Thursday, August 28, 2014
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Eagles off-season look at defensive line

Our position-by-position look back and cautious peek ahead continues with:

Eagles off-season look at defensive line

Eagles rookie defense end Brandon Graham strips the ball from 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Eagles rookie defense end Brandon Graham strips the ball from 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

Our position-by-position look back and cautious peek ahead continues with:

DEFENSIVE LINE

What then: Moments after he traded up to select Brandon Graham in the first round of last year’s draft, Andy Reid informed the assembled media at the NovaCare Complex that the Eagles had made improving the pass rush their No. 1 off-season priority and that drafting the Michigan defensive end first overall was proof.

Two rounds later, the Eagles drafted another end – the relative-unknown Daniel Te’o-Nesheim – and in the fifth round they plucked hybrid end Ricky Sapp out of Clemson. Those three draft picks, along with the March trade with Seattle for Darryl Tapp, essentially encompassed the Eagles’ off-season moves to strengthen their pass rush. They drafted only one defensive tackle, choosing Jeff Owens in the seventh round, and did not add a pass-rushing linebacker of note either through free agency, trade or the draft.

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The end result was a pass rush that had actually gotten worse. Graham was hardly a bust, but he had no impact for a rookie taken 13th overall in the draft. He finished with 19 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in 13 games before he suffered a season-ending ACL tear to his knee. Jason Pierre-Paul, taken two picks after Graham by the Giants, recorded 30 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 16 games.

Te’o-Nesheim was/is a bust. Maybe it’s a bit presumptuous to tag the kid a failure, but he essentially made no contribution last season and doesn’t project to have much of a future in this league. Sapp, who looked overmatched during all of training camp, was on injured reserve for the entire season. Tapp was a decent complementary piece, nothing more. Owens spent most of the season on the practice squad before he, too, tore up his knee.

Of the returning players, defensive tackles Antonio Dixon and Trevor Laws showed improvement, especially Dixon. For an eight-game stretch in the middle of the season he played at an All-Pro level. Defensive tackle Mike Patterson was his usually steady self, but Brodrick Bunkley’s performance dipped. Trent Cole and Juqua Parker started off like gangbusters but the production from each end declined as the season wore on.

Adding to the disappointment were the standout seasons two discarded defensive ends were having for other teams after the Eagles let them go. Jason Babin tallied 12.5 sacks for the Titans while Chris Clemons finished with 11 quarterback takedowns for the Seahawks.

Were Reid and general manager Howie Roseman culpable for letting Babin and Clemons go or was it the fault of defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and defensive line coach Rory Segrest, who failed to maximize their talent?  Apparently, the Eagles’ decision-makers decided some of the blame had to be attributed to the coaches. Both were fired in January.

What now: Babin has credited most of last season’s success to ex-Titans line coach Jim Washburn. The Eagles wooed the gruff Washburn away from Tennessee and are hoping his magic touch can rub off on some of their young lineman. Graham would stand to garner the most attention from the new coach, but the end is still rehabbing his knee and can’t have any contact with Washburn until the NFL lockout is over.

When the Eagles drafted Graham many didn’t expect him to step in right away and take away blockers from Cole. But they expected it in his second year and those plans are probably on hold until he recovers. It’s fair then to say that the Eagles could conceivably take another end high in the draft -- which is sort of like watching Charlie Sheen snort another line of coke (see: Jerome McDougle, Victor Abiamiri, Bryan Smith, et al).

If they go that route, there are a number of ends with first round grades: Clemon’s Da'Quan Bowers, North Carolina’s Robert Quinn, California’s Cameron Jordan and Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt are considered the cream of the crop. Missouri’s Aldon Smith, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn and Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan could be around when the Eagles pick at No. 23.

Maybe it’s time the Eagles get a legitimate pass rushing defensive tackle. There are a few among draft prospects, but the elite tackles -- Marcell Dareus of Alabama and Nick Fairley of Auburn – should be long gone by the time pick No. 10 rolls around. That leaves Corey Liuget of Illinois and Muhammad Wilkerson of Temple as possibilities.

The free agent list of tackles is not strong. With Richard Seymour re-signing with the Raiders [thanks to the readers that pointed out my previous error] Pat Williams (Vikings) and Brandon Mebane (Seahawks) are the best options. The Redskins’ Albert Haynesworth is not a free agent, but the one-time Washburn project has said that he would follow his former Titans position coach to Philly. Assuming the Eagles even want an aging, overpriced player that routinely takes plays off, Washington would have to be willing to let the disgruntled Haynesworth go and get nothing in return for that scenario to be plausible.

There’s a better group of free agent ends on the market, however. Cullen Jenkins of the Packers, Charles Johnson of the Panthers, Ray Edwards of the Vikings and Mathias Kiwanuka of the Giants would all be upgrades over Parker/Graham. I can’t see the Eagles bringing the 31-year-old Babin back. Even though he played as an outside linebacker in the Chiefs’ 3-4 scheme, Tamba Hali could be up for a move back to end. Hali, though, was franchised and will likely stay in Kansas City.

Jeff McLane Inquirer Staff Writer
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Birds' Eye View is the Inquirer's blog covering all things Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL.

Jeff McLane Inquirer Staff Writer
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