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.

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.

5 Eagles Veterans Likely to be Cut for Cap Space

Jamaal Jackson Philadelphia Eagles

Free agency is nearly upon us, and the Eagles have just under $10 million available to spend. Some of that money will hopefully go toward locking up young stars like LeSean McCoy. Other funds will be freed up when they trade Asante Samuel (sooner, rather than later if they want to make any free agent splash).

But there are some veteran players they can cut if they need more room under the salary cap. Here are the most five most likely, with numbers from Eagles Cap:

Jamaal Jackson — Cap Savings: $1.9 million
Jackson really should have been gone last offseason. Jason Kelce may not have been that good, but he’s the future at center.

Winston Justice — Cap Savings: $2.3 million
Justice is only two years removed from signing that long term extension. But then he was inconsistent in 2010, injured in 2011. Presumably the Eagles will retain King Dunlap as swing tackle, making Justice expendable. And with his $4 million price tag, no one is going to be clamoring for him in a trade.

Darryl Tapp — Cap Savings: $1.6 million
Compared to other NFL defensive ends, Tapp played well in a rotational role last year. But compared to other Eagles players, he generated the least pressure. Why keep him around when you can get the same or potentially better production out of Philip Hunt, at one-fifth the cost?

Joselio Hanson — Cap Savings: $1 million
The Eagles already cut Hanson once right before last season, and he’s turning 31 this year. Depending on how the coaches view the progression of young corners like Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes, they may decide it’s time to give them a try instead.

Moise Fokou & Akeem Jordan — Cap Savings: $1.3 million
Alright, so this is two players. But both Fokou and Jordan are expendable, low-upside pieces at a position that the Eagles are likely to add anywhere from two to four new players this offseason.

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.

An Eagles Pass Rush Worth Keeping

Trent Cole Philadelphia Eagles

With the bottle still spinning in the Eagles presumed search for a new defensive coordinator, the fate of defensive line coach Jim Washburn is up in the air. Will Steve Spagnuolo, the free agent front runner, see working with Washburn, or are the tactical and personality differences too great to overcome?

All I know is, it would be an absolute shame if Spagnuolo or any other new coordinator failed to incorporate Washburn into his scheme. The numbers bear out what an amazing job Washburn did with the Eagles defensive line, turning it into the best pass rushing front four in the whole NFL.

Pro Football Focus has a great statistic on this, Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP). The stat measures the percentage of pass rushes in which players record a sack, hit, or hurry (weighted 75 percent for the latter two).

Here’s what PRP had for the Eagles defensive ends in 2010, with Jason Babin’s year in Tennessee included for reference. “25% Rank” is the player’s standing next to all other pass rushers with at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.

2010 Eagles Defensive Ends

As you can see, the Eagles defensive line was very effective under Sean McDermott. Darryl Tapp was the worst regular contributor, and he ranked 29th among all defensive ends. Trent Cole led the league in hurries and Brandon Graham showed promise before his knee injury.

But what about 2011:

2011 Eagles Defensive Ends

There were a number of changes. For starters, even without Graham, substitutions were up. Cole was in on over 100 fewer passing plays. Also, the zone coverage attempts by defensive ends that marked 5-10 percent of plays in 2010 were largely eliminated.

The result of these changes and the new Wide Nine technique was an across the board jump in pressure from the ends. Cole moved up to number one in the NFL, Babin improved on his Titans production, and Darryl Tapp — still the laggard — brought up the rear at 10th best in the league. Moreover, even the back ups scored highly in limited snaps.

That is a remarkable improvement. To be complete, let’s also check the defensive tackles’ pass rushing:

2010 Eagles Defensive Tackles

2011 Eagles Defensive Tackles

Broderick Bunkley had the highest PRP among Eagles defensive tackles in 2010. In 2011, the Eagles had three (almost four) who scored higher than Bunkley. That says pretty much everything that needs to be said there.

All the numbers above are interesting, and you can pull out other nuggets in the comments (such as Hunt’s efficiency or Laws’s ineffectiveness), but overall this tells a clear story about the positive impact Jim Washburn has had on this defensive line.

I’m optimistic that a good coordinator can adapt to Washburn’s strengths, but I fear that whoever the Eagles bring in will be too stubborn to do so. Cross your fingers.

