A Defensive End Preview

Sheil Kapadia:

Jenkins has been getting some reps at defensive end with Jason Babin out. We didn’t see him outside much last year, although Jenkins played defensive end while in a 3-4 with the Packers.

“I just gotta get back used to it,” he said. “My hand work is a little off, especially on the left side. When I did play D-End in the past, I was used to being on the right side, so when I’m on the left side, I gotta get used to the hands, vertical steps and all that stuff.”

I’m a fan of whatever looks Jim Washburn wants to throw at offenses, but with Trent Cole also out with swelling in his shoulder, now seems like the perfect time to get lots of looks at the quartet of Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Darryl Tapp, and Philip Hunt. You’re not going to be able to keep all four of those guys.

Seeing Cole and Babin both dealing with injuries is also a worthy reminder that they’re not youngsters anymore. They were tremendous pass rushers last year, but a decline could be coming.

UPDATE: Graham is running with the ones, and Jenkins and Tapp are rotating on the other side.

Jim Washburn is a Quote Machine

Reuben Frank compiled the full transcript of Jim Washburn’s session with the media earlier this week in two parts. It’s so glorious I’m having trouble picking my favorite parts.

“I can’t lie,” Washburn said. “That’s why they don’t want me to talk.”

Please keep talking, Wash.

Adventures at Summer Camp: Lehigh Day 2

Because someone has to read all the news coming out of the Eagles training camp.

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When double-negatives attack. Bobby April told the press, in as roundabout a way as he could manage, that DeSean Jackson won’t be the primary punt returner anymore, now that he has his big contract:

"I don’t think that we’re not going to use him," April said. "I just don’t know if he’s going to be the primary guy. … He’ll continue to work at the positiion. He just won’t get as much work as he normally does."

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Can’t lower the bar enough. April also said that while he was looking to bring in competition for Chas Henry, the former Florida punter did well for a rookie. That is simply not true. Among his fellow rookies, Henry had the second-lowest net average and tied for the lowest ratio of punts inside the 20 yard line to touchbacks, a rough measure of placement and touch. Needless to say, those stats look even worse compared to veterans.

UPDATE: Eagles signed former Cowboy Mat McBriar.

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My kingdom for a Washburn post-game press conference. Jim Washburn is so candid. He talked to the press yesterday, and the quotes were flying. On Mike Patterson coming back from brain surgery:

"Mike Patterson might be one of the best people I’ve ever had," said Washburn. "He doesn’t have to come to these rookie meetings at night and in the afternoon, he doesn’t have to be there, but guess what? He’s there. I said, ‘Mike, you don’t have to be here,’ and he said, ‘I like to be here.’ He likes football. He’s a good one. God dang, we miss him now."

On Antonio Dixon:

"I was so disappointed," said Washburn. "I couldn’t tell if he had any talent… I couldn’t tell if the guy was a good player or not. I couldn’t tell if he was a good athlete. He weighed 365 or something like that. His back was killing him. He was out of shape. I couldn’t even tell if he was a player. This spring, he worked his butt off. He’s down, I don’t know how much he weighs, he’s maybe 330 from 360 or whatever it was. He’s in so much better shape and I went, ‘Wow, this guy’s got some quickness.’ He likes to play and he’s tough, but he’s got ability."

On Trent Cole:

“He told me when I first got here, ‘I ain’t rotating,’” Washburn said Tuesday at Eagles training camp. “Said it right up there in that meeting room. I said, ‘Yes, you are … or your ass ain’t going to play.’ He’s a great kid, Trent.”

On Brandon Graham:

"He changed some of the habits in his life, I think," Washburn said. "He got serious. … I don’t know, [he’s] a mild-mannered guy. He was a good player in college, he was. I watched every game he played in college for a year or two. He was a good player. Should be a good player here. Lost his weight. Got too heavy.” Graham, of course, is coming back from knee surgery after losing most of 2011.

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Tearjerker. If you’re not rooting for lifelong Eagles fan Vinny Curry before, you will Be after you read Jeff McLane’s article about him. Plus, bonus Washburn quotes!

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Mini-Asante? Multiple reports talked about UDFA Cliff Harris picking off a few passes during yesterday’s practices, putting him out to an early lead in the Training Camp Darling category. But let’s not go crazy here. There are no good wide receivers at camp, and some of the picks just demonstrate how bad Trent Edwards is.

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On the other hand, I’m starting to let the continued positive reports on Mychal Kendricks get to me. He seems much more prepared than Casey Matthews was, at any rate.

