The Eagles kept seven defensive linemen on their season-opening roster last year and probably will again this summer considering that d-line coach Jerry Azzinaro likes to rotate six players on the front line of the Eagles’ 3-4 alignment.
After last night’s 42-35 preseason loss to the Patriots, six of the Eagles’ likely seven defensive line roster spots appear to be taken. The two starting ends, Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton, and starting nose tackle Bennie Logan are in. So, too, is nickel pass-rusher Vinny Curry, and in all likelihood, fifth-round rookie end Taylor Hart and seventh-round rookie nose tackle Beau Allen.
That leaves three players fighting for the seventh d-line spot – Kruger, Brandon Bair and Damion Square.
Square was the backup nose tackle to Logan after the Eagles traded Isaac Sopoaga before the late-October trade deadline. He appeared in 10 games, but played only 150 snaps. With the the Eagles unlikely to keep three nose tackles, Square seems to be the odd man out.
That leaves Kruger and Bair. The 6-6, 290-pound Bair played about 25 snaps in the first half last night as defensive coordinator Bill Davis shuttled in many of his backups against the Patriots’ first- and second-teamers. Many, but not all. Kruger didn’t play at all in the first half.
Bair had a nice stop on running back James White on the Patriots’ second possession of the game, holding him to a 1-yard gain. Other than that, though, his evening was uneventful.
Bair was one of several backups who saw action in the first half against the Patriots’ first-team offense. So did Hart and so did linebackers Marcus Smith, Travis Long and Najeh Goode.
“We used a lot of different combinations,’’ head coach Chip Kelly said after the game. “We tried to get some guys in with the ones, because we wanted to see them work. We had a lot of different rotations going on, just so we could see if we could get some guys evaluated on film.”
Bair, who played for Kelly and Azzinaro at Oregon, appears to be ahead of Kruger heading into the final two preseason games.
But Bair will be 30 in November, and Kruger just turned 22 in June. If this ends up being a close call, you would think Kelly and Davis would go with the guy who is 8 years younger. If it’s a close call.
“He’s getting better every day,’’ Davis said of Kruger earlier this week. “He had a couple of nice flashes [in the first preseason game against the Bears].
“But Joe is like a lot of the young guys. We have such a mix of young talent in there that every preseason game means a lot to him. He took a big step forward [against the Bears]. He had a nice game the other night.’’
Kruger played 22 snaps against the Bears and had two tackles, including one for a loss. Against the Patriots, he didn’t get on the field until 8-1/2 minutes remained in the third quarter.
He got off a backside block and made a nice play on running back Shane Vareen, holding him to a 1-yard gain. But on the Patriots’ next possession, he was flagged for a hands-to-the-face penalty on a double-team block.
After registering six sacks and earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors at Utah in 2012, Kruger decided to pass up his final year of college eligibility and come out early.
His agent, former Eagles offensive lineman Joe Panos, talked to NFL scouts who told him they thought Kruger probably would get claimed somewhere in rounds 2 to 4. His brother talked to former Browns general manager Mike Lombardi, who predicted the second or third round. But he fell like a concrete block in the Schuylkill.
The Eagles ended up taking him with the first of three picks in the seventh-round, No. 212 overall.
“I expected to get drafted earlier, but I wasn’t and I moved on,’’ he said. “I’m glad I got drafted by Philly and glad I have the coaches I have. No regrets.’’
That’s probably not quite true. While he might indeed love the Eagles’ coaches, the fact of the matter is he was a 4-3 end at Utah who was drafted by a team that turned him into a two-gap end. Think Willie Nelson singing hip-hop and you have a general idea of the transition.
“I had my hand in the dirt a lot [at Utah], but I was standing up a lot, too,’’ Kruger said. “I was a 4-3 end, so I was always outside the tackle. We didn’t have to worry about getting double-teamed or reading where the offensive tackle was going to go.”
Initially, the Eagles gave some consideration to making the 6-6 and then-269-pound Kruger a standup outside linebacker. But Davis decided he’d be a better fit at end once he packed on some pounds.
“They just said try and gain weight as you can and get used to two-gapping,’’ he said. “It’s crazy. Most of the guys we have on the line never played this scheme before. But everyone’s doing good with it, and it’s working out well.”
Kruger ended up hurting his shoulder in the preseason. He never needed surgery, but was placed on injured reserve.
“It was a great thing,” he said. “I was able to get the shoulder right. I was able to gain a lot of weight. I got the scheme down and got used to using my hands a lot more.”
Kruger gained 21 pounds and is now at 290, which is ideal fighting weight for a 6-6 two-gapping end.
“I’m feeling really good,’’ he said. “I haven’t lost any speed. I’m a lot more powerful. Using my hands a lot more. I’m really comfortable right now and feel like I’m playing well.”
On Twitter: @Pdomo