Build A Defense On A Shoestring Budget
Heading into the draft, much is being said about the 2014 NFL draft, and the pressure on the Philadelphia Eagles to upgrade their league last pass defense from 2014. The debate is energetic and passionate, as Eagles fans care a great deal about the Birds and know what is at stake this year. But much of the debate has been along the topics which are quite easy to discuss. It’s a common point to look at the 2013 season stat sheet, look for areas where the Eagles were below average, and then simply begin a twitter, blog, and email campaign to sign that player whose skillsets will address that deficiency. When Jairus Byrd became a free agent, the Eagles fans nearly unanimously campaigned the team to break the bank to sign him. Instead, the Wingheads sought the services of New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins, who will give the team the flexibility which their scheme requires.
I have been witnessing rather heated debates recently about who the Eagles need to draft. But in a system with 32 other teams seeking the same high caliber talent from the same talent pool, it’s futile to focus a draft on a specific player. Rather, it’s important to understand what the overall needs of the team are, and try to select talent to best assist the Eagles in achieving and maintaining success in the playoffs. Since the Eagles pass defense came up short in 2013, let’s focus on that defense for draft needs:
The Eagles lost Clifton Geathers in free agency, and did not address the position. For many, this automatically places the team in the “needs defensive linemen” category. However, Geathers played only 254 snaps for the Eagles in 2013. With no changes from the draft, the Eagles currently have defensive end starters Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton, nose tackle starter Bennie Logan, with rotations from DE Vinny Curry and DT Damion Square . The Eagles have added DE Brandon Bair to the mix this year, as well as returning from injured reserve DE Joe Kruger as well. Should the Eagles do nothing, the expectation will be that Kruger or Bair can win the spot vacated by Geathers and can produce on 250 + snaps in the season. With the expectation that Logan will bulk up, Thornton will hone his pass rush, and Curry’s play will elevate to force more playing time, the Eagles defensive line is in better shape than the start of the 2013 season.
Shoestring Budget: Undrafted free agents can succeed at the defensive line, as Cedric Thornton has proven. Should the Birds not add players until after the draft, there will likely be room for two DT/NTs and 2 DEs. Eagles will likely look for juniors who had declared eligible, or for players who have good prognosis for recovery after an injury.
In 2013, the Eagles linebackers showed the most improvement of any aspect of the defense. And fortunately, the entire squad is back for 2014 (with the exception of linebacker Jake Knott’s four game suspension to begin the 2014 season). If rumblings during free agency can be trusted, the Eagles were actively shopping to help their roster in finding an edge outside linebacker. They were unable to do so. The starters include Conner Barwin, Trent Cole, DeMeco Ryans and Mychael Kendricks. Backups at the linebacker position include Brandon Graham, and Casey Matthews. Travis Long will come up from the practice squad this year, and is favored to make the squad. The Eagles have also signed Josh Kaddu and free agent Bryan Braham, both of whom will compete for special teams and playing time. Backing up on the inside the eagles have Jake Knott (who will be suspended four games), Emmanuel Acho, Najee Goode, and returning from injured reserve Jason Phillips. The outside linebackers came alive in the second half of 2013, but the heavy toll of too many snaps wore heavily on DeMeco Ryans and to a lesser extent Mychael Kendricks.
The Eagles will act to address this group in the draft. When or where the value exceeds the pick will dictate on which day of the NFL draft that happens. Should a pass rush specialist fall to the eagles, they will eagerly make that their selection. But the Eagles have already considered the alternative of drafting a coverage type linebacker, and merely increasing the number of blitzes originating from Conner Barwin.
Shoestring Budget: The Eagles could conceivably “let it ride” on the outside and get away with it for one more year if Trent Cole can put together an entire season, and Brandon Graham finally realizes his potential. The concern is at inside linebacker where the Eagles did not have an adequate second lieutenant swap out with Ryans, which forced the veteran to take far too many snaps. The Eagles will need to spend a draft pick on the linebacker position. Since the immediate need is depth on interior, and starter on the outside, the team does have flexibility depending on who is on the board as they select. Without larger numbers with the skill sets needed by the team, look for the Eagles to select a defensive end with the intent to convert to an outside linebacker. On a shoestring budget, the Eagles must commit at least the fifth round pick to an inside linebacker, and a fourth pick to an outside linebacker. Look for a number (three or greater) of undrafted players to join the team for a look at special teams play and with a long shot of playing time.