When we think about the Philadelphia Eagles, we think about Chip Kelly and his offense, both the good and the bad of it. We do so for good reason, offense is what sells in the NFL, and Kelly can manufacture it as well as anyone. But for the past two seasons, the heart of Eagles hasn't been anything on the offense, it's been the defensive line. It is talented, deep, extremely well coached, and the players are either in or entering their prime. Quite simply, it's as good as it gets anywhere in the league.
What makes a player "great"? In most cases greatness is obvious, but that's not always the case in a sport where not everything can be quantified. Statistics can be helpful, but misleading without context. Post-season honors can be a good measuring stick, but they can also be biased towards those with a high number of counting stats and name recognition of past glories.
There’s really no perfect measurement to judge greatness, especially for a player whose role does not lend itself to statistics or achievements to measure against their peers. That’s why Fletcher Cox’s coming out party against the Saints was so exciting for Eagles fans: he finally got some of the recognition he’s deserved since last season. After JJ Watt, who is an incomparable freak of nature, Cox is the best 3-4 defensive end in the league.
He has established himself as a great player by excelling in every phase. Trent Williams is a top offensive tackle, and Cox uses strength and leverage to simply swat him away and force Chris Thompson to Beau Allen for a loss.
Cox has outstanding athleticism, which paired with good vision means he can wreak havoc in the backfield. Against the Cowboys hyped offensive line, he easily evades a cut block by LG Mackenzy Bernadeau and chases down Joseph Randle in the backfield for a loss.
Cox also has great technique. One of the things that separates the great from the good defensive linemen are their use of their hands. Here, Bernadeau thinks he has Cox fully engaged (and Tyron Smith for some reason tries to give a little push with his shoulders as if this is flag football), but he doesn't. Cox can clearly see beyond Bernadeau, and then easily sheds him aside at the right moment to drop Darren McFadden for a loss. Perfect technique.
Speed, strength, vision, technique. Fletcher Cox is the total package.
But one man doesn't make a defensive line.
Bennie Logan personifies the Eagles defense. They're overlooked because of the attention Chip Kelly's offense gets, they're a bit misunderstood because of their use of safeties and preference to generate pressure from inside linebackers, and they're not given anywhere near the credit they deserve because the fast pace of the offense means they are on the field a lot even when playing well.
And this basically describes Bennie Logan (and a few other players on the Eagles defense). Logan is overlooked, and has been since his rookie year. In 2013 the Eagles defense started out as a sieve, but by the end of the year had improved to a respectable though flawed unit. One of the reasons for the improvement was the team discarded ineffective starting nose tackle Isaac Sopanga and replaced him with Logan, who played well. But in the season ending loss to the Saints in the playoffs, Logan was unfairly made a scapegoat by some, who felt that a more traditional "war daddy" defensive lineman was sorely needed.
That opinion was wrong then, it looked even more ridiculous in 2014, and it is flat out absurd in 2015. Bennie Logan is one of the cogs of the Eagles defense. Like Cox, he has outstanding athleticism, allowing him to flow to the ball carrier and disrupt the backfield.
And he has the strength to be a dominant player. Here, Travis Frederick is no match for Logan, who bullies him aside to drop Joseph Randle for a loss.
And watch him just throw La'el Collins aside.
Those skills make also make him a versatile player, when injuries hit the DEs earlier this season, he comfortably filled in as a DE. And as we have shown before, Logan's become an enforcer on the field. Bennie Logan is a very, very good player on the verge of being great, and is deserving of more recognition.
The third starter on the Eagles defensive line, Cedric Thornton is no second fiddle. He's a terrific run defender who commands double teams against the run due to his strength and leverage, such as in the first Bennie Logan GIF. Note in the second Fletcher Cox GIF that the Cowboys double him with a tight end, and in the second Bennie Logan GIF that he draws Doug Free's attention enough that when Free tries to get to the second level he has lost sight of where to go. His one shortcoming is his abilities as a pass rusher, but those are secondary needs for a 3-4 lineman, and he's shown signs of improving in that area this season, using quickness and technique to get by Doug Free before shoving Tony Romo to the ground for a sack.
Cedric Thornton is a good player and should the Eagles have to move on from him in the offseason for salary cap reasons, his will not be an easy void to fill.
In 2014 Vinny Curry had his breakout season, getting 9 sacks despite playing just 32% of snaps, which was a big reason for the Eagles vastly improved pass rush last year. This year he started practicing as an outside linebacker to get him on the field more, and to create some depth at the position. It hasn't happened, Curry has yet to record a sack and the Eagles pass rush has been poor for most of the season so far; and Curry's playing time hasn't increased. Curry has played only 36% of defensive snaps, a modest improvement that has mostly come from the need to replace the playing time of Cedric Thornton and Taylor Hart when they were out with injuries.
But he hasn't been wholly ineffective. While he has yet to have his own sack, he has created space for others. Here Curry does a great job of engaging Zach Martin and drawing him to the outside, moving them into Doug Free and forcing Free to block him, leaving the looping Connor Barwin completely unblocked. Without Curry forcing Martin to the outside, and also without Kiko Alonso sugaring Frederick out of the play, Barwin would never get to Romo.
There's still plenty of football left for Curry to get on the stat sheet, but when Bill Davis talks about how he isn't too concerned with the lack of sacks because the defense is generating pressure, he's not wrong.
