Eagles hunting for defensive linemen

Ricky Jean-Francois of the 49ers is an exceptional 295-pound pass rusher who can play different positions on the line.
Ricky Jean-Francois of the 49ers is an exceptional 295-pound pass rusher who can play different positions on the line. (EZRA SHAW / Getty)
Posted: March 12, 2013

The changes on the Eagles defensive line started two weeks ago when Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins were released. Which defensive scheme the Eagles will use has not been disclosed, but the cuts were the first steps of a transition.

Expect the Eagles to play a 3-4 or a 4-3 under scheme, which is a hybrid of the 3-4. That means the Eagles need a nose tackle, and they'll have a defensive end/outside linebacker who's primarily a pass rusher but also would drop into coverage.

The Eagles have only three sure linemen on the roster: Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, and Antonio Dixon. Cox is the lone player in the group who is a sure starter, and the Eagles will try to see what Dixon can do at nose tackle. That's not where Dixon's experience is, so the position is a definite need for the Eagles. And although Thornton is promising, his inexperience will require competition.

Among the free agents, pay attention to San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois, who is 26 and has only five career starts in four years. Jean-Francois, 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, is versatile enough to play different spots on the defensive line and excels as a pass rusher.

If the Eagles want a traditional nose tackle, Terrance Knighton could be an intriguing option. Knighton, a third-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars out of Temple in 2009, is 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds with the nickname "Pot Roast." He appeared to be an emerging young player before he lost his starting job in 2012 after a coaching change, so he may be undervalued. At 26, Knighton fits within the age range the Eagles should target.

Two other talented linemen who would fit in the new Eagles front are Desmond Bryant and Alan Branch. Bryant, 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds, was charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief last month. The 27-year-old had four sacks in eight starts last season with the Oakland Raiders.

Branch is another big-bodied lineman who started the last two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. He played for Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis in Arizona.

The Eagles also will need pass rushers at outside linebacker. The top player in that group is Baltimore's Paul Kruger. At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, Kruger led the Super Bowl champions with nine sacks during the regular season. He also had 41/2 sacks in the postseason, including two in the Super Bowl. But Kruger will be among the most coveted free agents, so his price will rise.

Connor Barwin also fits that profile. The 26-year-old from the Houston Texans is 6-foot-4 and 268 pounds. He finished with three sacks in 2012 after recording 111/2 in 2011, but he's versatile and hitting his prime. The Texans consider him a core player and will try to keep him. Kruger and Barwin would be defensive ends in a traditional 4-3.

The Eagles also could address this spot in the first round of April's draft, which is fertile with linemen and pass rushers. But with the changes expected in the front seven, the Eagles need several players to aid the transition.

Top Free-Agent D-Linemen

Player   Team   Age   Ht.   Wt.   

Ricky Jean-Francois   49ers   26   6-3   295   

Alan Branch   Seahawks   28   6-6   325   

Terrance Knighton   Jaguars   26   6-3   330   

Desmond Bryant   Raiders   27   6-6   311   

Roy Miller   Buccaneers   25   6-2   310   

Randy Starks   Dolphins   29   6-3   305   

Pass Rushers (Defensive Ends/Outside Linebackers)

Paul Kruger   Ravens   27   6-4   270   

Connor Barwin   Texans   26   6-4   268   

Cliff Avril   Lions   26   6-3   260   

Shaun Phillips   Chargers   31   6-3   250   

Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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