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Let's Get Defensive

The Eagles Look to get Defensive in Free Agency?

By Lance Epstein

Walking out of Jerry World after the embarrassing 34-14 playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys, it was easy for everyone to point fingers at the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line and the offense for the defeat. In retrospect, the Eagles were thoroughly beaten in every way imaginable.

Donovan McNabb and the rest of the offense inability to sustain drives could have been the ferocious Cowboy defense but also the rash of injuries upfront was a giant factor as well.

Just a week before the pivotal week 17 match-up in Dallas, the main stay and perhaps the best player on the Eagles offensive linemen was shelved onto the injured reserve with a torn ACL. The loss of center Jamal Jackson created a horde of problems for the Eagles offensive.

His injury was magnified by the fact that guard Stacy Andrews, the Eagles big free agent signing of 2009, never fully recovered from his torn ACL. His replacement, Nic Cole, who filled in adequately at guard, was instantly moved to center. Cole had not taken a single snap at center since college.

Furthermore, Stacy’s brother Shawn Andrews has his back flared up, which ultimately ended his season for the second consecutive year. While the Eagles cannot and should not rely on either Andrews brothers contributing in 2010, having the capability to slide Cole back into the guard position. Moving Cole will help solidify four of the five offensive line spots.

Meanwhile, the injury to Jackson will most likely linger into the 2010 season. A name that countless Eagles fans yearn for is center Kevin Mawae. The Titans have reiterated and seem to be content with letting the All-pro center move elsewhere.

Mawae has demonstrated over and over again that even at 38, he can still perform at a high-level. But the question that remains to be unanswered is whether the Eagles want to pay a 38-year-old center or look for a younger solution in the draft. Regardless of the fact Mawae would be a massive upgrade to offensive line that is hurting for an elite center, the Eagles have a history of not like dishing out hefty contracts to older players.

Even if the Eagles need help on the offensive line and a back-up running back with some experience since Westbrook is gone, the most pressing concern is the defense.

Despite of how poorly the line protected for McNabb or how many balls sailed over the head of receivers or were thrown into the ground, the Eagles defense is ultimately what grounded and prevented the young Eagles from soaring to new heights.

Think about this, in the last five games of the season (including playoffs) the Eagles defense gave up an average of 27.2 points per game. That is almost unheard ofin the Andy Reid Era.

Naturally, fans point to the injury to Stewart Bradley and a new defensive coordinator for the reason for the drop-off, but even with a healthy Bradley and Jim Johnson coaching, the unit still was not a championship caliber defense.

Remarkably, the defense somehow ranked in the top half of the NFL in team defense, but clearly the Eagles were too inconsistent. At times the pass coverage appeared pedestrian and finished 17th in the league.

Sheldon Brown, Quinton Mikell, Macho Harris and Asante Samuels lacked the ability to shut down the opponent’s wide receivers. It was never more evident as opponents constantly converted on third and long situations. Their failure to get off the field prevented the high power Eagles offense from scoring more points.

Review the games against playoff caliber teams, and anybody would see the proof is in the pudding. Against the Saints, the Eagles secondary allowed Brees to continuously throw an 18-yard slant pass to Colston on third down and 17. At Dallas, Romo regularly hit Austin and open receivers for huge chunks of yards.

Part of the reason comes down to the Eagles letting their leader and the always-feared Brian Dawkins go to Denver. Dawkins cover skills slowly began to deteriorate but he still instilled fear in wide receivers going over the middle.

Harris did a respectable job in coverage but he could not replace the intangibles that the perennial Pro Bowl player Dawkins brought. Also, as the season continued, opponents used game tape to expose flaws in Harris’ game.

Another major reason the Eagles failed in the secondary was their inability to limit the yards after the catch. Samuel has been known to be a porous tackler and continued to prove his reputation. Mikell and Harris did not prove to be much better.

Furthermore, the Eagles lacked depth at the cornerback position. Once Ellis Hobbs went down for the season and the disappointing play of Joselio Hanson after he return from suspension, severely hurt the Eagles secondary. In the Eagles’ nickel and dime packages, quarterbacks zeroed in on the weakness and attacked the Eagles third and fourth corners.