Photo from Getty.

How Many Roster Battles Remain for the Birds?

With the Eagles breaking camp on Tuesday, the countdown begins in earnest to the start of the season. I was going to take this opportunity to take stock of the latest depth chart battles. However, glancing over the Eagles roster today, I don’t see many competitions left, and those that remain are for the final few spots.

Let’s run through the positions.

Quarterback: The namesakes have departed, leaving Vick, Young, And Kafka. No drama here.

Running Back: Owen Schmitt has gotten no real competition for the lone fullback spot. Supposedly there’s a competition underway for the 3rd RB, but I’d be surprised if fifth round pick Dion Lewis didn’t win that job.

Tight End: Anyone who tells you Green Bay castoff Donald Lee is going to make the team, barring unforeseen injury, is crazy.

Wide Receiver: If Steve Smith really comes off the PUP list before the season starts, Chad Hall is the only guy the team might stretch to keep.

Offensive Line: Lots of dead weight here I wouldn’t mind showing the door. McGlynn and either Austin Howard or King Dunlap will be gone, along with the rest of the camp bodies.

Defensive Line: The tackles are a mess due to injuries, but at the end of the day it comes down to Laws or Hargrove. Defensive end is just a matter of keeping CFL star Philip Hunt or not.

Linebackers: I actually still think a veteran backup middle linebacker makes sense here. Both Greg Lloyd and Brian Rolle can probably be stashed on the practice squad.

Cornerback: If the Eagles still have high hopes for both Hughes and Lindley, they will find a suitor for Hanson.

Safety: Allen, Coleman, Jarrett compete for starting jobs. Colt Anderson makes the team as special teams maven.

Special Teams: Hope you like rookies.

The Eagles free agent binge has filled in a lot of spots we thought might have been contested. There will probably be a good deal of talk about the final roster, but about 90% of it already looks complete.

Behind Trent Cole, Only Question Marks

Juqua Parker Eagles Defensive Ends

Even if the rest of the NFL world often underestimates Trent Cole, we know how great he’s been for the Eagles. Yet for what seems like the 15th year, the Eagles will enter their next season with Cole as their only truly reliable, above average end. There are a bunch of players behind Cole, even with none drafted in this year’s draft, but every one comes with huge question marks and caveats. Let’s quickly run through each one:

Brandon Graham — Last year’s first round pick had a promising, if not spectacular rookie season. Graham would have been the guy we all expected to step up and provide the complementary opposing pass rush to Cole, except that he tore his ACL in Week 14 against the Cowboys. Now, instead of improving on his rookie performance, he’ll likely still be rehabbing when the season starts. Andy Reid called it a “real stretch” to expect Graham back in time.

Juqua Parker — He had another solid season, but was exposed late in the year by quarterbacks as bad as Joe Webb (I was at that Vikings game, and I can’t get the image of Juqua getting consistently fooled out of my head). The truth is that if Graham hadn’t gotten hurt, Parker would probably be expendable this offseason. He’s already 33 years old. How much left is in the tank?

Darryl Tapp — The former Seahawk, acquired before last year’s draft for Chris Clemons, had a mediocre first season. He had almost as many pass rush opportunities as Parker, but caused significantly less pressure. At least he’s only 26.

Daniel Te’o-Nesheim — For a third round pick, Te’o-Nesheim had a remarkably unimpressive 2010. In fact, he barely got on the field — more than half of his season snaps came in the Week 17 reserves game. Hopefully Te’o-Nesheim can improve enough to contribute something, but he hasn’t shown anything yet.

Ricky Sapp — Not much to say other than he was on injured reserve all of last year. He’ll have to prove he’s back to full form to even have a shot at the roster, let alone get substantial playing time.

Victor Abiamiri — A weird quirk in the free agent rules means Abiamiri will be back after missing all of 2010 after microfracture surgery 16 months ago. I have no idea what to expect, since he’d never shown all that much before the injury.

Philip Hunt — 2011 will be Hunt’s first year in the NFL. After breaking the sacks record in college at Houston, he wasn’t drafted and ended up playing two seasons in the CFL. Last year Hunt led that league with 16 sacks and subsequently the Eagles signed him in January. Best case scenario he replicates Miami DE Cameron Wake’s similar journey, but that’s obviously a longshot.

