When Chip Kelly came into the organization, people knew things would change even on the defensive side of the ball for the Philadelphia Eagles. When he hired Billy Davis, a pioneer of the 4-3 “Under” (basically the 3-4), people knew things were going to change a lot.
And they have, as the Eagles have used free agency to make the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in just one offseason. After losing both starting cornerbacks (and the likely demotion of both starting safeties), 7 of their 8 signings have been on the defensive side of the ball. They are clearly looking to rebuild a defensive unit ranked 29th in the league last year in points allowed per game.
Here is what I project will be the team’s starting defense post-free agency:
5-Tech Defensive End: Fletcher Cox
When the Philadelphia Eagles decided to bring in Davis and run a version of the 3-4, Fletcher Cox was clearly the starter who’d have the easiest transition from defense to defense. At 6’4″, 298 pounds, Cox is the perfect size to play 3-4 DE and along with his big body has the pass rush skills to succeed at that position. I mean, he recorded 5.5 sacks as a rookie defensive tackle.
Even Dan Graziano of ESPN agreed with me in this article about the Eagles’ switch to the 3-4.
3-Tech Defensive End: Margus Hunt (TBD)
A month ago, this spot would’ve been easy to predict: Cullen Jenkins had won a Super Bowl playing defensive end in Green Bay’s 3-4 defense just a couple of years ago, so there was no doubt that he would be the Eagles DE across from Cox. But when the Eagles decided to release him nearly three weeks ago, things became much, much murkier.
The team’s 3-4 ends (Trent Cole, Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham) are simply too small to play defensive end in the 3-4. Among the teams defensive tackles, only Cox has starting experience and 3-4-worthy pass-rushing ability. This leads me to believe the Eagles will look to select their second defensive end in the draft.
Shariff Floyd of the Florida Gators makes sense at No. 4, but as you’ll see later in the article, I don’t think they will select him there. I think it makes more sense that they will go after a DE prospect in Round 2, namely Southern Methodist defensive end Margus Hunt. Hunt is a physical monster, getting 38 reps of 225 pounds at the combine. He’s also a special teams stud, blocking seventeen field goals in his college career. 17! He is a ferocious pass rusher who strikes fear into opposing QBs, and while he’s not necessarily a good run stopper, that’s why he’ll be playing 3-tech where DeMeco Ryans is standing right behind him on every play.
Nose Tackle: Isaac Sopoaga
When the Philadelphia Eagles first hinted at a switch to the 3-4, the first question that popped into every analyst’s mind was, “Who’s going to play nose tackle?”
The Eagles addressed that need on Tuesday, signing former 49ers NT Isaac Sopoaga to a three-year deal. Sopoaga, who has nine years of experience playing NT in a 3-4 defense, is the space-eater that the Eagles will need on first and second down. At 6’2″, 330 pounds, he’ll be hard to move for any center and will hopefully open things up for his middle linebackers and force the occasional run play outside.
Weak Outside Linebacker (Predator): Brandon Graham
A lot of people want Connor Barwin to come in and play “predator”, but he played SAM in Houston’s 3-4 and will likely remain in that role. The “Predator” needs to be a pass-rusher by trade, so in the case of the Eagles, a 4-3 defensive end. In limited snaps last season, Graham recorded 5.5 sacks and forced two fumbles.
As Sheil Kapadia of Birds 24/7 puts it, the Predator needs to be the team’s pass rusher. In this formation, Graham would be the team’s primary pass rusher. He’s quick, agile, and tenacious coming off the edge and has already had talks of switching to OLB.
Strong Outside Linebacker: Connor Barwin
Connor Barwin played strong outside linebacker in Houston’s 3-4 and will continue to play that position in Philadelphia. With 11.0 sacks in 2011, we know he can rush the passer. With 12 passes defended last season, we also know he can drop back into coverage. In Billy Davis’ 4-3 “under” defense, the SAM needs to be able to do both.
Weak Inside Linebacker: Mychal Kendricks
I feel a little bad for Mychal Kendricks. A second-year player who’s played in the 4-3 his whole life, Kendricks was solid playing strong outside linebacker for the Eagles last season. He recorded 75 tackles, nine passes defended, and five stuffs.
