On the final day of the 2014 NFL draft, the Eagles selected two defensive linemen who were supposed to be ideal fits for Chip Kelly's preferred defensive scheme. Beau Allen and Taylor Hart have been reserves the last two seasons, with the body types and playing styles that former defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro desired for their positions.
They were roommates as rookies and have been linked ever since - even sharing the unknown of converting to a new scheme this summer.
Two years after Allen and Hart came to Philadelphia, Kelly and Azzinaro are in San Francisco and the Eagles changed to a 4-3, attacking defense. Yet after the team released Mike Martin on Sunday, Allen and Hart became the top candidates to be backup defensive tackles behind Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan. It's happening because Allen and Hart spent the summer proving they're more than scheme-specific players.
"When we got brought in, we got labeled as two-gappers," Allen said, referring to the defensive style the Eagles previously used. "For whatever reason, that kind of stuck. When people think of two-gappers, they think of big guys who stay on blocks and maybe aren't as athletic. I guess what I'm trying to say is there's a different perception between guys that two-gap and guys that are playing in the defense that we play. But we've known all along that we could do this."
In the two-gap defense, a lineman is responsible for the gap on both sides of an offensive lineman. There is a lot of reading and reacting required of the linemen. In Jim Schwartz's 4-3 defensive scheme, the linemen just need to get upfield as quickly as they can. Hart called the two systems "total opposites," but count Schwartz among those impressed by the inherited players.
Schwartz said Hart is "very slippery." Although Hart is not stout at 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds, Schwartz has seen him slip past linemen to win in the pass rush. Allen, who played nose tackle n the previous defense, is 6-foot-3 and 327 pounds. He's "a load in there," Schwartz said, and is hard to move. And then when he can move north-south, an opposing linemen will have a hard time containing him. That was evident on Saturday when Allen bull-rushed his way through the Indianapolis Colts line for a sack.
"Don't sell those guys short," Schwartz said earlier this summer. "Just because that's what they were asked to do doesn't mean [that's] the only thing" they can do.
Allen, who played in a different style 4-3 defense at Wisconsin, said he was "dusting" the techniques off and "flipping that switch" to change his mentality on defense. Hart played in a 3-4 defense at Oregon and said his physical stance has changed, but it's nothing beyond his capabilities. He learned what he needed to in the spring, and he had time to apply it this summer.
Both seemed like players who would spend the summer on the roster bubble, but their spots appear more secure this week than any time before. Hart has knee and ankle injuries and won't play Thursday, but coach Doug Pederson said the tackle will be ready for Week 1 - an indication he'll survive until then. Allen has been mixing in with the first-team defense all summer and appears to be the top defensive tackle behind the starters.
Of course, it was only last week when Pederson spoke about Martin taking 15-25 snaps per game. But Martin never returned to full health after an early-August knee injury, and the Eagles decided to move on. The play of Allen and Hart might have shown the Eagles they have usable depth at the position. The other defensive tackles on the roster are undrafted rookies Destiny Vaeao and Aziz Shittu, plus 24-year-old Bruce Gaston, who was claimed off waivers on Tuesday.
Howie Roseman could make a transaction when rosters are cut to 53 on Saturday. But as it stands now, it looks like Allen and Hart will survive a different coaching staff and a new defensive scheme.
"It's just different," Allen said. "I feel like we're cut out loose a little more, especially on first and second downs, but I wouldn't say it's any more or less fun. It's just different. And I think it's a good kind of different."