Philadelphia Eagles Position Breakdown: Defensive Line


Following the conclusion of the 2014 season, many understood that changes were sure to come in the ensuing months, as the roster was in need of obvious retooling in the secondary and at quarterback. Little did we know just how much change the Eagles roster would undergo in the coming months, as Chip Kelly systematically dismantled a roster that had gone 20-12 in his first 2 seasons as an NFL head coach. In retrospect, we now understand why Chip Kelly casted off a substantial part of a roster that, in his eyes, had reached its ceiling. However, through all of the changes the offseason brought, one group has remained steadfast; the defensive line. In stark contrast to every other unit on the roster — save for tight end — the defensive line has remained virtually untouched.

While it’s not surprising the Kelly values the defensive line after its successful 2013-2014 stint, his unwillingness to retool the line is a testament to just how valuable the unit is to the Philadelphia Eagles defense. Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry make up a core group of players who anchor what has become one of the stronger front-sevens in football.

What is perhaps most impressive about the group is its age and growth potential. At a crude average of 24.7 years old — when removing the obvious outlier, Brandon Bair, from the equation — the DL is a somewhat green group by NFL standards, and should continue to improve from year to year.

Astonishingly enough, the youngest starter on the group is the reigning second team All-Pro, Fletcher Cox. Cox was a consistent, dominating presence on Jerry Azzinaro’s line in 2014, and is viewed as an ascending talent. Though Cox’s raw numbers weren’t what one might expect from an All-Pro caliber player — just 4 sacks last season — his ability to push the pocket and create havoc in the backfield pushed the Eagles’ DL to a top 4 performance last season.

Having activated Cox’s 5th year option earlier this offseason, the Eagles will surely look to lock him up long-term in the near future.

In 2015, Cox will continue to stake his claim as one of the premiere players in the league. A cornerstone type player and engine of the Eagles’ defense, Cox enters training camp as arguably the best player on the roster, and should continue to impose his will on opposing lineman.

Lining up next to Cox is the third-year nose tackle, Bennie Logan. Though criticized for his performance in the Eagles wild-card loss to the Saints 2 years ago, Logan has been a consistent presence in the middle over the past 2 seasons. A squatty player with long levers, Logan has improved as 2-gap lineman, and is a key component in an Eagles’ rush defense that has proved stifling at times. Not only that, Logan is a good athlete and is surprisingly light on his feet for a nose. Although he hasn’t been much of a force rushing the passer, there appears to be some room for growth in that regard, as Logan may yet to have reached his ceiling.

Logan became the first defensive lineman drafted in the Kelly era when the organization selected him 67th overall in the 2013 NFL draft, and as such, represents much of what Kelly looks for in a 3-4 nose tackle, both on and off the field. Logan will continue to hold down the middle of the Eagles line for now and the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the organization look to extend Logan following the season, as he will be a relatively inexpensive piece and is a part of the cultural nucleus of the team.

Locking down the final starting spot is the unheralded defensive end, Cedric Thornton, who, despite not being a household name, is one of the most prolific run stoppers in the NFL.

Simply put, Thornton does a lot of the dirty work on the defensive line, occupying blockers and freeing up the athletic linebackers to fly around and make plays. While his efforts may go largely unnoticed to stat enthusiasts, Eagles’ fans and others familiar with the team understand the impact that Thornton has on a weekly basis.

Reports came out earlier this offseason that the Eagles were working on a contract extension with Thornton, and its likely that those talks resume following the season. Thornton, much like Logan, should be an effective and relatively inexpensive investment for Kelly.

In the mean time, Thornton will continue to man his spot on the interior, but will cede snaps to Vinny Curry at times as he rotates in. His spot is safe.

Outside of the starters, 4th year defensive end Vinny Curry is the most productive player on the Eagles’ line. The most talented lineman from a pure pass-rushing standpoint, Curry has made his mark on the unit in years past, despite having to make a rough transition from the wide-9 to a 2-gap 3-4 — two contrasting roles that couldn’t be further from one another.

Curry contributed 9 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in 2014, despite only playing in a limited role. While his starter potential is limited due to his poor fit as an every-down 2-gapper, Curry brings obvious value to a defensive front as its pass rush specialist.

Recently, Chip Kelly has expressed interest in expanding Curry’s role a bit, even suggesting that he contribute snaps as an outside linebacker. This expanded role could be a serious boon to the Eagles’ defense as it would give one of it’s most effective pass rushers an opportunity to rush the passer more often, as well as from potentially more exotic platforms. Regardless of the expanded role, however, Curry will continue to attack the quarterback, and will retain his job in TC with ease — though Curry’s future beyond 2015 is much less certain as his contract is set to expire.

The Eagles depth on the line — unlike that of other key groups on the roster — is pretty deep. Part of that depth is Beau Allen, who will be embarking on his second training camp in Eagles green, was a 7th round pick in 2014. Despite his draft status, Allen proved to be a solid contributor in limited snaps last season.

While Allen’s role will likely remain the same as in 2014, he will still be a part of the DL rotation and figures to spell Bennie Logan at times. Allen should be considered a lock for the final 53-man roster.

Perhaps the most interesting player from a developmental standpoint is Taylor Hart, who had the equivalent to a redshirt season in 2014. According to reports, hart has added size this offseason and will challenge for a role on the line. Considering the healthy amount of snaps that the Eagles’ defense is subjected to, it stands to reason the Hart could potentially carve out a spot in the rotation. Kelly and the staff are high on Hart — at least high enough to consider spending a 3rd round pick on him in 2014 — and will continue to give him every opportunity to earn his stripes. Hart will likely sew up a spot for at least this season, and will hopefully make his way onto the field in some capacity this season. Expect Hart to survive final cuts, though anything is possible heading into TC.

Beyond Hart there are a few options with limited upside. Brandon Bair proved a weapon last season, getting his hands on several passes and kicks. Though his potential is rather limited otherwise, it’s very plausible that Bair retains his roster spot.

Bair’s primary competition is likely rookie Brian Mihalik, whose physical skill set projects to a similar role. Mihalik is a part of what could be considered Kelly’s first draft class, so he has an obvious advantage in that regard. Still, with back-end type players roster odds are always contingent on training camp performances. Each player will likely have to do all of the little things right, and distinguish themselves in the eyes of the staff.

This principle also applies to Travis Raciti and Frank Mays who will be facing tough route to a roster spot given the depth of the defensive line.

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