Before the 2010 season, the Eagles' plan for improving their defense seemed clear: Find a way to improve the pass rush with the front four.
The Eagles sent guys like Chris Clemons, Jason Babin and Darren Howard on their way. They traded for Darryl Tapp and moved up to take Brandon Graham in the first round.
Meanwhile, they sent Sheldon Brown to Cleveland and took their chances with guys like Ellis Hobbs and Dimitri Patterson at right cornerback.
A year later, and the defensive line is back in focus. The Birds added Jim Washburn in the offseason, and after Babin (12.5 sacks) and Clemons (11 sacks) found success with their new teams, it's fair to question how the Eagles' coaching staff used its personnel.
Yesterday, we found out Graham had microfracture surgery on his knee. I won't pretend to know how long he's going to be out. The truth is no one - not the training staff, not Graham - can be certain. He will continue to rehab, and the Eagles will have some decisions to make in September or October. It seems reasonable to go into the season not expecting much from Graham, and if he recovers and shows he can be effective, take it as a pleasant surprise.
In the meantime, the Eagles need a plan for their defensive line. They went through the draft without adding any D-linemen, so the options now are to address the need via trade/free agency or to hope that someone already on the roster can contribute.
Jonathan Tamari has a good list of free-agent names to wade through over on Birds' Eye View. It's certainly possible, and probably at this point, likely, that the Eagles will add a defensive lineman.
Currently, they have nine defensive ends on their roster: Trent Cole, Juqua Parker, Graham, Darryl Tapp, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Victor Abiamiri, Phillip Hunt, Ricky Sapp and Bobby McCray.
Of that group, four (Cole, Parker, Tapp and Graham) saw significant playing time in 2010. Here's a look at how their pass rushing numbers broke down last season (including playoffs). Thanks to Pro Football Focus for the numbers in the first column.
The last column is simply a name for Sacks+Hurries divided by Plays.
Cole was obviously the Eagles' most effective pass-rushing defensive end, followed by Graham and Parker. Tapp was fourth in this group, but keep in mind he played a lot of snaps inside. I wasn't able to break down the specific numbers when he was lined up at end.
Parker is still a good player, but he turned 33 in May and is entering the final year of his contract.
Tapp is the most intriguing name here. I thought he showed improvement towards the end of the season, and remember, he's only 26. The Eagles could probably get by rotating Tapp and Parker at left defensive end if they decide to instead go after a difference-making defensive tackle.
As for the Eagles' other defensive ends, they are complete unknowns. I didn't see anything from Te'o-Nesheim last year to suggest he can be a real contributor, but he was a rookie. Ricky Sapp spent the season on IR. I don't think McCray has a future here, and I wouldn't know Hunt if he was sitting here next to me (although that doesn't mean we should dismiss him).
Update: I forgot Abiamiri in the initial post. But given that he missed the 2010 season, add him to the unknown group.
So the Eagles' internal options at defensive end are limited. If the offseason philosophy from a year ago is the same, maybe it's more likely that the Eagles make a splash on the defensive line and add a second-tier corner.
In the next week or so, I'll try to take a closer look at some of the potential free-agent options to see who might make the most sense for the Birds.
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