Of the 15+ assistant coach hirings in Kelly’s wake, there are four coaches that are the most important to the success of the Eagles defense. Firstly, new LB’s coach Ken Flajole has a chance to reverse the talented yet underperforming players in his unit, namely Kiko Alonso and even Mychal Kendricks. Returning DB’s coach, Cory Undlin, has a chance to guide young defensive backs Eric Rowe and JaCorey Shepherd. The currently vacant position of DL coach is a job of great impact and importance. Cultivating our young, homegrown talent on the defensive line into a major strength of this team is no small task, and it is an extremely important one. The extremely important position of Defensive Coordinator has been filled by Jim Schwartz. When the Head Coach of a team takes control of play calling duties for the offensive side of the ball, more often than not, the Offensive Coordinator is a collaborator and motivator, but not the head of the unit. The Defensive Coordinator, with the Head Coach being focused on the offense, becomes the head coach of the defense and is expected to deliver results for his side of the ball. Schwartz, who has head coaching experience, is certainly a man who can take care of his duties as the DC.
Jim Schwartz, the former Lions’ Head Coach, is a very energetic (to a fault, see: Detroit) coach who is known to discipline his units and squeeze out the best from his players. Though he underwhelmed and irritated ownership in Detroit as a Head Coach, he has tons of experience as a defensive coordinator. In ‘14, as Doug Marrone’s DC, his defense allowed the fourth fewest points, fourth fewest yards, and had the third most takeaways. Everywhere that Schwartz has gone he has employed a 4-3 defensive scheme, and given out personnel, I don’t see it going any differently in Philly. Schwartz will have the chance to work with a unit that I believe could be a top five defense in rushing yards allowed, points allowed, and takeaways.
The currently vacant position of defensive line coach is going to be a huge hire, and the switch back to a 4-3 defense is going to be monumental for this team. Much like how the former spread offense was using players best suited for a traditional offense, the 2013-2015 Eagles 3-4 defense would have been much better served as a 4-3 unit. Homegrown “Man Dog” Fletcher Cox could possibly wind up as the best defensive lineman in the league next season, J.J Watt included. There is no question that Watt is a transcendent player, but the skill set, toughness, and measurables that Fletcher Cox has to offer are just as impressive as those that Watt possesses. If Cox can successfully transition back to a 4-3 Defensive Tackle, then the sky’s the limit for the former first round pick out of Mississippi State. Cox was drafted as a 4-3 Defensive Tackle and converted to a 3-4 Defensive End to fit Kelly and Billy Davis’ vision. 2014 was a breakout year for the stud defensive lineman, and 2015 followed suit. When Cox is no longer asked to two-gap and open holes for the linebackers to snuff out the QB or RB, and is instead put in a position to take on a guard or center one-on-one, I have a feeling that the rising star’s impact will be similar to that of Miami’s star DT Ndamukung Suh. Bennie Logan, though he may be a better fit as a 3-4 Nose Tackle, possesses the strength and run-stuffing ability to play DT next to Fletcher Cox. Bennie Logan is a mammoth defensive lineman drafted in 2013 that is just now beginning to realize his potential. Placed next to Cox in a 4-3, I could see Logan having a huge impact in 2016. Brandon Graham, currently an OLB for the Eagles, would likely be asked to transition BACK TO Defensive End under Jim Schwartz. Drafted in 2010, Graham was often tagged with the “bust label” after failing to deliver early success as a Defensive End. That, in combination with his inability to stay healthy, had most of Philly down on Graham by the time Kelly arrived in ‘13. However, Graham successfully transitioned to a 3-4 OLB and had a really solid 2014 as a role player, followed by an equally solid 2015, this time as a full time starter. There’s no doubt that Graham is versatile but would be best suited as a Defensive End under Schwartz, and the only question is whether he wants to make the transition again or not. Graham was signed last offseason under the assumption that he’d be continuing his career as a 3-4 Outside Linebacker. Hopefully, he’s excited about the prospect of moving back to his natural position. Much like Graham, Vinny Curry has been a guy that Philly has relentlessly expected more from. Curry, who will hopefully be re-signed this offseason, is a pure Defensive End, an ideal pass rusher. Much like Graham in ‘14, the edge specialist had a breakout ‘15 campaign in which he saw limited playing time and mainly came in on passing downs. If Curry is given a full season to prove himself in a 4-3, I think that his presence will elevate the depleted Eagles pass rush. With all of these moving parts, transitioning players, and lofty expectations for the unit that some believe to be the strength of this team, there is probably a reason that there has yet to be a DL coach hired. This hire is very important and could help to define the identity of the Eagles’ defense going forward.
