With OTAs and voluntary workouts done and dusted, Eagles fans have been exposed to some of the talent on the roster for the upcoming season. On the defensive side of the ball, there are many new Free Agents and draft picks vying for starting spots by Week 1 of the regular season. With training camp just weeks away, here are our current projected starters on defense for the Eagles in 2013:
Defensive End: Clifton Geathers and Fletcher Cox
The 3-4 DE position is one that the Eagles have not utilized for several seasons. It does require a certain skill set and body type that is not seen in all 4-3 ends, and thus the Eagles management set out to find some depth and experience at this position. They achieved this in a trade, and while he is not a household name in the NFL, Clifton Geathers has the right skills and size to play 5-technique defensive end. He has one career sack which came in December last year, but he has not really had the game time to prove his ability in the league. A strong preseason and training camp from Geathers will solidify his place atop the depth chart.
2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox shifts from defensive tackle to the 3-technique defensive end position, where he has experience from high school and college. Cox has sufficient size but it’s his agility which will be put to the test playing on the edge against top NFL offensive tackles. He had a fantastic season in 2012 at DT, finishing his rookie season with 5.5 sacks and 39 tackles. Switching positions can affect production, but with enough training and development at that position, Cox should be ready to evolve into an effective 3-4 end.
Nose Tackle: Isaac Sopoaga
Another position that the Eagles came into Free Agency needing to deepen in talent was Nose Tackle. The roster required someone with the size to anchor the 3-man defensive line, and experienced NT Isaac Sopoaga was the man chosen to literally fill the gap. Sopoaga will compete with rookie Bennie Logan for the starting spot, a 3rd round draft selection out of LSU. Logan was recognised as a leader and All-American in 2012 with the Tigers, but could find himself spending a year learning the pro game behind veteran Sopoaga. Logan is a great prospect for the future, but Sopoaga holds all the cards to be the starter at Nose Tackle this coming season.
Outside Linebacker: Connor Barwin and Trent Cole
Connor Barwin is a very intelligent free agent signing by the Eagles management. Barwin has struggled with injuries in his NFL career so far, but he had an outstanding 2011 season with the Texans where he recorded 11.5 sacks, 47 tackles, 7 passes defensed and a forced fumble. While Barwin has never been able to regain that level in another season, he has been a consistent performer for the Texans when healthy, and brings an assurance to the 3-4 outside linebacker position that hybrid Ends do not.
Eagles fan favorite and elite 4-3 DE Trent Cole is being touted as the other starter at OLB, as he works in this offseason on switching from the position that he excelled at. His skill set and elite pass rushing ability will be definite boosts to the team, but his coverage could be an initial weakness for Cole as he moves into the linebacker unit. The main competition for him will be young Brandon Graham, a first-round pick who struggled with injuries but broke out as a 4-3 DE last season. Graham has been slimming down to gain agility and quickness for the demands of playing OLB in a 3-4, and while his form last season was evident, his lack of experience at this position will keep him in a part-time role initially.
Inside Linebacker: DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks
Ryans and Kendricks are the most definite starters at any defensive position. Ryans had a solid first season with the Eagles in 2012, and his leadership and experience are two invaluable assets for this young defense.
Kendricks is a young player with plenty of potential, showing off his ability last season. Playing on the inside will provide Kendricks with less space than he has been used to on the edge of the 4-3 last season, but his athletic ability and instincts will carry over to ILB for this season.
Cornerback: Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher
Two new Eagles are expected to be given the starting job at the cornerback position; Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher came to the Eagles from the Ravens and Rams respectively.
Williams played a key role in the Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl, but statistically he was poor last season, allowing a 91.6 QB rating when targeted and ranked 79th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Success Rate metric against the pass. Williams has also been concerning Eagles coaches with his perceived lack of commitment to practice, with Williams finding many reasons from weddings to dance recitals in order to miss practice. This could be an issue going forward but in reality these practices have been voluntary to some extent.
Bradley Fletcher is a complete opposite to Williams. Fletcher’s statistical resume is outstanding, with his 0.52 yards per cover snap the best average in the NFL last season. Throughout his NFL career, Fletcher has covered elite receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald and Hakeem Nicks with great effectiveness, and is being projected as a very good player for the Eagles in 2013 if he can remain healthy.
Safety: FS Kenny Phillips and SS Patrick Chung
The safety position will be the most volatile personnel-wise for the Eagles in 2013. Kenny Phillips is a great talent, with a huge season in 2011 recording 4 interceptions and 82 tackles, but multiple knee injuries have plagued his career to date. If Phillips can stay healthy in 2013, he will provide the Eagles with arguably the first formidable presence at safety since Brian Dawkins.
Patrick Chung will be competing right up until the first week of the Regular Season with rookie Earl Wolff. Wolff has had a very good offseason so far and will contend with Chung for the start at SS. However, Chung has been effective for the Patriots since being drafted in 2009 with 7 interceptions, 239 tackles and 19 pass deflections in his career. Chung will most likely take the starting spot to begin the season, but do not be surprised to see Earl Wolff see some time at free or strong safety later in the season.