Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 4, Defensive Line

Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 4, Defensive Line

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the previous installments on specialists, wide receivers, offensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and  running backs.

Depending upon your outlook, Philadelphia’s defensive line doesn’t have any glaring holes. Fletcher Cox has shown flashes of dominance, while the one-two punch of Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry form a nice combination at the opposite end. Even Bennie Logan held his own at nose tackle, the area fans are most likely to say needs to be addressed.

The oldest of those players are Thornton and Curry, who each turn 26 in June. Three of the four are signed through 2015, and Thornton is an exclusive rights free agent which means he is not allowed to negotiate with other teams.

But behind them, the cupboards are bare. There is essentially nothing in the way of depth to speak of.

Clifton Geathers is unremarkable but for his size (6’8”, 340 lbs), and an unrestricted free agent to boot. Damion Square made no impact in his rookie year. Joe Kruger spent his rookie season on injured reserve, and how much can we expect of a seventh-round pick? There’s something called a Brandon Bair on the roster as well, but he’ll be 30 and has yet to make it in the NFL.

Any of Cox, Thornton, Curry or Logan isn’t as much the issue as the unit in its entirety is starving for attention.

The Eagles need to bring in a minimum of two, possibly as many as three defensive linemen who can play this offseason. If in the process of adding talent, they find upgrades over what is already there, so be it. No expense should be spared, particularly in the draft.

Nose Tackle of the Future?

Few players on the Eagles roster provoke the sort of mixed reactions that Bennie Logan will. Depending who you ask, the third-round pick out of LSU was either a beast, or he had an okay rookie season despite being miscast as a nose tackle.

While it may not show up in terms of pure production—27 tackles, 2.0 sacks in 16 games—Logan certainly held his own, particularly after the Isaac Sopoaga trade gave him a home. Logan started the final eight games of the season for the Birds at nose tackle and played extensively in the Wild Card loss to the Saints.

And advanced metrics suggest he was even better than a lot of people probably think. According to Pro Football Focus, Logan ranked 15th in run stop percentage and 19th in pass rush productivity among all interior linemen who played at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps in either capacity.

That’s a strong showing for a rookie who is supposedly miscast.

The Eagles likely do not share that opinion of Logan. In fact, head coach Chip Kelly already had high hopes for the 24-year-old when they were able to land him in last year’s draft. Via John Gonzalez for CSNPhilly.com:

“We believe he has the ability to be a three-down player,” Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said in the NovaCare Complex auditorium on Friday. “He’s stout against the run, but on third down I also think he can be an inside pass rusher for us. That’s what we really liked about him. And getting him in the third round, we were really fortunate. We had him in the second round and we were fortunate that he fell to us.”

Listed at 6’2”, 309 pounds, there is a perception Logan may be a tad undersized to play nose tackle. However, he could bulk up in the offseason and get closer to 325, which is probably about average for the position.

If Logan continues to develop, the Eagles could very well have their answer in the middle of this defensive line. He has the versatility to shift to end if need be, but the coaching staff might give him the opportunity to get comfortable on the interior.

The One-Two Punch

One of the most pleasant surprises in 2013 was the emergence of Cedric Thornton as not only a viable starter in Philadelphia’s defense, but one of the league’s top run-stuffers. Among regular starters at defensive end in 3-4 schemes, only Houston Texans All-Pro J.J. Watt posted a better run stop percentage according to Pro Football Focus.

Not bad for an afterthought. The only problem with Thornton is he wasn’t very effective as a pass-rusher, registering just 1.0 sack for the season.

No worries. That’s where Vinny Curry comes in.

Curry was basically Bizarro Thornton last season. PFF’s rankings had the 2012 second-round pick second only to Watt in pass rushing productivity—a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries—among all 3-4 ends who played at least 25 percent of their teams pass rush snaps.

Together, they formed quite the duo, although one does have to question this act’s longevity. Long-term, there may not be room for the both of them.

Thornton will be back in ‘14 as an exclusive rights free agent. The Eagles could choose to work out a long-term extension with him now, but that might prove difficult. Thornton doesn’t have much of a body of work prior to this past season, and he was completely one-dimensional.

It might make sense for the Birds from a buy-low perspective, and for Thornton from the viewpoint that he’s going to get the shaft on a one-year tender otherwise. Meeting in the middle to find his true value could be another story though.

Meanwhile, there were doubts about having Curry bulk up to play end in a 3-4 and to this day whether the scheme truly suits his strengths, but he performed. The issue is he’s only under contract for two more seasons, and if he’s not a full-time player for the Birds by then, good luck getting him to re-sign.

Curry was a good enough prospect and has flashed enough NFL potential that he would likely be a big draw if he were just hitting the free-agent market. The reality is if we’re still sitting here this time next year and Curry is not going to be a starter, the Eagles will be better off trading him.

It’s not a terrible problem to have, but it does require that the organization think ahead. Thornton does not appear to be an every-down player, but he certainly has value if he continues to perform like an elite run-stuffer. Alternately, Curry can seemingly contribute in any scheme, but the coaching staff only trusted him to be on the field for 28 percent of the defensive snaps in ’13.

If Thornton is willing to sign a long-term extension for relatively cheap, it could be wise to lock him up. Otherwise, they should give him the one-year tender and wait to see exactly what they have in Curry.

Curry didn’t chart poorly against the run—29th according to PFF—so he may develop into an every-down player yet.

