How to Fix the Philadelphia Eagles Defense
The Philadelphia Eagles will get around to holding a press conference to announce that they have finally hired Doug Pederson as their new head coach, but that is far from the most important hiring the team will make in the coming days.
Sure, the head coach of a team is important, but since Pederson is basically Andy Reid-Lite, it is important to note that Reid was only good while Jim Johnson was his defensive coordinator. Once Johnson died, so did Reid's ability to win games in Philly. It's no coincidence the Eagles haven't won a playoff game since Johnson died. With that in mind, I think the most important hire that the Eagles will make this offseason is who will run their defense.
There are a few names being thrown out in the rumor mill, including Doug Pettine, Lovie Smith, Steve Spagnuolo and Jim Schwartz, among others. I can't honestly tell you who the favorite is; I just hope it isn't Schwartz and his stupid Wide-9. We already saw that disaster at the end of the Reid era. Oh crap, maybe Lurie wants that back too and they'll make Offensive Line coach Jeff Stoutland the new defensive coordinator. Whoever they hire, he will at least be better than Bill Davis. Talk about having nowhere to go but up.
Regardless of who the Eagles hire as their defensive coordinator, I believe they absolutely must switch back to a 4-3 defense.
The Eagles ran a 4-3 under Reid (Johnson, actually), but Chip Kelly came in and switched to a 3-4 defense, even though his personnel didn't fit that scheme. He signed a few guys who were better fits for the 3-4, but there are still more players on the current Eagles defense that are better scheme fits in the 4-3 than the 3-4 defense. Let's take a look.
Fletcher Cox is by far the best player on the entire Eagles roster. He is a beast, who had 9 1/2 sacks this past season despite playing in a system where his job was to simply occupy offensive linemen and being double teamed on almost every single snap. The thing is, he's not really a 3-4 DE. He was drafted as a 4-3 DT and he could be the best DT in the NFL in a 4-3. He will simply blow up the interior of offensive lines rushing from the inside. NT Bennie Logan will be a perfect complement to Cox inside at DT because he's more of a traditional run-stopper than a penetrating pass-rusher. Every defense needs those players in order to be effective. Plus, Logan was a 4-3 DT at LSU.
Outside, the Eagles can finally move Brandon Graham back to DE, where he belongs. He looked out of place as an OLB in a 3-4. Back at DE, he'll be able to put back on the weight he needs to defend the run, while still being able to get after the QB. Graham isn't great, but he's at least shown he isn't the bust we all thought he was. On the other side, the Eagles have two free agents in Cedric Thornton and Vinnie Curry. Thornton is more of a run-stopper and should only be signed if there aren't any better options out there and he comes back at a reasonable price. Kelly wasted three years of Curry's career in the wrong defense. Curry has shown he can get after the QB, but he needs to be a 4-3 DE. The problem is that he's sure to get offers on the free agent market. The team should try to resign Curry, if at all possible, because guys like Brandon Bair and Taylor Hart were brought in specifically to play as a 3-4 DE and they weren't even very good at doing that.
You might think the Eagles linebackers are more suited to play a 3-4 than a 4-3 defense, but that's not really the case.
Who do you want as the Eagles Defensive Coordinator
I already pointed out that Graham will move from OLB to DE, so that solves one issue. Replacing Graham as the weakside LB would be Mychal Kendricks. Kendricks was drafted as an OLB and played there as a rookie. You have to wonder what happened to that promising player, as Kendrick's play slipped considerably this past season. Hopefully the move back outside where he belongs will revitalize his career. It better, because the Eagles signed Kendricks to a big contract extension through 2019 that jumps from $4.6 million to $6.6 million by 2017.
With Kendricks moving outside that leaves the MLB position to rookie phenom, Jordan Hicks. Hicks was a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year before he tore his triceps and he would flourish in the middle with Cox and Logan eating up offensive linemen in front of him. The only problem with Hicks is that he always gets hurt. That's why he was still available for the Eagles in the third round last year. He's a very good player, but he can never seem to stay healthy. That's why I would have Kiko Alonso as the backup MLB. I know Alonso looked horrible this season, but he was the Rookie of the Year two years ago with the Bills. Again, maybe the undersized Alonso would benefit from playing MLB. There is nowhere to go but up for the guy who cost the Eagles their all-time leading rusher. (Thanks again Chipper)
I know DeMeco Ryans is a warrior and a team leader, but he's done. After his second Achilles injury, he no longer has the ability to be more than a run-stopper in the middle. Even then, he looked a step slow all season. He also counts $4.5 million against the 2016 cap, so he has to go.
The strong-side LB will be Connor Barwin. Yes, I know he's the prototypical OLB in a 3-4, but Barwin actually played OLB in a 4-3 defense in Houston before they switched to a 3-4 so they could get both Ryans and Brian Cushing on the field at the same time. Barwin is so good, he can play well in any scheme, or even any position. "I'd love to play a 4-3 D-end," Barwin said recently. "I've always said there's not as much a difference between outside linebacker and D-end as people try to make it." I'd rather leave Barwin at OLB in a 4-3, but moving him down to DE in some pass-rushing situations, might also be interesting.
The other Eagles LBs are all just special teams guys, who may stay or be replaced by cheaper options. The only exception is first round bust, Marcus Smith. Smith will absolutely positively be on the roster next season. The reason is that we now know for a fact that Smith was GM Howie Roseman's draft pick. Nobody in the Eagles front office would ever admit to being responsible for any bad draft picks, but Kelly showed us with his actions that Smith was Roseman's guy. The fact that Smith could never get on the field for Kelly proves that Kelly never wanted him in the first place. Smith couldn't play any LB spots in a 3-4 and he can't play anywhere in a 4-3 defense either. I suspect he'll be kept as depth at OLB and possibly even be given a shot at a pass-rushing DE, but he will be a waste of a roster spot. Good work, Howie.
The defensive backs won't be effected much by a switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3, if that happens. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is a damn good player and a leader of the defense. The other safety spot will be up for grabs, since the Eagles won't be able to afford Walter Thurmond once he hits the free agent market. Eric Rowe looks like a keeper at one CB spot and the team is stuck with Byron Maxwell and his huge contract on the other side for a few years. Maybe a new defensive coordinator will figure out how to use (hide?) Maxwell. JaCorey Shepherd looked good last preseason as the slot CB before he tore his ACL. He'll get another shot next season.
Again, I'm not sure who the Eagles will hire as their defensive coordinator, but it will be the most important hire they make this offseason. If Jeffrey Lurie is hoping to relive the glory years of the Andy Reid era in Philly, then Eagles fans better hope that Lurie remembers how quickly it all went off the rails once Reid no longer had a great defensive coordinator to bail him out all the time.
The Eagles defensive personnel is much better suited to play a 4-3 scheme and that should be the deciding factor in their choice of a new defensive coordinator. The future of the franchise depends on this decision.