The uncertainty surrounding each of these players is only compounded by the fact that new defensive line coach Jim Washburn is installing a completely new system that may play to different player strengths than the previous Eagles scheme. Trying to sort out the wheat from the chaff in this scenario seems impossible. I wouldn’t really be surprised to see any one of these guys start; nor would I be shocked if anyone outside of Graham was cut outright. Then of course there’s the possibility that free agency could bring new contenders into the mix.

Ultimately, if and when training camp ever starts, defensive end looks like the position to watch. For such an important spot, its outlook might be the most murky of any on the team.

Photo from Getty. Originally published at NBC Philadelphia.

2011 Eagles Offseason Guide: Defensive Line

Trent Cole Eagles Defensive Ends 2011

This is the sixth in a series of posts breaking down the Eagles position by position in advance of the upcoming draft and (hopefully) free agency. We’ve already looked at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and offensive line. Today we’ll examine the defensive line.

2010 Recap: At defensive end, last season was all about the injuries. Only Trent Cole had another normal, star season at defensive end — where he posted 10 sacks and 55 hurries. Former second round pick Victor Abiamiri missed the entire season after undergoing microfracture surgery. The Eagles fifth round selection in 2010, Ricky Sapp, was also lost for the year after arthroscopic knee surgery. Brandon Graham, the defensive end that the Eagles traded up in the draft to get, showed some early promise. He started six games, compiled three sacks, and on a per pass rush basis, was actually one of the most effective defensive linemen in the NFC East. However, Graham was also bit by the injury bug, succumbing to a torn ACL in Week 14.

Veteran Juqua Parker shared playing time with Graham for most of the season and although he’s never been a star, Parker began to show some liability, especially against mobile quarterbacks like Minnesota’s Joe Webb. Darryl Tapp, who the Eagles traded for in the offseason, contributed four sacks as a rotational player. Another rookie, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim did little to justify his third round selection. Finally there were the host of other names that came in and out during the year: Antwan Barnes, Derrick Burgess, and Bobby McCray.

At defensive tackle, the longtime starters Mike Patterson and Broderick Bunkley were finally pushed. Patterson started the whole year, with his typically solid run defense and lackluster pass rush. But Bunkley, after missing two games with an elbow injury, lost his starting spot to Antonio Dixon, a player the Eagles claimed on waivers after he went undrafted in 2009. Dixon, 6’3” 325 lbs, is the biggest Eagles tackle and perhaps the most explosive off the ball. Trevor Laws, who looked like a bust a year ago, resurrected his career somewhat as a solid inside pass rusher. Finally, 2010 7th round selection Jeff Owens spent most of the year on the practice squad only to be called up in Week 16 and promptly rupture his left patellar tendon.

Who’s Leaving: McCray’s a free agent. DT Jeremy Clark, another late season pick up, will compete but is a long shot. Through an odd loophole of the Physically Unable to Perform list, Abiamiri’s 2011 free agency was delayed a year — meaning he’ll get one more chance to show what he’s got.

2011 Depth Chart: Cole and Parker are probably the starters at defensive end, assuming it takes Graham more than six months to recover from ACL surgery. Tapp, Te’o-Nesheim, Sapp, Abiamiri, and Canadian Football League star Philip Hunt (16 sacks in 2010) will compete for the backup spots, and one or more will probably end up on the outside looking in. Seems like there should be open competition at tackle, where the scheme set up by new defensive line coach Jim Washburn will have a big impact on who starts, and who potentially become trade bait. Not even sure I can handicap that race right now.

Potential Additions: Some fans have talked about bringing back DE Jason Babin, who had 12.5 sacks last year working with Washburn. I doubt the Eagles will be the highest bidder for his services. I also don’t expect the Eagles to trade for Washington malcontent Albert Haynesworth, despite his immense talent. If the team does want to add veteran talent, Vikings end Ray Edwards would be a potential target.

The defensive line is considered a strong area of this year’s draft. Players like Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan could get a long look in the first round.

Future Outlook: The future depends a great deal on Washburn’s new philosophy and who fits into his system. But certainly Graham’s injury deals a big set back to the Eagles plans at defensive line. The team will need other young, talented defensive ends to ensure an acceptable transfer into the post-Cole era.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.