Now he’ll have to move inside in the 3-4. People are scared that the move inside will not take full advantage of Kendricks’ incredible lateral quickness and overall speed, but that won’t be true because the defensive linemen are positioned to give him the most room to run (see this article by BGN). The NT and 5-tech take out the blockers on Kendricks’ side, meaning he can use his athleticism to come up and make a stop or go across the field to make a tackle.
Strong Inside Linebacker: DeMeco Ryans
People don’t think DeMeco Ryans can play in the 3-4, and for no good reason. Yeah, he struggled making the switch from 3-4 to 4-3, but that’s because of the way in which Houston used him. He played weak-side in Houston, which plays more like a 4-3 OLB than a 4-3 MLB. Meanwhile, here in Philadelphia, he’ll be playing strong inside linebacker/”TED”, which fits his strengths.
Like in the 4-3, Ryans job will be to come up and make plays in the run game. He excelled in that role last year, racking up 113 tackles to lead the team. He will be asked, unlike Kendricks, to take on offensive guards while the 3-tech takes on the offensive tackle, and Ryans can certainly do it. Of the Eagles LBs last year, he had the least trouble shedding blockers, so there is no doubt in my mind that he’ll be the team’s starting SILB come Week 1.
Cornerback #1: Cary Williams
After losing both starting cornerbacks, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, it became clear that the team needed to reload and retool at the position. To do that they signed World Champion Cary Williams, who recorded 75 tackles and 4 INTs for the eventual-Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
Williams is the physical, tough corner Asomugha and DRC were not. He’s not afraid to jam the receiver at the line with ferocity and then hand-check the rest of the way down the field. He’s also a fantastic tackler, which those two were not. He’s started all 32 games (38 including playoffs) for the Ravens over the past two seasons, and his three-year, $17 million contract says he’ll be a starter.
Cornerback #2: Dee Milliner (TBD)
Now, I know the Eagles signed former Rams CB Bradley Fletcher, but I see him more as a competitor for the job than an actual starter. While he did a good job of limiting wide receivers after the catch, he doesn’t have the best ball skills and gets beaten by bigger, more physical receivers.
That’s why I see the Eagles drafting Alabama CB Dee Milliner with the fourth overall pick. Milliner doesn’t have the best hands, as evidenced by his combine performance, but his athleticism more than makes up for it. He is the second-fastest corner in this year’s draft class, has a very good vertical reach, and can simply shadow a receiver anywhere on the field. He defended the opposing team’s best receiver in every game last season, and shut down Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert in the BCS National Championship Game. Oh yeah, and he led the SEC with an eye-popping 22 passes defended last season.
Adding Milliner would give the Eagles a playmaker across from the more physical Williams.
Strong Safety: Patrick Chung
While Patrick Chung didn’t exactly shine in New England, he’s a little like Williams: physical. Not afraid to mix it up with an opposing team’s receiver. And that’s what the Eagles are looking to do in their secondary, replace soft talent with physical talent.
Chung isn’t a ball-hawk who’ll turn heads with his coverage, but he will come up and make big hits in both the run and pass game. That’s what the Eagles really need out of their SS. I mean, Kurt Coleman made some big hits, but 1/2 of them resulted in penalties and the other 1/2 were when the Eagles were already down 14-17 points. Chung makes these types of plays at every point in a game.
Here are a couple good examples:
Free Safety: Kenny Phillips
When healthy, Kenny Phillips will be the best safety in the division by far. He’s a far cry from Nate Allen, that’s for sure.
While his so-called “degenerative” knee condition may keeping him from helping the Eagles this season, if he can keep it healthy, the Eagles will have a large deterrent for opposing QBs to go deep. When healthy in 2011, Phillips stats spoke for themselves: 82 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 11 passes defended. Of Phillips, Cowboys TE Jason Witten said, “when [Phillips] is in the post, we don’t ever throw anything deep because we know he can go and get it.”
In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked Phillips as one of the league’s top five free safeties after the 2011 season.