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Eagles defense will have at least five new starters in 2017

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Who will step up?

NFL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense first takes the field in 2017, Jim Schwartz’s unit will likely feature at least five new starters. Here’s a look at who’s gone from 2016 and how they might be replaced.

CB Leodis McKelvin and CB Nolan Carroll

Let’s start with the Eagles’ most pressing need: cornerback. Philadelphia released McKelvin after the veteran defender struggled through an injury-plagued season. Carroll, meanwhile, signed a multi-year deal with the Cowboys despite Dallas seeing firsthand how he can be a burn victim.

With McKelvin and Carroll gone, the Eagles are set to have their ninth different starting cornerback duo in the last 11 years. This lack of stability highlights a weakness that’s lasted for way too long now. Philadelphia has tried spending big money on cornerbacks (see: Byron Maxwell, Nnamdi Asomugha) to fix the problem but it just hasn’t worked for them.

And so the Eagles will likely turn to the 2017 NFL Draft for cornerback answer(s). Philadelphia did not sign any cornerback help in free agency (yet) so the draft is really the only option for them, unless they pull off a trade or two at some point.

It would not be surprising to see the Eagles select multiple cornerbacks this year. It could happen as early as the No. 14 overall pick. This year’s class is supposed to be deep so the Eagles will likely double or even triple dip at the position. A few ames to watch include Marshon Lattimore (trade up?), Marlon Humphrey (visited the Eagles), Tre’Davious White, Gareon Conley, etc.

But there’s no guarantee the draft will provide immediate help for the Eagles. Would Philadelphia really start two rookies on the outside next season? Maybe, but Schwartz is still really high on second-year corner Jalen Mills. He’ll certainly be in the mix for playing time. 2016 nickel corner Ron Brooks is also still around (for now). Could the Eagles be counting on him more than anticipated? The Eagles signed Dwayne Gratz late last season. The former third-round pick has made 25 starts in 43 games played over four seasons. He’s a dark-horse starting candidate to watch.

DE Connor Barwin

It was painfully obvious the Eagles needed to move on from Barwin. The 3-4 outside linebacker just wasn’t a great fit at defensive end in Philadelphia’s 4-3 defense. Going up against left tackles on a regular basis did him no favors. Barwin is a great guy but cutting him to save $7.75 million was a no-brainer decision from a business standpoint.

Barwin’s absence leaves a hole at defensive end, though. Who will start in his place? One would think it could and should be Vinny Curry. After all, the Eagles signed him to a five-year deal worth $46.25 million ($18 million guaranteed) last offseason.

But do the Eagles really trust Curry as a full-time starter? He only played 40.5% of the team’s defensive snaps last year. And it’s not like Barwin was playing so well that it was preventing him from getting on the field.

The sad reality is Curry only racked up 2.5 sacks last season. Sacks aren’t the only indication of pressure, of course, but consider Marcus Smith had the same number of sacks despite playing 200 less snaps than Curry. That’s not a great look.

Curry, who turns 29 this June, has played for three coaching staffs now that haven’t utilized him as a full-time starter. The Eagles need him to be one now, but again, it’s unclear if they trust him to be one. The team reportedly plans on picking a defensive lineman in the first round of this year’s draft and it could easily be a pass rusher. Derek Barnett, perhaps? Solomon Thomas if he falls?

Even if the Eagles do utilize Curry as a starter, they’ll need more defensive end depth. The Eagles like to use Curry as an interior pass rusher on obvious passing downs. That opens up playing time on the edge. Current backups include Smith and Steven Means.

DT Bennie Logan

The Eagles reportedly offered Logan a big money contract extension during the 2016 season but he reportedly turned it down. Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen. Either way, he’s gone now. Philadelphia’s 2013 third-round pick signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency.

Logan was a pretty good starter for the Eagles. He excelled at defending the run. And though he might not have been a great pass rusher by himself, he impacted the way the Eagles got pressure. Fletcher Cox didn’t record a single sack while Logan missed several games last season. Cox clearly got more attention with teams having to put less of a focus on Logan’s replacement, Beau Allen.

Speaking of Allen, the Eagles reportedly have been in talks to extend his contract. Maybe that means the team views him as a viable starter. I have my doubts. Allen has been a nice rotational player but is he really an effective long-term option? In 48 games played, he has 40 tackles and one sack.

Even if the Eagles do like big Honey Beau Beau as a starter, the team needs more depth at the defensive tackle position. Once again, it should be noted the Eagles reportedly plan to target the defensive line early in the draft. Maybe Malik McDowell? Jonathan Allen if he falls? It’s another position to keep an eye on.

LB Mychal Kendricks

Kendricks is still here, so there’s at least some kind of chance the Eagles could keep him for the 2017 season. I really have my doubts, though. It’s already been reported that the team plans to trade him. Even if the Eagles kept him around, would they really use him as a starter? Kendricks only played 26.8% of the team’s defensive snaps last year. He only officially started eight games and a lot of that playing time came earlier on in the season. As he struggled, he continued to get less snaps.

The Eagles mostly used two linebacker sets last season. Nigel Bradham played 1048 snaps while Jordan Hicks played 1043. Kendricks played the third most snaps of any Eagles linebacker at 394. It’s possible the Eagles go with a lot of two linebacker sets again in 2016, so it’s not like the team necessarily needs a one-for-one replacement for Kendricks. But adding more talent at linebacker would give the Eagles more options on defense.

More than five starters gone?

There’s been talk the Eagles might move on from Brooks, the team’s nickel corner in 2016, once he’s healthy enough for the Eagles to cut him. A slot corner isn’t necessarily a starter depending on your definition but it’s still another player who plays regularly. He could potentially end up being replaced by Mills or a rookie.

Nigel Bradham is another potential starter who could be missing on opening day. I don’t think the Eagles will cut him, but he could end up getting suspended for his off-field incidents last year. I wouldn’t imagine the suspension would be more than a few games at most but who knows for sure. If he misses time at the beginning of the year, that would mean the Eagles are starting six new players compared to last season. That’d be more than half of the entire defense.

Will the Eagles be worse on defense in 2017?

Some might consider this to be a hot take but I’d argue the Eagles’ 2016 defense wasn’t really that bad. No NFL team allowed fewer touchdowns at home last season. The Eagles ranked 13th in yards per game allowed, third in red zone defense, and 10th in takeaways. Football Outsiders ranked Schwartz’s unit fourth overall in DVOA.

Was the Eagles’ defense perfect? No, that’s not what I’m saying. There’s clearly a lot of room for improvement. But there were some legitimate bright spots last season. Philadelphia totally shut down the NFL’s top offense last season by holding the Atlanta Falcons to a season low in points, yards, first downs, offensive plays run, and time of possession.

But now with so many starters gone, will the Eagles’ defense take a step back in 2017? Hard to say for sure until we see exactly how the Eagles plan to replace everyone, but right now it’s at least possible. The Birds don’t have any proven starting cornerbacks. They need more help on the defensive line. Linebacker depth is needed.

The Eagles made the right decision by going out and getting help for Carson Wentz in free agency by signing Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Now the team needs to invest their resources in repairing a defense with a lot of holes. There’s a lot of pressure on Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas to get this draft right and restock Philadelphia’s defense.