Thursday, December 25, 2014

Three Eagles breakout candidates: Defense edition

Last season, the Eagles got breakout seasons from players like Nick Foles, Brandon Boykin, Riley Cooper, and Cedric Thornton, who took their games to the next level. The Eagles don't lack for players who could break out in similar fashion in 2014. Last week we noted three players who could do that for the offense this season. Here are three for the defense. 1) Fletcher Cox, DE

Three Eagles breakout candidates: Defense edition

Eagles safety Earl Wolff. (Steve Nesius/AP file photo)
Eagles safety Earl Wolff. (Steve Nesius/AP file photo)

Last season, the Eagles got breakout seasons from players like Nick Foles, Brandon Boykin, Riley Cooper, and Cedric Thornton, who took their games to the next level. The Eagles don't lack for players who could break out in similar fashion in 2014. Last week we noted three players who could do that for the offense this season. Here are three for the defense.

1) Fletcher Cox, DE

During 2013 training camp, Brandon Boykin had an absurd number of pass breakups. Every time he got his hand on a ball but didn't intercept it, he had to do push-ups as a penalty. During the regular season, those pass breakups turned into much bigger plays, as Boykin finished second in the NFL with six INTs.

Fletcher Cox may be in a similar situation as Boykin. Last season, if you only look at his stats, you'll come away unimpressed. Cox had just three sacks, four tackles for loss, no forced fumbles and one batted pass. However, he was a lot more disruptive than the numbers would indicate. For example, give an assist to Cox for two of Boykin's interceptions.

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Those are plays that won't show up in traditional stat sheets but are game-changers.

Here's Cox messing up a screen pass and being in position to almost make an INT.

Here's Cox destroying the Bucs' RG and hitting Mike Glennon's arm as he throws, which could have easily resulted in an INT.

Watch what Cox does to LT Donald Penn (70) before flushing Glennon out of the pocket.

And here he is sniffing out a fake screen and blowing up a bootleg.

Cox has a built-in excuse for his lack of numbers, in that the Eagles run a two-gap scheme. Cox is expected to engage the offensive lineman, drive him back, and be responsible for the gaps on each side of him. In a one-gap scheme, defensive linemen are responsible for one gap, allowing them to penetrate and make plays. Cox can be good in either role. He's quick enough to be a good penetrating one-gap defender, and strong/physical enough to be good in a two-gap scheme as well. It's not a bad scheme fit. However, a one-gap scheme is far more condusive to putting up big numbers for interior defensive linemen like Cox, which works against him.

None of the plays shown above will show up in the stat sheet, but they're all great plays. In the same way Boykin had a lot of "almost huge plays" in training camp in 2013, Fletcher Cox had a lot of "almost huge plays" last season.

Nobody expects Nick Foles (27 TD, 2 INT) to put up numbers in 2014 that are anywhere close to last season's. Conversely, I can't imagine Cox's numbers being as low as last year's, assuming he stays healthy. They were almost flukey, in the opposite way. Not to mention, Cox is still only 23 years old.

2) Mychal Kendricks, LB

A few weeks ago, we noted the 10 players the Eagles can least afford to lose to injury. Kendricks came in at #10.

In Kendricks' rookie season, he gave up a lot of receptions, missed a lot of tackles, and didn't make many impact plays at all. That trend continued through the first four games of the 2013 season. Then sometime around the 2nd quarter of the 2013 season the light started to come on for Kendricks, and the impact plays he is capable of began to emerge. In his 30 regular season games, here's a snapshot of Kendricks' big play ability in his first 19 games as a pro, and the last 11.

Three of those sacks, both forced fumbles, and two of those picks came in the final two regular season games against the Bears and Cowboys. He was a menace.

Kendricks was an occasional stud in 2013. This season, if Kendricks can become more consistent, he can be among the best 3-4 ILBs in the league.

3) Earl Wolff, S

After the Eagles-Chiefs game last year, Derek Sarley of IgglesBlog.com and the Daily News showed a play where Earl Wolff simultaneously made the argument that he should and shouldn't be starting. The TLDR point Derek made was that Wolff was the Eagles' most athletically gifted safety, but made rookie mistakes.

Derek is dead on. If you look at what Wolff did at the 2013 Combine, you'll see that his measurables in the 40 yard dash, 10 yard dash, vertical leap, broad jump, and 20 yard shuttle are outstanding.

That is a player who is quick, fast, and explosive, and the Eagles only have a handful of those kinds of players on their defense. Wolff also showed that he can come up from his safety spot and deliver a pop. 

For Wolff, there are no questions about his physical ability. It's all about whether or not he can learn the nuances of the safety position at the NFL level... and whether or not he can stay healthy.

Follow Jimmy on Twitter: @JimmyKempski

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