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Poorly Written Articles Edition. Bill Barnwell gives us what he pretends to be a statistical analysis of the top running backs in the game, but somehow concludes that Ray Rice is better than LeSean McCoy without demonstrating any number that backs that up.

Even less insightful was the book excerpt in Fast Company about how Jeff Lurie turned around the Eagles. What a waste of time.

On Run Defense and Wasting the Offense's Time

Interesting nuggets on Jim Washburn’s philosophy, from Rich Hoffman:

"I know that Jason Babin is not a great run player," he said. "But in this thing we’re doing, if he does it the right way, he can be adequate – or more than adequate.

“We could put a 300-pounder out there and he would be a whole lot better [against the run)] But this is 54 percent pass on first down in the NFL. So if you get some big stud out there that can play the run, crush the run, but can’t rush the passer, then you’ve conceded 54 percent of the time.

“[Babin] can be a whole lot better as a run player, but he wasn’t terrible. That’s the truth.”

Washburn says the goal is to hit the quarterback every pass play, and he says that his team’s performance tends to be more about what they do than what the opponent does, and that when he shows different formations and such – like when he has a player standing up and not in a stance – it tends partly to be about making the other teams waste time in practice on inconsequential stuff, and partly keeping his own guys interested. That last part, he says, is a big part of the job.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Defensive End

Darryl Tapp Juqua Parker

What the Eagles did: Back in February, I ran the numbers on the pass rush from the Eagles defensive line. The results were telling:

2011 Eagles Defensive Ends

While production was way up across the entire group (thanks Wash), there was a clear separation. Trent Cole and Jason Babin were spectacular, and with any luck we can get similar production from that duo going forward. They are Pro Bowl-caliber players going into their 30 and 32-year-old seasons, respectively. That places them on the tail end of their prime, most likely, but certainly still in it. No worries there for 2012.

The next pairing I would group are Philip Hunt and Brandon Graham — the question marks. I’m not so sure about his run defense, but Hunt’s pass rushing in limited snaps showed tremendous potential. I’m very interested to see if he can increase his role this season. Graham basically experienced a lost year in 2012. This is his make-or-break campaign. He has the raw talent to push for serious playing time, or he could fall away completely.

The final two were Juqua Parker and Darryl Tapp. As situational pass rushers, neither player was bad, per se. But compared to the rest of the group? The Eagles let Parker walk in free agency, and Tapp now has serious competition to remain on the roster.

Meanwhile, the team added Vinny Curry in the second round, making him the most talented football-playing Eagles fan anywhere. Curry slots right in with Hunt and Graham at this point. He’s young, ideally-suited to Jim Washburn’s schemes, and could contribute right away.

What I would have done: I might have tried to trade Darryl Tapp away during the draft for an extra pick, but I can see the logic in keeping him around at this point. After Babin and Cole, Tapp is the only defensive end with starting experience. He’s a solid veteran insurance policy, even if he looks like the odd man out right now.

Other than that one nitpicky point, solid job by Howie Roseman.

Way-too-early prediction: Especially with the flexibility to slide Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox outside, I can’t imagine the Eagles would keep more than five players at defensive end. Barring injuries, Cole, Babin, Graham, and Curry are all locked in. As I discussed above, there’s reason to be fairly bullish about Hunt’s chances as well. That puts Tapp (and whichever free agent replaces the now-injured Maurice Favorite) out on the street.

Other than that general roster prognostication, I don’t really have any idea who will emerge as the first guy off the bench. It should be one of the more interesting positions to watch from a playing-time competition standpoint.

Photo from Getty.

What We Learned from the Fletcher Cox Selection

Fletcher Cox

I can’t remember the last time the Eagles picked somebody in the first round that both draftniks and fans loved. Look at Bleeding Green Nation’s fan poll on the pick: Cox’s approval rating sits at 94 percent. A year ago, Danny Watkins eked out majority approval by a margin of just 21 votes out of about 1,600.

The fact that Cox is popular doesn’t, on it’s own, make the selection a good one. But it fits in so many ways. Let’s break down what we learned last night:

  1. The Eagles have become remarkably clumsy at deploying smokescreens for their first round pick. Was anyone other than a few reactionary mock drafters buying a Dontari Poe selection? The way the Eagles led him on a pointless parade past reporters a few weeks back on raised major red flags. What Reid said last night about Kansas City and Poe confirmed that they never had any real interest.

  2. Scheme matters. On a related note, it is important to keep in mind the scheme prospects look most suited for. There were plenty of DT options in the middle of the first round, but the Eagles made sure to grab the one who fit best with Jm Washburn’s penetrating style.

