Entering the player acquisition period of the offseason, it's worthwhile to focus on the defensive line. By releasing Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson earlier this week, the Eagles have only three surefire, true defensive linemen for the 3-4 defense/4-3 under they're expected to play. (Brandon Graham, Trent Cole, Vinny Curry, and Phillip Hunt are likely to become pass rushers in the new defense and must also drop back in coverage. However, nothing is set it stone.) So these are the three players to pay attention to, and how they fit:
FLETCHER COX -- There is no player on the defense who generated more excitement from those in the Eagles organization than Cox, a a 6-foot-4, 298-pounder who can play in any system. Cox would like be the "three-technique" tackle, and he'll line up between the guard and the tackle. (This could also be an end in the 3-4.) "He can be an end, a 3-technique, a nose tackle, he can be a 5-technique,a 4-technique," general manager Howie Roseman said. "He's got an incredible skill set. He does all those things really well. I think you're looking for a jump from him year one to year two."
Cox recorded 5.5 sacks last season. The Eagles love his versatility, his size/speed combination, and his personality. He's also notably young; Cox will not turn 23 until December. By comparison, Star Loutlelei is already 23, as is Ziggy Ansah. And Dion Jordan will be 23 when next season begins.
You can put Cox into the starting lineup with a pen.
CEDRIC THORNTON -- Thornton has been an under-the-radar player, but the Eagles have liked him ever since they signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011. They liked him so much that when Thornton was on practice squad in 2011 and another team had interest in signing him to the active roster, the Eagles matched the salary and paid Thornton an active-roster salary even when on practice squad. Thornton stayed because he felt confident he had a future with the Eagles, and he was on the roster throughout last season. He had one sack last season in a reserve role, although the Eagles view him as an emerging player. And at 6-foot-4 and 309 pounds, Thornton will get an opportunity as a strong-side defensive end in the expected new defense. He will be 25 next season.
Look for the Eagles to bring in a legitimate contender for this spot, whether it's through the draft or free agency. Thornton has talent, but he will not be handed a spot.
ANTONIO DIXON -- The widespread belief when it appeared clear the Eagles were changing defenses was that they needed a nose tackle. That's likely still the case, although they view Dixon as a potential nose tackle. He's 6-foot-3 and 322 pounds and it's not a role he's needed to play in Philadelphia before, although Dixon at least has potential in that role. Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson even signed Dixon to play the role with the Colts briefly last season. And it's fair to say he was never a fit in Jim Washburn's wide-nine, which is one of the reasons Dixon didn't make the roster last season.
"That's his skill set. He's a big body, good use of his hands, he's a run-stopper," Roseman said. "He's kind of what you look for if you're looking for a 3-4 nose tackle."
However, the Eagles will need to bring in competition with him for the spot. Dixon needs to prove he can play the spot. He'll be 28 next year and on a team-friendly deal, so it would be advantageous if he can contribute. But considering the importance of nose tackle, another potential option would be helpful for the Eagles.
Contact Zach Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.