 2013 season, the biggest question on the Eagles' defensive line was who was going to start opposite of Fletcher Cox as the other 3-4 DE. Thornton was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011 out of Southern Arkansas. He played sparingly here and there in 2012 but would have to earn a spot in 2013. And earn he did.

Thornton was the perfect complement to Cox on the defensive line. He showed unbelievable skills to defend the run and would completely shut down his side at times. According to Pro Football Focus, Thornton was the third best 3-4 DE against the run with only J.J. Watt and Sheldon Richardson ranked ahead of him. I'd say that's pretty good company to be associated with.

But Thornton did struggle against the pass. He offered little to no pressure and that is where he will have to improve this offseason. On obvious passing downs, Thornton was actually taken out of the game for pass rushers such as Vinny Curry and Trent Cole. If Thornton wants to stay on the field every down in 2014, he'll have to improve his pass rushing skills. But no doubt, he'll be the starting defensive end opposite of Cox next year.

Overall Grade: B+. Nobody really expected much from Thornton but he absolutely dominated against the run. If it wasn't for his struggles against the pass, he'd be getting a much higher grade from me.

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Bennie Logan: Ranked #38 overall DT/NT according to Pro Football Focus. 1 sack, 3 QB hits, 11 QB hurries, 1 batted pass, 19 solo tackles, 4 assisted tackles, 1 missed tackle and 14 stops in 313 snaps according to Pro Football Focus.

When the Eagles drafted Bennie Logan in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, many were confused. Logan played all over the defensive line at LSU and many were unsure of what position he could play in the 3-4 for the Eagles. He got some spot duty all over the line to start the season but then came a big opportunity.

Following week 8's game against the New York Giants, the Eagles traded Isaac Sopoaga to the New England Patriots. Sopoaga was the starting nose tackle and his departure left a void in the middle of the defensive line. Logan got the chance to start the following week and never let go of the spot.

Logan may not be the ideal size of an NFL starting nose tackle at just 6-2, 309 lbs. but his long arms and speed allowed him to constantly make plays. Logan brought a pass rush from the inside which is rare at the nose tackle spot but he did struggle against the run at times.

His struggles and lack of size really stuck out in the playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. At one point in the game, the Saints ran a QB sneak with Drew Brees and the Eagles were unable to stop it because of Logan's inability to take up space. I believe Logan will be the starter again in 2014 but I wouldn't be surprised if the Eagles asked him to gain about 10-15 lbs. so he'll be in that 320-325 lbs. range for the 2014 season.

Overall Grade: B. Logan was solid in his rookie season when called upon to start. He'll have to put on more weight so he can withstand and hold his own against double teams. But he has incredible athleticism and showed a ton of potential in just his first year in the league.

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Vinnie Curry: Ranked #15 overall 3-4 DE according to Pro Football Focus. 5 sacks, 5 QB hits, 22 QB hurries, 2 batted passes, 11 solo tackles, 3 assisted tackles, 1 missed tackle and 12 stops in 322 snaps according to Pro Football Focus.

After a tough rookie season where he was hardly ever active, Vinnie Curry was ready to prove himself in 2013. Coming into the season, many were wondering whether the former 4-3 defensive end would move to an outside linebacker in the 3-4 or stay a defensive end. He was actually asked to put on more weight and stuck around at defensive end.

Curry was beat out by Cedric Thornton for the starting job but did see a good amount of snaps after being inactive for the first two games of the season. Curry was brought in as a pass rushing specialist and dominated in the little bit of time he was given. Although he lacks the discipline to set the edge consistently against the run, Curry was a monster of a pass rusher.

Whenever he was on the field, he was consistently causing terror in the backfield. Despite playing less than half of the Eagles' defensive snaps, Curry had more sacks than both Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton combined. Curry was actually ranked the eighth overall pass rushing 3-4 defensive end according to Pro Football Focus.

I doubt Curry will become a starter in 2014 but he should see more snaps than he did in 2013, that's for sure. But he'll need to improve against the run if he wants to see as much time as he can.

Overall Grade: B+. After not seeing much playing time at all in 2012, Curry showed a ton of potential as a pass rushing 3-4 defensive end in 2013. If it wasn't for his struggles against the run, he would've had a higher grade. Curry deserves more time in 2014 and should be back to his terrorizing ways next year.

What's next?

The Eagles currently have Damion Square and Brandon Bair under contract as well. Square started off the season as a rotational nose tackle after an impressive preseason. But he quickly faded out of the rotation once Logan emerged as the starting nose tackle. Square might be back in 2014 as a reserve but he'll have to compete for a job.

Bair was likely just brought in to help teach the other defensive linemen the techniques of defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro. Bair played under Azzinaro at Oregon and probably won't be back in 2014. He didn't see the field at all in 2013 and should easily be replaced next year.

I believe the Eagles will add at least one or two defensive linemen in the off-season through either free agency or the draft. There are quite a few interesting names available, so let's take a look.

Free Agency:

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Former Green Bay Packer B.J. Raji has had back to back disappointing seasons. He hasn't recorded a sack in his past 39 games and that is a concern. But he still is just 27 years old and could have some fuel left in the tank. Raji has the size that the Eagles need on their defensive line at 6-2, 337 lbs. and plenty of playoff experience. If he's willing to come in as a reserve and mentor the Eagles' young defensive linemen, Raji could be a good fit in Philadelphia.

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Former Miami Dolphin Paul Soliai is exactly what the Eagles need. He's 6-4, 340 lbs. and although he played DT in a 4-3, he should easily be able to play NT in a 3-4. Soliai apparently wants to stay in Miami but it doesn't appear that the Dolphins feel the same way. Soliai is 30 years old, so that may limit his market but that could work well for the Eagles. If they could possibly bring him in on a two or three year deal, that would be a nice signing for them.

2014 NFL Draft:

Although I don't believe the Eagles will spend a pick on a defensive linemen before day three of the draft. Here are a couple of players that might be available on day three who are definitely worth a look from the birds.

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Cal's Deandre Coleman looks the part of an NFL defensive linemen. He has the size that the Eagles need on their defensive line at 6-5, 314 lbs. Coleman is a durable player and didn't miss a single game in college. Coleman isn't much of a pass rusher but is stout against the run and knows how to take on blockers and still use his arms to make plays. Coleman did struggle his senior year at Cal and scouts question his attitude because he seemed unmotivated at times. Either way, Coleman should be there on day three and might land in Philadelphia.

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Tennessee's Daniel McCullers looks like a created player in Madden. He's a monstrous 6-7, 352 lbs. and possesses impressive athleticism for his size. McCullers is a raw player with little experience and will have to learn how to use proper technique. But you cannot teach the size that he has. He was constantly double and triple teamed in college and still managed to hold his own and make plays. He has to learn to get lower and use his strength because he was stood up way too often but that can be taught by the Eagles' coaching staff. I believe McCullers has a lot of potential and I wouldn't mind him reaching the full extent of it in Philadelphia.

That's all for Evaluating the Eagles: Part 6, Defensive Linemen. Be sure to check out the rest of the series in the following days leading up to free agency!

If you'd like, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @Anthony_DiBona. Thanks for reading!

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