The new LB’s coach, Ken Flajole, will be asked to help turn around the career trajectories of the inexplicably fickle duo of Kiko Alonso and even Mychal Kendricks (not to mention Marcus Smith, who was most certainly Howie’s pick, by the way). Flajole has been a DB’s and LB’s coach for the Seahawks, Panthers, Saints, Browns, Rams, and Packers over the last decade. Flajole will be assigned with the difficult task of creating success for his group in what will probably be the first year of switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Flajole will also be in a position to coach up a future superstar in Philly, Jordan Hicks. I expect the Eagles brass to look for LB help (specifically OLB) in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft. That said, I imagine that Connor Barwin (though he has publicly expressed a desire/expectation to play on the defensive line) will play OLB, more specifically the SAM position. The SAM is responsible for lining up on the “strong” side of the formation, or the side of the line that has a fullback, tight end, or both. The SAM Backer is primarily responsible for following the running back when he is handed the ball, and to drop into coverage when he is not. The SAM LB’s main expectation, however, is usually to block the fullback or lead blocker, and to consequently aid in taking down the running back. The MIKE Backer, or the Middle Linebacker, is most often the “Quarterback of the defense”, responsible for calling plays, sometimes for blitzing, often times for faking blitz, and for dropping into coverage. Hicks, who has a nose for the ball, will be expected to do all of these things, and do them well. I think that, if Barwin ends up playing on the DL, that Mychal Kendricks will be the SAM. However, if my prediction is accurate and Barwin is utilized as the SAM Backer, then Kendricks will likely be the WILL Backer. The WILL Linebacker is utilized on the weak side of the line, or wherever the lead blocker or tight end is not. WILL LB’s are usually used to rush the passer or the runner from the weak side, utilizing their speed, quickness, (lack of) size, and nose for the ball to be effective. If Kendricks is used as the SAM, then Kiko Alonso will likely be the WILL. Otherwise, I expect Kiko to back up both the MLB and the WILL positions, and for a draft pick or Marcus Smith (ugh) to back up Barwin or Kendricks (or maybe even Graham, who knows?) at the SAM position.
Cory Undlin, who was hired away from Denver following the 2013 season, will have a large role this season as well. Eric Rowe and JaCorey Shepherd are both expected to have solid seasons even given their lack of experience. Byron Maxwell, who underwhelmed for most of 2015, is expected to have a solid season as well. The 1-3 positions on the cornerback depth chart are mostly set (barring somebody like Watkins or Thurmond jumping over Shepherd in camp) but the safety position is in question. Malcolm Jenkins, who made the Pro Bowl as the 870th reserve this season, was graded out by Pro Football Focus as the single best safety in football. He had a tremendous 2015 after leading the Eagles in tackles in ‘14, and is the unquestioned leader of the secondary and possibly the whole defense. He is a free safety with excellent instincts, playmaking ability, exceptional coverage skills, and is a guy who gives tremendous effort. Jenkins might be the best tackler on the team, and has a tendency to make big plays at the line of scrimmage. He is everywhere, all of the time, and though he hands hands made of actual bricks, he sets the tone for the defense. The position of concern among safeties is the strong safety spot. After Nate Allen’s incredibly average 2014, Walter Thurmond was brought in to be converted from a slot cornerback to a strong safety due to his great coverage instincts and playmaking ability. Unlike most of Kelly’s personnel moves, Thurmond turned out to be a massive success. However, he only signed to a one year deal and is set to hit the market. Though there are a few players in the pipeline – Couplin and Reynolds – Thurmond should be re-signed. If his ‘15 campaign commands too much money on the open market, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Thurmond leave via free agency.
All in all, the Eagles’ defensive unit has the chance to be seriously dominant in 2016 under Jim Schwartz and his new assistants.