  3. Despite the trades, the first eight picks played out almost exactly as planned. The elite eight ended up being a game of musical chairs (propelled by more reasonable contracts), but that didn’t matter much to the Eagles. Other than Mark Barron, who reportedly was never a NovaCare target, all the players you expected to go early did. That allowed the Eagles to sit back and wait for either Luke Kuechly or Fletcher Cox to drop. Note: I would wager that had the Panthers taken Cox instead, we would probably be having the same conversations we’re having now, except it would be Kuechly coming to Philly today.

  4. Don’t draft an immediate starter. The Cox selection continues a general trend in which the Eagles rarely draft anyone with the expectation that they will start right away. The defensive line is aging and Cox can step right in a contribute, without having to be a starter until year two, when the writing is on the wall for Cullen Jenkins.

  5. Valuing the second round picks more? Andy Reid talked about having a limit on what they were willing to pay for a trade up. He said they didn’t want to give up a second round pick, as Dallas did, to jump up into the top 10. I wonder if this is actually a change in policy dating back to the disastrous trade up for Jerome McDougle in 2003. Since then, the most the team has paid in a trade was a third round pick to move up for Brandon Graham. That hasn’t been a resounding success either. The fourth and sixth round picks the Eagles gave up this time amounted to an exceedingly reasonable price. (The draft value chart says the difference between pick 12 and pick 15 is properly a late third round selection.)

What to watch for tonight: If the Eagles make all three of their next selections, I would guess they’re looking to come away with a linebacker, defensive end, and some sort of offensive weapon at either wide receiver or tight end. But given their recent history, a trade back to accrue more picks (and starting linebackers) is likely in the cards.

Photo from Getty.

Guessing the Eagles Draft Plans: A, B, and C

Andrew Luck
Robert Griffin III
Matt Kalil
Trent Richardson
Justin Blackmon
Morris Claiborne
Ryan Tannehill

Looking at mock drafts from around the web, the above seven players have emerged as consensus locks for the top eight picks. Collectively, draft experts would be surprised to see any of them drop beyond the Dolphins, who seem poised to select Tannehill.

If you take these mocks to heart, only one player from the “next tier” of prospects will be selected in the top eight (most likely by Jacksonville). Which player that is depends on who you read. Could be Melvin Ingram or Fletcher Cox or Stephen Gilmore.

But even putting aside that one spot, consensus like this on seven of the top eight picks is rare. Which, as I said the other day, makes it (slightly) easier to guess what the Eagles will be looking at when the draft comes to its first turn at the ninth overall pick.

To me, that’s the critical juncture for the Eagles. As of right now, operating on nothing but rumors and logical conjecture, I would bet the Eagles wish list — assuming the draft turns out this way — looks something like this:

Plan A: Fletcher Cox. Defensive tackle makes the most sense of any position and Cox is tailor-made for the Washburn’s scheme. The fact that they paraded Dontari Poe around and kept the Cox workout under the radar also suggests that something is going on. In order to get their top choice, however, the Eagles will likely have to trade up, perhaps as high as ninth overall.

Plan B: Luke Kuechly. Jacksonville or Carolina could easily spoil the plan for Cox, in which case the next logical player is KEEK-ly. The linebacker would be an immediate upgrade on the strongside and a long term solution in the middle after he apprentices next to DeMeco Ryans. Some mocks have him going in the 11-12 range, but given the reception 4-3 linebackers have received in the free agent market, that may be overstated. 

Plan C: Grab bag. Not sure that I see the Eagles trading up for Kuechly, but if he’s taken before they come up, everything breaks wide open. At that point you’re really talking about the “best available defensive player,” who is probably someone like Quinton Coples or Dre Kirkpatrick. 

That’s how I expect the Eagles to approach the draft from their perch at 15 overall. I would be surprised to see Cox selected in the 12-14 range without the Eagles moving up to snag him first. Failing that, I would be surprised to them pass on Kuechly if he were available at 15.

But then again, I could be completely wrong. What do you think?

Eagles' Fletcher Cox Workout Comes to Light

Jordan Raanan, for BGN:

The Birds appear to have had a private workout some time in the past few weeks with Cox in Starkville. They sent defensive line coach Jim Washburn to run the former Mississippi State standout through some drills and get a better idea of what makes him tick.

"I talked to coach Wash," said Cox, the current overwhelming favorite for the Eagles in the endless mock drafts at our disposal. "We’ve talked and he came down and saw me, worked me out a little bit. He just wanted to get to know me, see what kind of person I was."

So Washburn worked out Fletcher Cox in private, and “accidentally” paraded Dontari Poe past the beat reporters at NovaCare. Hmmmm.

