For Eagles, all about the scheme

Posted: March 26, 2014

ORLANDO - With the exception of the re-signings of Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, the trade acquisition of Darren Sproles and the 'til-death-do-us-part contract extension given to Jason Kelce, it's safe to say Eagles fans largely have been underwhelmed by the organization's moves in the first 2 weeks of free agency.

They passed on a three-time Pro Bowl safety with 22 career interceptions (Jairus Byrd) for a more affordable one with zero Pro Bowls and six interceptions (Malcolm Jenkins).

They brought back oft-maligned safety Nate Allen.

They signed a cornerback (Nolan Carroll) who probably will open the season as the fourth corner.

They added two guys (linebacker Bryan Braman and safety Chris Maragos) who should improve the special teams, but played a combined 71 defensive snaps last season.

They didn't sign a pass-rusher, but are about to sign a backup quarterback (Mark Sanchez) whose claim to fame is running into the rear end of one of his offensive linemen.

And, oh yeah. They're shopping their leading receiver (DeSean Jackson).

Did I miss anything?

"We're not just building a team of names,'' Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said yesterday during a break at the NFL meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lake Resort. "We're trying to build a team that fits our scheme.

"You start 22 guys. It's such a team game that, with the possible exception of quarterback, one player isn't going to put you over the top. At the other 21 positions, we have to find guys that are the right fits for our scheme.

"For us, it's all about making sure that the guys that we're paying the money to are fitting our scheme and we're not just paying them because they can do something well, but we're not going to be able to maximize their talent.''

For the second year in a row, the Eagles' overwhelming top offseason priority is improving a defense that showed improvement as the season went along, but still finished 29th in passing yards allowed, 17th in points allowed and 24th in third-down defense.

They need to improve on the back end at both safety and corner and need to improve a pass rush that had just 37 sacks.

They've taken heat for passing on Byrd, who signed with the Saints, and bringing in Jenkins, who essentially was replaced by Byrd in New Orleans. Byrd signed a 6-year Mercedes deal with the Saints with $28 million in guaranteed money. Jenkins signed a 3-year Kia deal with the Eagles with just $8.5 million in guarantees.

While Roseman admitted money was a factor, he said Jenkins, a former corner who can cover both tight ends and receivers in the slot, is a better scheme-fit for Bill Davis' defense than Byrd, who earns his keep as a ball-hawking, centerfield safety.

That's his story and he's sticking to it.

"What we were looking for specifically at the safety spot was a quarterback for our DBs,'' Roseman said. "We were looking for a safety who could do a variety of things and be multiple. The way we play defense is different from the way other people play defense.

"As we went into the [free- agent] market, we looked at everything. We explored everything. That's our job. Make sure we know what the options are and what the prices are. For us, we felt Malcolm was a real good fit in all those areas.''

Allen, who signed a 1-year deal, has had his ups and downs with the Eagles since being selected in the second round of the 2010 draft. But he played pretty well last season in Davis' scheme, which has the safeties focus more on the pass than the run.

"The arrow's up on him,'' Roseman said. "When you go back and look at his growth, what we're asking him to do now is a lot different than what he was asked to do in the past. He will certainly benefit from having the same cast of characters around him in terms of coaches, stability and scheme.''

While you can argue that the Eagles should have gone after Byrd, this much is clear: With the additions of Jenkins and Carroll, another long (6-foot, 200) press-man corner who started 22 games for the Dolphins the last two seasons, and the return of Allen, they have upgraded their secondary. And there still is a draft to be held.

"Getting those players allows us the flexibility to draft [whatever player] makes sense, to sign [whatever player] makes sense, as opposed to having anxiety about who's there at that position,'' he said.

The one area the Eagles have yet to address is their pass rush. The 6-5, 230-pound Braman is an outside linebacker by trade. But he has just half a sack in three seasons. The Eagles signed him for his special-teams prowess not because they think he'll be a double-digit sackmeister.

They expressed some interest in DeMarcus Ware after the Cowboys released him, but weren't willing to throw $20 million in guaranteed money at the 31-year-old, seven-time Pro Bowler like the Broncos did.

"It's hard to find pass-rushers, especially on the open market,'' Roseman said. "There aren't a lot of teams letting them go. And then you look at the draft and where those guys go, they go high.

"Certainly, you want to continue to add pass-rushers. But we feel we have some guys we think can rush the passer and fit what we're doing at the outside linebacker position.''

The Eagles will be hard-pressed to get an immediate-impact edge-rusher in the draft. The two best - Khalil Mack of Buffalo and Anthony Barr of UCLA - both are expected to be long gone by the time the Eagles pick at 22.

As far as current personnel, Trent Cole came on in the second half of last season, notching all eight of his sacks in the last eight games. But he'll be 32 in October.

One possible in-house option is to utilize Connor Barwin more as a pass-rusher. With both Cole and backup Brandon Graham transitioning from a wide-nine 4-3 last year, Barwin did most of the dirty work. He dropped into coverage on 25.6 percent of his snaps, compared to 13.9 for Graham and 13.6 for Cole. Barwin still managed to finish second to Cole in sacks with five.

When he was with the Texans in 2011, Barwin was used primarily as an edge-rusher in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme. Dropped into coverage on just 8.7 percent of his snaps that season and had a career-high 11 1/2 sacks.

"One of the reasons we were so excited about getting him last year was his ability to play both roles in a 3-4,'' Roseman said. "His ability to set the edge and be a primary space player [cover], and also his ability to be a rusher.

"He has the versatility [to do both]. In the second year of the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4, Billy will have an opportunity to get more concepts in and do more things with our outside linebackers.''

Keep this in mind: It would be a mistake to rush to judgment on the Eagles, or any other team for that matter, in late March. The draft still is 7 weeks away. The start of training camp still is a full 4 months away. What you see right now isn't necessarily what you're going to get when the season opens in September.

"It's March,'' Roseman said. "I know it feels kind of far along. But we've got a long time before we're back on the field. We'll continue to explore every possibility. We have to continue to get better. And the biggest part of getting better is the draft.''


On Twitter: @Pdomo


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