Saturday, July 12, 2008

Just How Good Will the Philadelphia Eagles' Defense Be?

By Patrick Wall: If the free-agent signings in recent months have shown Eagles fans anything, it is that the team is looking for better playmakers on defense.

Sure, the offense got an upgrade in the draft with the likes of DeSean Jackson, but defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has made the headlines with the signing of former New England Pro Bowler, Asante Samuel.

Add to that the singing of defensive end Chris Clemmons, and the Eagles have the makings of a dominant defense. But will it happen?

In recent years, the Eagles' defense has been known as a dominant unit, filled with defensive stars. Players like free safety Brian Dawkins and middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who have 10 Pro Bowl appearances between them, struck fear into the hearts of opposing teams.

Those days seem like a distant memory. After a significant drop in production, Trotter was unceremoniously dumped from the team in the middle of last year's preseason.

After his twins were born prematurely, family man Dawkins wisely put family first, choosing to taking care of his children. Unfortunately, the time away from the gym resulted in one of his worst years to date in 2007.

But things are looking brighter for the defense in 2008.

After a seemingly never-ending carousel of linebackers, head coach Andy Reid has a young starting corps that he believes in.

The group is anchored in the middle by second-year man Stewart Bradley, a third-round pick last season. In his first start against New Orleans, Bradley showed flashes, as he recorded a sack and an interception.

Weak-side linebacker Omar Gaither, with three years of experience under his belt, is the ranking veteran of the starting linebackers. Gaither showed the team enough to earn a starting role down the stretch in 2006. Because of the improved play of the defense, the Jeff Garcia-led Eagles made the playoffs.

Last season, Gaither was moved to middle linebacker, but the Eagles brass feel he is better served on the outside.

Finally, Chris Gocong is the wild card of the group. A converted defensive end, Gocong has the ability to be a quality pass-rusher. Although drafted the same year as Gaither, Gocong found himself on IR during his rookie campaign.

Being able to play together was very important for the new linebacker team, Gocong said. "As we play together more, we're going to bond and play well off each other."

Ultimately, the linebackers will make or break the Eagles' defense next season. If the unit can play consistently and make plays, the corps could be one of the strengths of the defense. If they struggle, Eagles fans can expect yet another different group of 'backers for the following season.

If the Eagles have an elite unit on the team, it would unquestionably be the secondary.
With the signing of Asante Samuel, the Eagles now have two Pro Bowl corners, with Lito Sheppard and Asante, and a corner in Sheldon Brown who seems to always be on the cusp of a breakout season.

After signing Samuel, Andy Reid made it clear that Sheppard's starting position had a new owner. "I just feel like I'm at home. Everyone's been welcoming me, and it's been wonderful," Samuel said on his first day of training in Philadelphia. "I'm going to keep working hard, and keep chopping the wood."

Although Sheppard is unhappy with his contract and status with the team, he has kept his grievance out of the media.

If both sides can come to an agreement, a happy Sheppard could go a long way to having a group of corners that could give even Denver's lauded corps a run for their money.
The safety positions are a little more interesting.

Perennial All-Pro Dawkins says he's back to form, and is ready to get the season underway. "This year, my priorities are in a different place. Last year, {we} didn't capitalize defensively...we'll get better," he said.

Meanwhile, new starting strong safety, Quentin Mikell, will be playing his first full season as a starter in 2008. A special-teams ace, Mikell was given the green light after injuries to former starter Sean Considine. The team liked what they saw, and gave the job to Mikell, even after Considine's return.

If Dawkins is right about being back in shape, the Eagles secondary could be the source of some big plays next season. But if Sheppard's unhappiness continues, and players like Samuel cannot live up to lofty expectations, the secondary might turn from a strength to a weakness in the blink of an eye.

Andy Reid is a firm believer that battles are won in the trenches. He has made that abundantly clear with his drafting philosophy, taking more linemen in the first round than any other position in his tenure.

This year's defensive line has some serious questions surrounding it, but also reason for great optimism.

The Eagles finally cut ties with underperforming Jevon Kearse at the start of free agency. In his place, the team signed former Oakland defensive end Chris Clemons.

Jim Johnson will use his defensive lineman in a slightly unusual way this season. Instead of having concrete starters, he will constantly rotate out players, attacking offenses in "waves" with fresh players.

The line is anchored by two first-round defensive tackles. Mike Patterson has been unspectacular, but solid, and Broderick Bunkley figures to have a breakout year.

The star of the show is unquestionably Pro-Bowl end Trent Cole. His total of 12.5 sacks last season was one of the tops in the NFC.

On the other side of the line, however, questions remain. There is no clear-cut starter, and none of the players are at the level of Cole.

It will be up to the players themselves to make the whole better than the sum of its parts, if they want to be able to put pressure on opposing offenses.

The Eagles defense has more questions than answers. It is a young defense that, on the surface, has a great deal of talent. If the unit can play better than last season, it will be a top-10 defense in the NFL.

If not, well, the Eagles may be watching the playoffs from home again.

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