Despite Jenkins' Return, DT is a Top Draft Priority

Les Bowen:

Even though Jenkins is 31 and might not be a long-term starter, his return, along with the return from injury of Antonio Dixon, might mean the Eagles don’t target a defensive tackle with the 15th overall selection in the April entry draft. If they re-sign pending free agent Derek Landri, that will become even less likely.

Disagree. As I briefly mentioned a few weeks ago, the defensive line is in need of young talent. This Cullen Jenkins contract restructuring is nice, but he’s not a long term solution at tackle. Nor is Mike Patterson, Derek Landri, or Trevor Laws. Plus, as Sheil Kapadia noted today, there’s already a robust rotation that would easily integrate a new addition.

All in all, if the Eagles address middle linebacker in free agency and Luke Kuechly remains the only consensus first round 4-3 linebacker, defensive tackle immediately jumps to the front of the line in terms of most likely early pick.

Bowles, Castillo, and a Defensive Coaching Void

Todd Bowles

What do you call a defensive coordinator who isn’t in charge of his defense?

With the new hire of Todd Bowles as secondary coach, I suppose the answer is Juan Castillo.

Surely Andy Reid will tell the press today that he always planned to retain Castillo, but we don’t have to believe him. The Eagles were turned down by Steve Spagnuolo and others before they settled back in for another year of “the offensive line coach?” Castillo, who could already rely on “assistant” Jim Washburn for the defensive line, now has Bowles coaching up the defensive backs.

On the surface, given Castillo’s return, the Bowles move is quite positive. He has a long history in the league and was respected enough by his players that the Dolphins promoted him to interim head coach after Tony Sparano was fired.

But I doubt that Reid lured Bowles to town with anything less than absolute control over the secondary — much like Washburn has over the defensive line. And while that might bring better schemes and technique, it also establishes the second of Castillo’s underlings who actually have more power than he does. Juan’s role is rapidly reducing. Presumably he still has control over Mike Caldwell’s linebackers (for better or worse) and playcalling duties (mostly worse) — but that’s all.

Somehow, two authoritative assitants and one bumbling overseer doesn’t strike me as the formula for a successful defense.

Let me put it a different way. On The Wire, police Major “Bunny” Colvin (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Bowles) uses his complete control over the Western District to establish his own extra-legal, free-drug zones to isolate the gangs in uninhabited areas of Baltimore. It’s a brilliant plan in its own right, and succeeds in cutting down on violence.

But, (spoiler alert) it can’t last. Colvin’s plan is incompatible with the rest of the police force, especially his backwards superiors. Change within a corrupt bureaucratic organization is difficult, and it has to start at the top. You can’t fix problems and spearhead better policies without a cohesive plan pulling it all together.

By removing Castillo further from on-the-ground responsibilities, Reid has addressed the symptom of poor coaching without removing the cause — the lack of an experienced defensive coordinator who can actually take control of the whole defense. Until that changes, I will remain pessimistic about the unit’s future.

Photo from Getty.

Jim Washburn, the Draft, and Size at DE

Jevon Kearse Trent Cole Eagles

Linebacker is by far my preferred first round draft choice for the Eagles. Given the severe dearth of talent at that position, it’s not even a particularly close decision in my mind.

That said, teams shouldn’t reach too far for need. You should attempt to select the best player available, lest you end up with another Danny Watkins. With that in mind, I could easily see the Eagles going with a different position in the first round, perhaps cornerback after they trade Asante Samuel, or, more likely, defensive line.

Whether or not it’s the first round, Jim Washburn could use an infusion of youthful talent along the front four. Trent Cole and Jason Babin are both Pro Bowl-caliber ends, but they’re both closer to the end of their prime than they are to the start — and the situtation behind them is murky. Brandon Graham is coming off a serious injury and a lost season. Darryl Tapp and Philip Hunt have had their moments in the Wide Nine, but neither can be trusted to take over as a starter if needed.

The defensive tackle spot is in a similar situation, but I’m just going to look at defensive ends today. The question is, what kind of end does Washburn want? And the answer to that question suggests that there may be more turnover than we think.

Jim Washburn DE Draft Picks At right are the defensive ends selected in Tennessee in the 12 years Washburn was coaching there. He must have had tremendous input into which players were taken. In theory, these are players that are prototypical for what Washburn wants to do at the position.

The thing that jumps out at me immediately is their size. Washburn’s only drafted two defensive ends shorter than 6’4”. And his free agent picks have all been in that 6’4”-6’6” range too: Kyle Vanden Bosh, Dave Ball, Kevin Carter, etc.

