Les Bowen: Eagles eyed defense in draft

Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox comes to the Eagles highly rated.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox comes to the Eagles highly rated. (MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: May 01, 2012

THIS EAGLES offseason has largely been about giving Juan Castillo the tools to succeed.

If the Birds' 2012 defense blows fourth-quarter leads, can't tackle and frequently looks confused, it won't be because of personnel that doesn't match the scheme, or offseason work lost to a lockout, or a lack of size and talent up the gut. There will be only one person to blame. Well, two, actually - if the defense falters, Castillo probably will lose his job the same day Andy Reid bids farewell, since it was Reid who made the former offensive line coach the defensive coordinator, and Reid who kept him in place after last season's wobbles and stumbles.

After the Eagles completed their nine-player draft Saturday evening, I asked Reid what he thought fans would remember this draft for, in the long run.

"Probably defense," he said. "And 2 or 3 years down the road, I hope people will be saying, 'That was a good draft.' "

Reid is never pessimistic after drafting - has anybody ever been, in any sport? - but he was remarkably relaxed Saturday evening. If his future depends on this team winning, Reid seems OK with that. He talked about the excitement he sensed around the building when the vets started their offseason conditioning program recently.

Reid was asked about drafting guys who can contribute right away, given the perception that he needs to do really well, maybe even win the Super Bowl this year, to get another contract.

"I owe the organization and respect the organization more than that. That's a selfish way to go about it. That's not how I operate," he said. "I want to win more than anybody, obviously. That's my job, and I enjoy competition, but at the same time, I'm going to do what's always best for the Eagles. That's what I'm going to do. Not what's best for Andy. That's not the right way to go about things."

The biggest move of the offseason remains the trade for DeMeco Ryans, giving Castillo what should be an experienced, difference-maker in the middle of his linebacking corps, to play behind the wide nine. But right after that comes the way the top of this draft unfolded, allowing the Birds to spend only fourth- and sixth-round picks to move up from 15th to 12th overall and nab defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. The Eagles were able to keep both their second-round selections to use on linebacker Mychal Kendricks (46th) and defensive end Vinny Curry (59th). Both Kendricks and Curry should push for playing time right away; in fact, Reid made it clear that Kendricks will get every opportunity to win Jamar Chaney's starting strongside spot.

Cox, touted before the draft as the dominant available defensive talent, should push for a starting job in the d-tackle rotation, should provide a pass-rush push up the middle, and he is versatile enough to move outside, if the Eagles want to exploit a matchup there. Curry is long and lean and was projected higher than he went, in a deep d-line draft, Kendricks, listed at 5-11, is short for the SAM role the Eagles envision, but he has experience covering tight ends, and Reid seems to really like his blitzing ability, something the linebacking corps lacked last season.

The cherry on top was getting slot corner-kick returner Brandon Boykin in the fourth round. Boykin seems like a plug-in-and-play talent, another guy who could have gone higher. He helps solidify a group that should benefit from removing the distraction of an unhappy Asante Samuel.

It would have been nice to hear what Castillo had to say about all this, but the defensive czar was not available for comment Sunday. Probably drawing up blitzes.

The draftees had plenty to say over the weekend, though.

Kendricks - who has a solid, muscular build - held that being shorter was an advantage.

"The way I see it is, linemen can't touch me, running backs can't see me. You know what I'm saying? It works out for me fine. For every one big step that the tight end takes, I'm taking two, so I'm tighter on his hip. My cuts are a lot cleaner, my cuts are a lot tighter," Kendricks said.

Fans might be heartened by Kendricks' views on tackling.

"I'm strong at the point of attack, run with my feet, look at what I'm hitting, and I give maximum effort," he said. "I think those things combined make me a good football player and tackler, and wrapping up, too. I'm not always trying to get the big hit. I'm trying to get the guy down. It's a game of inches, and I'm not trying to make the crowd ooh and aah, even though that's nice."

Reid, who does not tend toward the effusive, said of Kendricks: "You put on tape, this guy jumped out at you."

The Eagles did not make this the year they took a linebacker in the first round since Jerry Robinson (who went on to become NFC defensive rookie of the year) in 1979, but Kendricks, taken 46th overall, was the highest-drafted Eagles linebacker since Barry Gardner (35th) in 1999.

The Eagles didn't really need another defensive end, and Reid acknowledged that. They just felt they needed to be true to their board, and there they were at pick 59, with Curry ranked as a first-round talent. You can never have too much pass-rushing talent. Trent Cole turns 30 in October, Jason Babin turns 32 next month, and the Birds don't really know that 2010 first-rounder Brandon Graham will ever be the player they thought they drafted, after ACL and microfracture surgery.

Reid said Curry, "quite a colorful guy," developed a strong relationship with d-line coach Jim Washburn during the draft process.

Curry didn't mind a bit not going in the first round, even though it will cost him some money. He grew up a huge Eagles fan in Neptune, N.J., to the extent that he wouldn't let TV cameras chronicle his wait to be drafted; he didn't want to take down all his Eagles memorabilia. Hanging around NovaCare Saturday during the Brian Dawkins retirement festivities, with as many as 15 former Eagles on hand, was a dream come true.

"This is the best day of my life, here," said Curry, who said he always wore Ricky Watters' No. 32 as a kid. "To see his teammates back here and the way they embraced him, and then the way they embraced me, it was really something special. This is a moment I will never forget in my entire life."


Contact Les Bowen at bowenl@phillynews.com

or follow on Twitter @LesBowen. Read the Daily News' Eagles blog at www.eagletarian.com.

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