Fletcher Cox

You can probably go ahead and pencil that name in at right defensive end for the next 5-7 years. There were some reservations about how Cox would adapt going from playing defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment to end in a 3-4, but he handled the transition well.

Granted, Cox maybe seemed to make fewer impact plays in his second NFL season. His sack total dipped from 5.5 as a rookie to 3.0 in ’13, while tackles for a loss plummeted from five to just one.

However, it’s not as if the declining numbers was entirely unexpected. Learning a new scheme certainly played into the dropoff. There were also increased responsibilities in the new role, as opposed to the Wide-9 where the linemen’s sole job was to attack gaps and get after the quarterback.

Cox’s season was actually quite good when it’s not measured purely in terms of production. According to PFF, he led Philly in QB hurries with 39, seven more than the next best player on the team, and he ranked ninth at his position for pass rushing productivity based on the metrics site’s formula.

Again, this was a season where Cox had to re-establish himself at a new position. Yes, he was the 12th overall pick in the draft two years ago, but expecting him to dominate under the circumstances was unfair.

And he did dominate in spurts. Cox needs to continue to develop and be more consistent in year three, but he’s already one of the better all-around linemen in the league and could anchor Philadelphia’s unit for years to come. What remains to be seen is whether Cox can become the type of player that adds Pro Bowls to his resume.

NBC Sports Philadelphia Internship - Advertising/Sales

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NBC Sports Philadelphia Internship - Advertising/Sales

Position Title: Intern
Department: Advertising/Sales
Company: NBC Sports Philadelphia
# of hours / week: 10 – 20 hours

Deadline: November 20

Basic Function

This position will work closely with the Vice President of Sales in generating revenue through commercial advertisements and sponsorship sales. The intern will gain first-hand sales experience through working with Sales Assistants and AEs on pitches, sales-calls and recapping material.

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Requirements

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Flyers fail to get revenge as offense quiet in loss to Predators

Flyers fail to get revenge as offense quiet in loss to Predators

BOX SCORE

No questionable penalty calls. No need to use a challenge. No last-minute heartbreak this time.

A furious nature was replaced with frustration after the Predators scored the lone goal at the Wells Fargo Center to beat the Flyers 1-0 Thursday night (see observations).

Predators third-line center Colton Sissons, who missed the first meeting between the two teams nine days ago, connected on the only goal of the game 3:49 into the third period as he blasted a shot that beat Michal Neuvirth to the far post.

“I’ve got to watch the replay to see if I was on the right angle, but it’s a tough play 2-on-1,” Neuvirth said. “Usually when it’s a tight game like that, it’s about one mistake and you got to move on.”

The Flyers appeared to have the play covered. However, when Kevin Fiala took control of the loose puck, Wayne Simmonds reached for it and that kickstarted the Predators’ rush for what ultimately proved to be the game-winning goal.

“It’s a tough play,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “You see the puck and you want to go get that loose puck. It’s a 0-0 game. It was a real good play on the cycle, and there’s scrum on the hashmarks there. It’s a tough play and, unfortunately, the puck got past Simmer and now it’s a race back up ice and they got a pretty good quality shot away.”

For a high-octane offensive team ranked second in goals scored, the Flyers are still looking to prove they can win the tight-checking, low-scoring games.

Overall, it was also a tough night for Flyers’ leading scorer Simmonds. He was dealing with a lower-body injury, and at times, appeared to be laboring on the ice. Simmonds also took a stick to his lip that required stitches, which essentially excused him from making any postgame comments.

The 1-0 loss marked the second time in the first seven games the Flyers have been shutout this season, and on both occasions Neuvirth has been the victim of the lack of offense.

“It’s tough to say,” Neuvirth said. “We had really good chances, but we couldn’t get one behind him. It was frustrating to see that, but we’ve got to move on and we got another big game on Saturday.”

Once again, the Flyers could have been bailed out by their power play. However, the two units collectively finished 0 for 5 for the third time this season. That’s because 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne, who’s mobile for his size with one of the best glove hands in the league, stopped all 28 shots.

“That was a lot of battle,” Rinne said. “I was able to see the puck for the most part and make the first save always and a lot of times guys were bailing me out, too.”

Outside the Wells Fargo Center earlier on Thursday, the Flyers organization unveiled a nine-foot statue of founder and chairman Ed Snider prior to face-off with almost every member of the team’s Hall of Fame in attendance.

Unfortunately for the club, it was the only moment worth celebrating.

Notes, quotes and tidbits
• Filling in for the injured Jordan Weal, forward Jori Lehtera saw his first action of the season. He played on a line with Valtteri Filppula and Simmonds. Lehtera played 12:06 and finished the game without a shot on net. If Weal is unable to go Saturday afternoon, it will be interesting to see if Hakstol goes back to Lehtera or gives the quicker Matt Read a shot against a speedy Oilers team.

“Lehts did a good job,” Hakstol said. “To step in in game No. 7, not having played, I thought Lehts went out and played a real rock solid game. Lehts has been here. Lehts has done the work. You guys don’t see behind the scenes the kind of effort and what that takes as a teammate every day to stay ready.”

• The 1-0 loss comes exactly 50 years to the day the Flyers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 in their first-ever home game at The Spectrum. The last time the Flyers were shut out 1-0 on home ice was March 31, 2011 by the Atlanta Thrashers.

• Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere played a career-high 25:23. Not only has he regained his offensive form from his rookie season, but he’s refined his defensive game by using more body and less stick to gain position on his man.