Eagles swiftly remade their defense

New outside linebacker Connor Barwin (left) will spenda lot of time rushing the passer.
New outside linebacker Connor Barwin (left) will spenda lot of time rushing the passer. (Associated Press)
Posted: March 18, 2013

A change was inevitable, and more moves are still to come, but with two broad strokes the Eagles made over their defense.

The first brush began two weeks ago, when defensive tackles Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins were released. It continued on Tuesday, when Nnamdi Asomugha was cut, and a day later, when his counterpart at cornerback and in crimes against defense, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, signed with the Broncos.

But the canvas was repainted when the Eagles signed eight free agents - seven of whom are defensive players - in a span of 48 hours last week. They added four defensive backs, a pass rusher, a defensive lineman, and a backup inside linebacker.

They come to a defense that will be undergoing a significant modification.

The traditional 4-3 scheme - four down linemen and three linebackers - that the Eagles have run for years will no longer be. In its place will be a front that will often look like a 3-4, but the team will try not to label it.

Chip Kelly wants versatility. Coordinator Bill Davis, who ran a 4-3 "under" scheme in Arizona, is expected to bring to the Eagles a hybrid defense that will give the new Eagles coach the flexibility he wants.

But it does have its requirements. Davis may not run an exact replica of his Cardinals system, but the signings the Eagles made - specifically, acquiring outside linebacker Connor Barwin and defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga - suggest a switch to an odd-man front.

Barwin was drafted as a defensive end, but he racked up 111/2 sacks after the Texans switched to a 3-4 in 2011. He took a step back last season and had only three sacks, but general manager Howie Roseman suggested that was because Barwin was moved from the weak side.

In Davis' 4-3 "under," the weakside outside linebacker is called the "Predator." He rushes about 90 percent of the time. It was expected that Trent Cole, who has played only defensive end, would fill this role. There will likely be a rotation, but Cole may have to sit behind Barwin.

That leaves Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry as the strong-side outside linebackers. Again, neither has played there in the NFL. Graham sometimes rushed from a standup position in college and was scouted by some teams to be a linebacker. Curry has rushed only with his hand on the ground.

The strong-side pass rusher - again, using Davis' 4-3 "under" as a template - drops into coverage 30 percent of the time. Graham and Curry, it would seem, don't have this skill set. Neither does Cole. Barwin has done it, but as Roseman said, it hindered his pass-rushing ability.

The Eagles still have time to find a strong-side linebacker. They could draft Oregon's Dion Jordan or BYU's Ezekiel Ansah with the No. 4 overall pick and slot either into that spot. They could still sign a free agent or select a prospect later in the draft.

But right now the Eagles don't seem to have all the right pass-rushing pieces. They were not aggressively pursuing pass rushers in free agency, but the Barwin deal was too good to pass up.

It could make Cole, Graham, or Curry the odd man out. Cole is 30 and will have a $6.2 million salary cap figure. Those numbers, and his coming off a three-sack season, make him virtually untradeable.

Curry, drafted by the Eagles in the second round last year, played in just six games down the stretch. He is an unknown.

Graham rebounded last season after missing most of 2011 as he recovered from major knee surgery. He has a market. Graham's compact size (a generously listed 6-foot-2 and a legit 265 pounds) doesn't fit Kelly's preference for pass rushers. He likes them long, like the 6-6, 250-pound Jordan.

But Kelly has been clear that he will cater his schemes to the skill sets of his players. The Eagles have invested a great deal in Graham. He is their 2010 first-round pick. They waited nearly two years for him to rebound from his knee injury. It would be hard to trade him.

But he doesn't seem to fit in. Kelly is building a defense that is long in stature and aggressive in nature. Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie were long, but they were adverse to contact, unlike cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, who were signed last week.

Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie missed 18 tackles last year, according to Pro Football Focus. Fletcher has missed six in his career, and Williams whiffed on just three last year. Brandon Boykin will likely remain the Eagles' slot corner.

New safeties Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips come with baggage: Chung lost his starting spot in New England, while Phillips has a history of knee injuries. But both could have upside. Nate Allen is still in the mix. The Eagles could still select a safety in a draft that is said to be rich with them.

Up front, Sopoaga will be the nose tackle on run downs. The Eagles could add another big body. They still have Antonio Dixon. Fletcher Cox, the Eagles' 2011 top pick, will be the three-technique defensive tackle (lining up between the guard and tackle). Cedric Thornton is the five-technique defensive end (lining up outside the tackle), although the Eagles will add competition.

DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks are the inside linebackers.

It's not a great (or good) defense on paper. But it's a start. And the picture is far from finished.

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Contact Jeff McLane at jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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