Howard's release, the D-line rotation

The Eagles released Darren Howard yesterday. ( David Maialetti / Staff Photographer )

When the Eagles went down, 34-14, in the first round of the playoffs to Dallas last season, nine defensive linemen saw the field for the Birds.

That was the case for much of the year as Sean McDermott, in his first season as Eagles defensive coordinator, shuffled players in and out depending on the situation.

The base defense was consistent along the front four. From left to right: Juqua Parker, Mike Patterson, Brodrick Bunkley and Trent Cole.

But in passing situations, Jason Babin, Darren Howard, Victor Abiamiri and Chris Clemons all rotated in.

And Antonio Dixon spelled Bunkley and/or Patterson in other situations as well.

Looking ahead to next season, three of the nine will be gone. Babin appears poised to join the Titans. Clemons was dealt to Seattle. And the team released Howard yesterday.

In terms of number of snaps, Howard saw the most playing time of the three. In the playoff game, for example, he was on the field for 32 plays (Babin - 19; Clemons - 18). In Week 17, Howard played 23 snaps (Babin - 17; Clemons - 9).

In terms of performance, it was an up and down year for Howard. He started off with a tremendous game against the Panthers, but then really wasn't much of a factor again until Week 13 against Atlanta. And I'm not just talking sacks, but overall pressure on the quarterback. He put together a pretty good stretch towards the end of the season, but was a complete non-factor in Week 17 and the playoff loss.

Was Howard alone in that respect? Of course not. He was one of many Eagles defenders who had trouble getting to Tony Romo.

So a couple questions come into focus with the change of personnel we've seen in the last week:

Number one, will McDermott continue to go with such a big rotation? If I had to guess, I would say yes. Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley are both very good players against the run, but neither showed the ability to get after the quarterback last season.

Which leads us to number two - who will take the place of Howard, Clemons and Babin? Newly acquired Darryl Tapp told reporters yesterday that he expects to start opposite Cole at left defensive end. That puts Parker in the rotation. And Abiamiri figures to play a part also. His role last year was similar to Howard's, although Abiamiri needs to show improvement in his fourth season.

Beyond that, you'd have to think an early draft pick has a chance to be the guy that fills in on the interior in passing situations. The team liked Dixon enough to play him over Trevor Laws. But he's not the pass-rushing presence they need.

Laws, meanwhile, couldn't even get on the field, and it's questionable whether the former second-round pick has much of a future with the team as he enters his third season.

Who else is left? Parker will play a role. We forget that Julius Peppers had just 2.5 more sacks than him last season. And of course, there's the constant question of: Can Chris Gocong be more of a factor as a pass rusher?

These are the issues that will need to be addressed in the coming months and all the way into August at Lehigh. By all accounts, the starting four will be Tapp, Patterson, Bunkley and Cole. Whether that is an upgrade over last season remains to be seen.

But the Eagles still need to find a pass-rushing presence who can play on the inside. Keep that in mind as you take a look at all the draft stuff out there over the next five weeks.

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