It’s just an interesting piece of trivia until you look at the Eagles current group of ends. Tapp is only 6’1”. Hunt is 6’0”. Graham,at a generously labeled 6’2”, would (given the opportunity) be the smallest defensive end who’s ever started for Washburn. Now, this doesn’t rule them out completely. If they’re good enough they’ll play, regardless of size. Both Cole and Babin, listed at 6’3”, are still on the small side of Washburn’s range.

(Note: Washburn’s tackles have been on average 6’3”. Only Cedric Thorton and Antonio Dixon currently fit that mold.)

But, with that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if those two and Graham are the only players at defensive end who return in 2012.

Tommy Lawlor, the authority on all things Eagles draft, mentioned some of the defensive ends scouting consultant Phil Savage talked to at the Senior Bowl. Based on Washburn’s preferences, I would be surprised if the Eagles selected the relatively short Melvin Ingram or Courtney Upshaw. Cam Johnson, a player Tommy likes a lot, would a more natural fit at 6’4”.

Come April, the Eagles have ten draft picks. I could easily envision a scenario in which they spend four of them on the defensive line, and at least two at end. And when you’re shuffling through prospect profiles for a preview of players who might end up in Philly, keep your eye on height as a key factor.

Photo from Getty.

Senior Bowl Nuggets

If I’m going to bash him for his poor articles, the least I can do is commend Jeff McLane for giving us fun anecdotes from the Senior Bowl:

A few funny/odd moments from the Senior Bowl today. When @LesBowen and I were going to have our q&a with Howie, Drew Rosenhaus spotted us and said to Howie, “Don’t let them double team ya, Howie.” Um, OK. So, Drew, will DeSean be OK with the franchise tag? “Uh, no comment.”

The other came when we were talking to Washburn and Les teased him about the report that he kept Spags from coming to the #Eagles, and as Les went to pat him on the shoulder, Wash gave him a swim move & swatted his hand away. “Good Times with Wash” should be a reality show.

For actual, consequential notes, I suggest you visit Jimmy and Tommy, since they are killing it from Mobile.

Washburn and Spagnuolo

Peter King:

Someone Who Knows told me a major roadblock to Steve Spagnuolo taking the defensive coordinator job in Philadelphia was the presence of very strong personality Jim Washburn on the defensive line.

This doesn’t surprise me. The Wide Nine was always a red herring in talks about whether a new coordinator would be compatible with Washburn. The bigger issue is that a new coordinator would have to cede all control of the line to his supposed underling. Remember, Washburn doesn’t take orders from anyone.

Is the Wide Nine to Blame for Poor Run Defense?

Since I’m worried that these may be some of the Eagles final days with Jim Washburn as defensive line coach, now is as good a time as any to analyze his impact on the defensive line. A few days ago I showed how Washburn formed an elite pass rush.

Today, let’s look at the run defense.

During the season the Wide Nine technique was often scapegoated for poor run defense. While no one doubted that the Eagles linebackers were awful, many also alleged that Washburn’s scheming put too much pressure on those overmatched LBs.

To that end, it’s worth examining the defensive line to see how much it contributed to the problem, if at all.

Football Outsiders numbers suggest that, if anything, the line was the only thing working correctly against the run. While they place the Eagles squarely in the middle of the league on adjusted line yards, the defensive line was third-best in the NFL at both power success (denying short yardage runs) and stuffed percentage (runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage). The bigger problems appeared in second level and open field yards, which are generally the responsibility of the linebackers and safeties.

But let’s look more specifically, player by player. Pro Football Focus has the numbers there:

Eagles Defensive Ends Run Defense

At defensive end, I don’t see much cause for blaming Washburn. Both Trent Cole and Darryl Tapp improved on their tackle and stop percentages in 2011. Juqua Parker dropped off, but there’s little reason to think that was because of the Wide Nine.

Jason Babin does come out looking pretty bad here. Among defensive ends with at least 25 percent of their team’s run snaps, Babin ranked near the bottom — 51st — in stop rate. Unlike Cole, Babin isn’t a complete player. But if he can continue to put up big sack numbers, it won’t really matter.

Eagles Defensive Tackle Run Defense

The two main holdovers from 2010, Mike Patterson and Trevor Laws, both improved against the run last year. Broderick Bunkley helped Denver reach the second round of the playoffs, but the additions of Derek Landri and Cullen Jenkins more than made up for that loss.

Overall, I just don’t see any merit to the arguments that blame poor run defense in Jim Washburn and the front four. All signs point to the putrid tacklers playing behind them, not the line itself.