Murphy: Eagles prioritizing Wentz and offense, but what about the defense?

ONE LESSON we learned from the Donovan McNabb Era was that a quarterback's career can look a lot shorter in the rearview than it did at the start.

Perhaps we saw traces of that realization last week, when the Eagles addressed their dismal fleet of pass-catchers with an aggressiveness they rarely displayed during McNabb's early years under center. In hindsight, their inability to surround their young star with receivers who could open up the field and earn his trust was a colossal failure.

By the time Terrell Owens arrived for his abbreviated stay, the Eagles' optimal window of opportunity had already begun its slow slide shut. The defense would never be more dominant than it was between 2000 and 2004, the offensive line never as solid. Looking back, that was the optimal window, wasn't it?

It's a relevant thought, now that it's Carson Wentz's turn. Everything the Eagles have done since trading up for the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft has been geared toward maximizing the young quarterback's comfort level during his transition to the NFL, from overpaying Chase Daniel to be his backup to denying an interview opportunity to his quarterback coach to signing Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to catch his passes. Jeffrey Lurie and his braintrust have made Wentz the centerpiece of the organization in a way that not even McNabb was (and for good reason: Wentz's current talent level and future ceiling surpasses both of McNabb's at the same age).

Question is, can the Eagles prioritize the individual development of their quarterback without jeopardizing the collective strength of their roster? While they've undoubtedly upgraded the cast of characters surrounding Wentz, it is awfully hard to look at the depth chart on the defensive side of the ball and figure out a realistic path to competitiveness in 2017.

As of Tuesday evening, the Eagles were the only team in the league whose roster lacked a single cornerback who had logged 700 snaps in an NFL season. Only one team, the Saints, had a group that combined for fewer snaps than Jalen Mills (662), Ron Brooks (235) and C.J. Smith (1) did last season. While few will mourn the departures of Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll, they do at least represent two fewer bodies at a position that was already so thin that Jim Schwartz spent much of the second half of the season playing Jaylen Watkins at safety so Malcolm Jenkins could cover the slot.

Poll

Are the Eagles set on the offensive line with the addition of Chance Warmack?

Plus, Carroll was quickly scooped up by the Cowboys on a three-year contract that has a $2 million cap hit in 2017. Perhaps the Eagles can find another Carroll at that price, or an E.J. Biggers, or a McKelvin. But it seems highly unlikely they'll find anything more.

Complicating matters is their need to replace half of their first-team defensive line. While it's true that Connor Barwin was an ill-fit at a bloated price, it's also true that Vinny Curry couldn't beat him out last season. And while Bennie Logan is hardly an elite player, the Eagles struggled mightily when he went down with a groin injury in the middle of the season. His ostensible replacement, Beau Allen, is a rotational player who has taken more than 40 percent of the defensive snaps in just seven games since the Eagles drafted him in the seventh round out of Wisconsin in 2014. Last year, the Eagles were 1-7 in games in which Allen played at least 34 percent of snaps and were 4-1 in games in which he played fewer than 30, including wins over the Cowboys, Steelers and Falcons.

Schwartz's scheme has always lived and died with its ability to generate pressure from the front four. His last two stops have enabled him to rely on a couple of excellent tandems of defensive tackles: Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams in Buffalo and Ndamukong Suh in Detroit. As we saw last year, Schwartz likes to use a rotation of four defensive ends, with the third and fourth guys getting 35 to 40 percent of the snaps.

While free agency is not over, the Eagles used up most of their available cap room on the Jeffery and Smith signings. Thus, the Eagles have also dramatically reduced their flexibility in this year's draft, putting themselves in a position where they almost have to draft a defensive lineman or cornerback at No. 14 overall. Drafting a future starter is difficult enough - with each position you eliminate from consideration, the odds of failure increase dramatically. What if a running back or wide receiver whom they rank as their No. 1 overall player ends up falling to them at No. 14?

If Jeffery meets expectations and the offensive line stays healthy, Wentz and the Eagles offense will be a lot more fun to watch this season. But last year's squad was a lot more than a fun offense away from true competitiveness. Wentz needs to develop, but so does the roster as a whole. Every year of maturation for Wentz is another year of maturation for the older guys as well.

dmurphy@phillynews.com

@ByDavidMurphy

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