In many walks of life, from warehouse stores to stocks, buying cheap in bulk is usually a good strategy. Across the street from the Eagles, the Sixers are stockpiling 2nd round picks because Sam Hinkie knows that with enough chances, he'll land a starting caliber player. Since Chip Kelly became head coach of the Eagles, the team has essentially done this with defensive linemen, drafting four defensive linemen in the 7th round in three years. As you would expect they mostly haven't worked out. Joe Kruger is out of the league, David King is on his third team in as many years, and Brian Mihalik is on the practice squad after a nondescript preseason. But that's okay, 7th round picks usually don't work out, and if you have one that produces every few years, you're at least on the curve. Beau Allen is that one guy who makes the strategy pay off.
As a 7th round rookie playing a position that has a big requirement for strength, Allen was predictably inconsistent and pushed around from time to time in 2014. But he showed an ability to eat up blockers, and with another year of physical development there was reason to believe that he could progress into a solid backup. He has. This year Allen has seen his snap count percentage double from 16.8% to 33.8%, mostly due to injuries on the defensive line, but also because his play warranted it. Allen looks more comfortable and more disruptive than he ever did last year, which is not surprising as players often do make significant improvement in their second year.
This tipped pass is a play he wasn't making last year. Allen displays good hand work using a swim move to blow by Kory Lichtensteiger. He then powers through Brandon Scherff with quickness and strength, and then another display of good hand work to escape Scherff and block the pass.
Bennie Logan is no danger of losing his starting spot, but should he lose time to injury, the Eagles are in fine shape.
It's impossible for a 5th round draft pick to be a bust, but Taylor Hart's inability to ever be on the 46 man active roster last season was a cause for concern. Late picks aren't asked to do much, but Hart was essentially a practice squad player. In his second year, Hart is still a work in progress, but he's shown some encouraging ability. Note in the final Fletcher Cox GIF his uses of hands to free himself from Doug Free.
While he doesn't finish the play properly, Hart's quickness to get to the ball carrier here is impressive.
That's not something you can teach. If Hart can progress like the rest of his linemates, he could be a very nice player.
Last year Brandon Bair was essentially the last man on the DL depth chart. He played almost as many snaps on special teams, 127, as he did on defense, 196. On special teams he was a force, blocking two kicks. On defense he was not much more than a replacement level player.
This year he continues the trend of improving players on the defensive line and has been a solid backup, stepping into the starting lineup due to injuries and more than holding his own. Against the Jets he had a great game by any measure, blocking two passes, one of which was intercepted. That play showcased his improvement from last year. He overpowered RG Brian Winters and maintained his line to the QB despite a secondary block by Nick Mangold. Bair then used his hands to escape Winters and tip the pass (sensing a theme here?), which is very good technique. Like Thornton and Allen, he's improved his hands, making him a more effective player. (Also note how fired up Brandon Graham is.)
Bair will be 31 at season's end, though he has little mileage on him. Teams need good, low cost backups, and he fills that role well in addition to being an asset on special teams.
There's a running theme in these clips, great hand work, and it's no coincidence. The Eagles defensive line has a great teacher in assistant head coach/defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro. Chip Kelly took "Coach Azz" with him from Oregon, where Azzinaro joined the Ducks staff as the DL coach in Kelly's first year as head coach after the two had crossed paths numerous times when both were coaching in New England. The assistant head coach title isn't just nominal. Azzinaro is the primary communicator on the sidelines while the defense is on the field, and is the consigliere of Chip Kelly's coaching staff. Under his guidance as a college coach, six of Azzinaro's players throughout his career have been drafted after he coached them in their final season, including Dwight Freeney. Dion Jordan and Brandon Bair came to him as tight ends, he turned both into NFL DEs. He's also coached other NFL players at some point in their college careers such as Vinny Curry. His ability to teach and maximize his players continues in Philly.
There's probably no better sign of a great position coach than for an entire unit of young players to develop. Just developing a couple of players can bring a position coach notoriety, deserved or not, making it difficult to really judge how good he is. For Azzinaro, all of his players have progressed, which is quite the accomplishment. This isn't a case of a coach being in the right place at the right time with highly talented players, though the Eagles do have those. Bair was on the practice squad of the Raiders and Chiefs before joining the Eagles as 28 year old. Under Azzinaro's tutelage, he doesn't look out of place when asked to start. Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton came into the league as 4-3 tackles, now they're the best 3-4 DL in the league. From the top to the bottom of his depth chart, Azzinaro has gotten results.
One of the secrets to Azzinaro's success is his dedication to having players do a lot of work on blocking sleds. "More violence" starts on the practice field. Bill Davis, a 23 year veteran of the NFL who's worked under coaches such as Dom Capers and Wade Phillips said in 2013 that Azzinaro has them doing an "uncommon" amount of sled work. His players would seem to agree:
Bennie Logan said the Eagles defensive linemen try to break the sleds so there are fewer of them, and thus, more rest during practice.— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) August 12, 2015
Money well spent.
The Eagles defensive line isn't just great now, it has a bright future. Nearly everyone is in or entering their primes, Brandon Bair is the only member of the line over the age of 27. At age 57 and with an assistant head coach title, Azzinaro is in no danger of leaving for a promotion.
There's every reason to believe that the Eagles defensive line will not only continue to be a strength for the next few years, but that it could get even better. Hopefully before then, they will get the recognition they deserve.