Whether the Eagles' defensive line is better or worse in 2016, it sure is going to be different. No unit faces a greater transition as a result of the offseason coaching changes, with the defense making the switch from a 3-4 alignment using a two-gap system up front to a 4-3 with a wide-9 attack. The schemes could not be more opposite.
Such drastic changes to the unit's role pose something of a challenge when determining whether new and different is actually good or bad. After all, the Eagles' line has been the strength and foundation of the defense for three years. Fletcher Cox became one of the most dominant players in the NFL. Bennie Logan was as disruptive a nose tackle as there is. Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry formed a perfect platoon.
There's little doubt an attacking, four-man front will be more productive in terms of sack totals. But does each and every individual stand to benefit? As a whole, is this still a complete unit? Intriguing and difficult questions to answer.
2016 DEPTH CHART
DE: Connor Barwin, eighth season, $7.35 million / Brandon Graham, seventh season, $5 million / Vinny Curry, fifth season, $3 million / Marcus Smith, third season, $2.127 million / Bryan Braman, sixth season, $975k / Steven Means, second season, $600k / Alex McAlister, rookie, $467k
DT: Fletcher Cox, fifth season, $6.499 million / Bennie Logan, fourth season, $1.842 million / Taylor Hart, third season, $653k / Beau Allen, third season, $615k / Mike Martin, fifth season, $600k / Derrick Lott, first season, $450k / Aziz Shittu, rookie, $450k / Destiny Vaeao, rookie, $450k / Connor Wujciak, rookie, $450k
On the surface, the Eagles' five-year, $46 million contract extension for Curry this offseason might sound like a gamble. That's a lot of money and huge commitment for a pass-rusher with just 16.5 sacks and zero starts through four NFL seasons.
Anybody who's watched and followed the 2012 second-round draft pick closely understands why those numbers are deceptive. Curry has one of the most explosive first steps in football. That much became apparent two seasons ago when he finished second on the team with 9.0 sacks despite playing only one-third of the defensive snaps. The reason he hasn't been on the field more is because at 6'3", 279 pounds, Curry was undersized for a 3-4 end, while two-gapping was never the ideal use for his burst.
Curry is a pure edge pass-rusher with Pro Bowl potential. That's no exaggeration. His 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons don't account for the number of holdings he's drawn or negative plays erased by penalties, and that's from a position that isn't known for getting to the quarterback. Now lining up for closer to three-quarters of the snaps and finally free to attack in a wide-9, Curry could be a beast. At the very least, he'll be in the correct scheme and no longer merely a situational player either.
If anything happens to Fletcher Cox, the Eagles' defensive tackles are an ordinary, average group at best. That's both a testament to Cox, who racked up an astounding 9.5 sacks in 2015 as a two-gap end, and a commentary on the depth inside, which appears to be extremely lacking.
Beyond starters Cox and Bennie Logan, there's not a single established interior lineman on the roster. Cedric Thornton walked in free agency, and while no star, he was a strong presence against the run. Thornton's departure leaves Taylor Hart and Beau Allen, a pair of late-round picks from 2014 who have shown little as pros, and Mike Martin, a former Titans third-round selection with 4.0 career sacks in four NFL seasons who signed for the veteran minimum. A trio of undrafted rookies are also fighting for — and may legitimately win — a spot.
If we're trying to find positives in this situation, Martin does have experience in the wide-9. There's competition at the bottom of the depth chart as well, which is never a bad thing. Unfortunately, it's still more than a little scary to think about what the Eagles are trotting out there up the middle should Cox become unavailable.
Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham
Barwin and Graham may be changing positions, but by and large, the Eagles should be getting the same quality edge defenders, only with different titles.
There are more questions surrounding Barwin's transition given he's played in 3-4 defenses the majority of his NFL career. The Eagles may miss his unique coverage ability as a linebacker from time to time, but there's little reason to be skeptical of the 29-year-old's work in the trenches. After all, Barwin does have a pair of double-digit sack seasons to his name.
Graham figures to benefit even more, as he was somewhat miscast in a linebacker role. Unlike Barwin, Graham should almost never be deployed in coverage. He may feel back at home in the wide-9 as well, a system where he flashed briefly in 2012, notching 4.0 sacks in six starts at the end of a lost season. Similar to Curry, Graham is built to line up outside and go.
Whether they're outside linebackers in a 3-4 or defensive ends in a 4-3, Barwin and Graham are steady, dependable veterans. Don't expect the switch to make new stars out of them, but they'll be solid contributors.
As if depth concerns up the middle weren't enough, it's unclear how well Logan fits in this scheme to begin with. The 2013 third-round pick excelled as a two-gap nose tackle, not only because he was able to physically dominate the competition, but in part because he was tremendous at diagnosing the offense as well.
Reading and reacting is far less an aspect of the wide-9 — practically non-existent really. It's all about getting upfield quickly, putting pressure on quarterbacks and offensive linemen and ultimately penetrating the backfield. The scheme is praised for its simplicity and for letting linemen think less and "just play."
At minimum, it's going to be an adjustment for Logan. He's a talented athlete for sure, but not everybody is suited for every system. Simply put, it's difficult to project Logan, with all of 3.0 sacks over three NFL seasons, in an attacking front like this when it's so vastly different from what he's used to.
BETTER OR WORSE?
On one hand, the Eagles' defensive line should be more productive. If Cox can manage 9.5 sacks as a two-gapper, what kind of damage can he do in a wide-9? Curry is finally unleashed. Barwin's and Graham's totals could benefit as well — everybody from Logan to Marcus Smith really. The questions are all up the middle, where Logan is a curiosity and the unit is potentially crippled without Cox, but assuming relatively good health, the personnel is there to execute the wide-9 as intended.
As long as that statement holds true, this line could be devastating. BETTER