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Why the Eagles pass rush can live up to the hype

Let’s get excited.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Philadelphia Eagles James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles training camp 2017 is almost here. The first practice starts on July 24. The Eagles' entire training camp schedule, including information on practices open to the public, can be found by clicking here. As we count down the days together, Bleeding Green Nation will be previewing every position on the Eagles roster. We begin today by taking a look at the defensive line.

There’s a thought that’s been stewing in my head for quite some time now.

I briefly mentioned it during my “11 takeaways from Philadelphia Eagles OTAs and minicamp practices” post.

4 - This Eagles pass rush is going to eat

I’m going to try to keep this point brief because I want to write a separate article with expanded thoughts on this topic. But yeah, I really do think this Eagles pass rush could be really good. The “loss” of non-pass rushers such as Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan combined with the addition of guys like Derek Barnett, Timmy Jernigan, and Chris Long should really help. The pass rush showed up early and often this spring.

The Eagles’ defensive line is easily the position group I’m most excited to watch this year. I think this unit has the potential to wreak havoc.

The players

Defensive End: Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, Steven Means, Alex McCalister, Marcus Smith

Graham is an underrated player. Yes, he only had 5.5 sacks last season. But he led the league in combined sacks, hurries, and knockdowns with 80. Earlier this offseason there was some talk that Graham was going to hold out. That ultimately didn’t happen, but I imagine he’s motivated to earn himself a new deal. Graham was one of the few players who brought it every single week last season. I expect him to pick up right where he left off in 2016.

I wasn’t immediately thrilled when the Eagles drafted Barnett this year. I didn’t hate the pick by any means. I just wasn’t super excited. My feelings on the pick have since changed after watching Barnett generate a ton of pressure during spring practices this year. Despite only recently turning 21 years old, Barnett looks ready to contribute right away. I can’t help but feel like he’s going to be in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. You might think I’m getting carried away but some think he’s better than No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett.

Curry had a very disappointing 2016 season. After signing a big contract extension last year, he finished the season with only 2.5 sacks. It was later revealed Curry was playing through a knee injury that hampered him. The Eagles need a bounce back season from Curry. He figures to get more snaps in 2017 now that Connor Barwin is gone. Curry is a few seasons removed from logging nine sacks in 2014. He’s shown the ability to get to the quarterback. Now he needs to deliver.

Long was quietly a nice addition for the Eagles. In addition to serving as a veteran locker room presence, the former No. 2 overall pick can contribute as a rotational pass rusher. Long was significantly more effective with the Patriots last year than Barwin was in Philly.

The Eagles’ pass rush rotation will mainly consist of the aforementioned four players: Graham, Barnett, Curry, and Long. But Means could also see some playing time here and there. Means battled to make the roster last year. He also looked good this spring so the feeling is he’ll keep his job. Nice depth player to have.

McCalister still doesn’t look physically ready for regular playing time in the NFL. He might end up on the practice squad in 2017.

There’s a real chance the Eagles cut Smith before training camp even begins.

Defensive Tackle: Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Beau Allen (injured), Destiny Vaeao, Gabe Wright, Elijah Qualls, Winston Craig, Justin Hamilton

Cox is a beast, but it doesn’t feel like he fully played up to his potential last season. He wasn’t bad. It’s just that he wasn’t as completely dominant as the Eagles needed him to be. Here’s hoping he plays at that elite level this season. The 26-year-old has certainly proved he’s one of the best interior defenders in the league.

Jernigan should help take extra attention away from Cox this year. He’s also a very disruptive defensive lineman. The thought is Jernigan was miscast in the Baltimore’s two-gap 3-4 defensive scheme. He played well anyway, but now Jernigan could really exceed in the Eagles’ one-gap 4-3 system. Jernigan has 13 sacks in 43 games played. For context, former Eagles starter Bennie Logan only had 5.5 sacks in 59 games played. Jernigan looked unstoppable at times while exploding through the offensive line in spring practices.

Allen unfortunately suffered a pectoral injury while training this offseason. He could reportedly be back by Week 1, but it’s not clear yet if that’ll be the case. When Allen is healthy, he’s a nice rotational defensive tackle who can fill in as a starter in a pinch. Honey Beau Beau also plays fullback sometimes. He’ll be a free agent after this year so this is an important season for him.

Vaeao made the roster last year as an undrafted free agent. He flashed a few times but needs to be more consistent to be relied upon more often.

Wright received a decent amount of first team reps in spring drills while Cox and Jernigan were out at times. Maybe he actually has a shot to make the team.

Qualls is behind the eight ball after missing the entirety of Eagles OTAs. The sixth-round rookie needs to catch up fast and have a strong summer to stick around.

Craig is an undrafted free agent who could be practice squad material.

Hamilton seems like a camp body.

How will it play out?

I’m convinced this unit is going to EAT.

The Eagles have a lot of pass rushing talent on the edge. Graham is really good. Barnett has already flashed promising potential. I think Curry can at least be a valuable rotational guy. Long can also contribute. That’s a good group.

The interior is where I think the Eagles can really do a lot of damage. Teams are going to have trouble doubling Cox when Jernigan is also very disruptive. I think the two of those guys are going to cause real problems for opposing guards and centers. That type of interior pressure could cause the quarterback to regularly be flushed out of the pocket.

And that’s where Jim Schwartz’s wide-nine really comes into play. If quarterbacks are forced to move out of the pocket, they’ll be moving right into the path of the Eagles’ edge rushers who are coming in from a wide angle. Graham’s pure power will be too much for right tackles to deal with. Barnett’s uncanny ability to bend around the edge will be super useful in this area.

Another thing to consider about the Eagles’ pass rush is the addition by subtraction that took place this offseason. I have nothing negative to say about Barwin and Logan as human beings, but they weren’t exactly the most effective players last season. Barwin was simply miscast as a 4-3 defensive end. I specifically remember watching him get easily erased by left tackles last season. It was like the Eagles were playing with only three defensive linemen at times. As for Logan, he was a very good run defender, but he didn’t do much to regularly push the pocket. The Eagles are better off without these two players.

Schwartz is a big believer in getting pressure with the front four. Philadelphia has invested a lot of resources into this defensive line and I think it could really pay off this season. The Eagles’ weakness at cornerback could mitigate their defensive line success at times if teams are able to get the ball out quickly, but that shouldn’t be the case every week. Philadelphia’s pass rush should generate a lot of pressure this year.

Who could be a surprise cut?

Seeing Smith cut wouldn’t be a surprise as much as it’d be notable since he was a first round pick in 2014. Sorry for reminding you.

McCalister getting cut shouldn’t come as a surprise.

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