Note: This is the sixth part of a 10-part series looking at the Eagles' roster entering free agency and the draft. The first part was quarterbacks, the second part was running backs, and the third part was wide receivers. the fourth part was offensive line, and the fifth part was tight ends and specialists.
ON THE ROSTER
Under contract: Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Vinny Curry, Damion Square, Brandon Bair, Joe Kruger
Free agents: Cedric Thornton (exclusive rights); Clifton Geathers
Outlook: The production of the Eagles’ defensive line last season was a positive development for the Eagles’ future, especially because of the youth of the group. After trading Isaac Sopoaga at the deadline, the starting lineup was Fletcher Cox (23), Bennie Logan (24), and Cedric Thornton (25). Add in Vinny Curry (25), Damion Square (25), and Clifton Geathers (26), and every lineman on the active roster was young.
The Eagles need Cox to be an elite player. The 2012 first-round pick has all the tools to be a top lineman, although he was slow transitioning from a 4-3 defensive tackle to a 3-4 defensive end early in the season. Cox showed flashes of outstanding play, and he needs to have a strong third season. At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Cox has rare athleticism for someone has size. He finished the season with only three sacks after recording 5.5 as a rookie. The scheme change was a big part of it, although Cox has the skills to be a disruptive player on the line.
Thornton had an impressive first season as a starter, continuing his development from undrafted rookie to practice squad to reserve to major contributor. Thornton’s production was especially noticable against the run, where he showed the ability to penetrate gaps and stuff holes. He is also versatile at 6-foot-4 and 309 pounds with natural strength, able to move inside to nose tackle or stay on an end. Thornton can still improve as a pass rusher. He’s an exclusive-rights free agent, so he cannot go anywhere – it’s more of a contract technicality and he’ll be back in Philadelphia.
Logan, a 2013 third-round pick, replaced Sopoaga at nose tackle. The defense improved after he joined the lineup. At 6-foot-2 and 309 pounds, Logan does not have prototypical size for the position. When they drafted Logan, the Eagles were encouraged by Logan’s ability to play different spots on the line. They need to determine if nose tackle is the best spot for him going forward, but expect him to be an important contributor in 2014 and beyond.
Curry is more of a question mark. The 2012 second-round pick worked to fit into the scheme, adding weight and adjusting his game. He finished with four sacks despite being inactive for the first two games. He did not record a sack in the final six weeks of the season. Curry is up to 279 pounds – 13 pounds more than his draft weight – and his 32-inch arms are a major asset as a pass rusher. The question is whether he should be playing in a 4-3 base defense, or whether the Eagles can maximize his talent in Philadelphia.
Square, an undrafted rookie out of Alabama, is a rotational player at this point in his career. That’s how the Eagles used him, and that’s what he’ll be if he earns a roster spot again in 2013. He’s a solid technical player who can play multiple spots.
Geathers is interested in returning to Philadelphia even in the same reserve role in 2014. At 6-foot-8 and 340 pounds, he has size that’s hard to find. He was active for all 16 games. Geathers likes it in Philadelphia, but his return will be based on money and numbers.
One player who is intrigues the Eagles is Joe Kruger, the 2013 seventh-round pick who spent all of last season on injured reserve. It was basically a redshirt season for Kruger, who used the year to add weight and adjust to the NFL. The Eagles thought if the 6-foot-6 Kruger returned to Utah for his senior season, he would have been a much higher pick in 2014. He already added 16 pounds this season, and he expects to be 290 pounds by the time OTAs begin. You can almost count the 21-year-old among the 2014 draft class.
Brandon Bair was on practice squad last season. At 29, he’s the oldest defensive lineman on the roster. He’ll spend camp with the team, but it’s unlikely he’ll crack the 53-man roster.
Without any major free agents, the biggest offseason plan is developing the young talent already on the roster. They need to improve going into 2014. The only contract decision at this point is whether to re-sign Geathers. Curry is bound to come up in trade discussions because of his reserve role and fit in the 4-3.
The Eagles must determine if Logan is their nose tackle going forward, or if they would like to go bigger at that position. One player who would fit is B.J. Raji. The 6-foot-2, 337-pound Packers defensive lineman has experience at nose tackle, will be 28 next season, and is a former Pro Bowler. He has bounced between nose tackle and three-technique defensive end, and the Eagles value that versatility. The Eagles’ coaching staff has connections to Boston College, where Raji played college football. He would be a relatively big-money free agent, though, which is not be a necessity for the Eagles’ defensive line.
Miami’s Paul Soliai (30) and Indianapolis’ Aubrayo Franklin (34) are both aging players with experience. Baltimore’s Terrence Cody is only 25 and is a former starter who has underachieved in recent seasons. The 340-pound Alabama product could benefit from a change of scenery.
In the draft, Notre Dame’s Louis Nix l likely go too early for the Eagles to make a push. Pay attention to Minnesota’s RaShede Hageman, whose size and versatility could be appealing to the Eagles early in the draft despite the lack of necessity for a first-round defensive lineman. Tennessee’s Daniel McCullers is 6-foot-7 and 348 pounds and could play nose tackle in the NFL. Penn State’s DaQuan Jones would also make sense in that role.
More likely, a college defensive lineman the Eagles take early would be one who can play in a stand-up role as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. If the Eagles are looking for a 3-4 defensive end in the middle-to-late rounds, watch Virginia’s Brent Urban (6-foot-6, 298 pounds) and Oregon’s Taylor Hart (6-foot-7, 287 pounds). They both have long frames with good size.