Eagles D-Line Still Ridiculously Young

BY PAUL MANCANO—It’s Friday night and football has just walked back into our lives. At the start of the 2nd quarter in Chicago, the Jordan Palmer-led Bears face a 3rd and eight on their own 24. Palmer takes the snap and surveys the field. Then, he surveys 280-pound defensive end charging up the middle, and can only duck as he’s flattened. Curry took out his sack lunch and devoured in right in front of Palmer. Passer = rushed.

This was a somewhat encouraging sight for Eagles’ fans. Curry has shown an adeptness for laying a quarterback into the ground behind the line of scrimmage, having done so four times last year despite playing just 35% of all defensive snaps. But beyond that, opposing quarterbacks spent a good deal of time last year enjoying a cigarette or a power nap before having to throw the ball.

During the first year of Billy Davis’ reign as defensive coordinator, the Eagles’ pass rushers was inconsistent, to say the least. The run defense wasn’t bad–except for the playoff game (you’re not gonna believe me, but I called it. I said, “I’ll bet the Saints surprise everybody and run all over the Eagles.” But nobody listened to me. Tisk tisk). But a portion of the team’s distinction of being dead-last ranking in passing yards can be attributed to the defensive line and linebackers (an even larger portion can be attributed to Patrick Chung). The Birds also finished with just 37 sacks, which ranked 20th in the NFL. By just looking at the numbers, it wasn’t unjust to say Davis’ defensive front needed an infusion of fresh blood this past offseason.

But no fresh blood came. In free agency, Howie Roseman, Chip Kelly, and the rest of the Eagles’ brass focused almost exclusively on the defensive backfield. And, of course, special teams, whereupon every Eagles fan said, “Oh, OK, I didn’t really care enough about our special teams to get like 6 special teamers, but whatever that’s cool I guess.” In May, the Eagles (reached and) grabbed a future linebacker or defensive end or quarterback (VERSATILITY!!!) in Marcus Smith. Great potential, they said, but extremely raw. Not going to contribute much to the defense for a couple years, they said. Two years away from being two years away, they said–no wait, that’s Bruno Caboclo. In the later rounds, they selected two wide receivers, and a bunch of other guys who can apparently each play every single position on the field, just not well (again, VERSATILITY!!!).

So, we’re stuck with basically the same unit for right now, a fact that put fans in a bit of a tizzy. Granted, there are some reasons to worry about the front seven. Fletcher Cox, a natural 4-3 DE, isn’t a perfect fit in Davis’ hybrid. Curry, the team’s most reliable get-to-the-quarterback guy, hasn’t seen much of the field (he lined up in just 35% of all defensive snaps in 2013). And while the linebacking corps, headlined by DeMeco Ryans, Trent Cole, Connor Barwin, and Mychal Kendricks, played better than expected, they’re still dismal at rushing up to the line of scrimmage. Plus, the first two on that list aren’t exactly spring chickens. Or even summer or fall chickens. They’re winter chickens.

However, the defensive line corps is quite springy indeed. Cedric Thorton is 26. Curry is also 26. Bennie Logan is 24. Cox is 23. Add in 22-year-old Smith, and you’ve got a nice crop of wet-behind-the-ears pass rushers.

And the potential is there. With the exception of Thorton, who went undrafted in 2011, these guys were all selected in the first three rounds (Granted, all of them except Logan were drafted by Andy Reid so they therefore blow, but still). I have no doubt that Logan, who was taken in just the third round by Chip and company last year, will improve rapidly. However, Cox is, perhaps, the belle of the ball. The 14th overall pick in 2012, the DE out of Mississippi State was seen by many as a top-ten talent in his draft class. He’s never quite reached his potential, and people question his scheme fit, but he’s still got time to grow.

As with all things, patience is required. Typically, non-skill-position players don’t hit their peak until they reach 27 or so. Legend has it, that’s when they tap into some kind of “grown man” strength. Their bodies are done filling in and they’re able to push guys around like never before. I’ve never hit tapped into this “grown man” strength, but then again, I crank out about 10 pushups every other Sunday, so I’m probably not a good example.

As they age, Cox, Logan, Curry, Thorton and Smith will undoubtedly add strength and experience, becoming better overall players.

Howie and Chip (who I’m convinced should star in a Two and a Half Men-esque sit-com together, with Chip playing the role of the playboy bachelor and Howie playing the nerdy, by-the-book buzzkill. Admit it, you’d watch it) didn’t break the bank to get a pass rusher in the offseason because they’re banking on this group to improve significantly. Much like how the Sixers have stockpiled injured big men, the Eagles have stockpiled young, promising defensive pass rushers in the hope that they one day realize their potential. And, like Sam “Big Ping Pong Balls” Hinkie’s Sixers, they plan to “bring violence” to opposing signal callers in just a few years. We’ve not yet seen the best of this squad, but we will.

“Howie and Chip” debuts this fall on ABC.


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