At the end of the day, the Eagles must upgrade at free safety and become deeper at the cornerback position. The two most intriguing names on the free agent market are Saints safety Darren Sharper and Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson.

Sharper, 34, is coming off one of his finer seasons of his illustrious career. He had nine interceptions; three of that he took back to the house. Here in lies the problems with assuming the Eagles will go after Sharper: if the Eagles allowed the 35-year-old Dawkins to walk, why would they give a 34-year old Sharper a big time contract? (Sharper will not sign a one-year deal; he’d go back to New Orleans if he were going to do so)

Rumors have been swirling around the league stating the Eagles yearn for a veteran safety to roam the secondary with Mikell. Another safety to watch out for is Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh Steelers. While he does not have the recognition of Sharper and the big time free safeties in the NFL, he is a good player. Besides being adequate safety, he is known to be a leader in the locker room, something that is a deficiency for the Eagles.

The other big name free agent the Eagles might attempt to make a run at is Dunta Robinson. Robinson is a young corner at 27, but, he had an up and down season coming off a torn ACL.

During the first half of the season, Robinson steadily got beat by receivers, but in the second half of the year he regained his form. If the Eagles decide to go in this direction, Sheldon Brown would most likely be asked to move to free safety. In the end, I believe the Eagles will pass on Robinson and obtain a cornerback via the draft. A major basis for drafting a corner over signing Robinson is that cornerback position is one of the deepest positions in the draft.

An alternative to the three previously mentioned possibilities is Antrelle Rolle, who is supposed to be released from the Cardinals today due to his $4 million roster bonus ($12 million overall). Nevertheless, Eagles fans should not hold there breathes for him. Rolle has stated his number one choice would be Miami, where played his college ball.

It is highly doubtful that the Eagles go the route of restricted free agent safeties Antoine Bethea, O.J. Atogwe or Nick Collins. The tenders for those premiere safeties will most likely be a first and third rounder, a price Reid will not be willing ante up.

Besides the Eagles secondary needing a facelift, the Eagles have two other positions of need on the defense. The first is a strong-side linebacker. Not since the days Carlos Emmons roamed the field for the Eagles defense, they have not had a SAM linebacker who could shutdown opponent’s tight ends.

Chris Gocong is scheduled to be a restricted free agent and does not fit the bill. In fact, he probably is better suited to be in a 3-4 defense. Also, he had a falling out with defensive coordinator Sean McDermiott, so the likelihood of Gocong returning is slim.

While the Eagles have restated numerous times that Moises Fokou is the future at the position, he committed too many penalties and is still too young to take over the. They do not want to put all their eggs in that basket and have it explode in their face, like what happened with Quinton Demps this past year.

As most fans call for the stud linebacker Karlos Dansby, the price tag will be too high. The two players, which might peak the Eagles interest are Keith Bulluck and Julian Peterson.

This past season Bulluck tore his ACL this past season. The other concern is that he will be 33-years-old entering the 2010 season. When healthy Bullock has been an All-Pro talent and his injured might make him a bargain. Of course, Bulluck might never be the same again but for the right price he would be an upgrade.

Peterson is an interesting scenario for the Eagles. He is not yet a free agent but the rumors around the league have been that the Lions will release the former Pro Bowl player.

Yes, Peterson had a down year with the Lions but let us remember it was with one of the worst team’s in the league. Reid and Joe Banner have been linked to Peterson in the past; do not be surprise if the Eagles take a flyer on him.

The last and probably most pressing issue for the Eagles might be the left defensive end position. Victor Abiamiri, Jaqua Parker, Chris Clemmons and Jason Babins are good rotation players but their lack of talent prevents Cole from wreaking more havoc in the backfield.

Their shortcomings allow teams to time and again send double-teams Trent Cole’s way. The most heralded defensive end on the free agent on the market is former Panther Julius Peppers.

Since the Eagles season ended, fans have been enamored with the possibility of having two Pro Bowl defensive ends scaring and tormenting opposing quarterbacks. While Peppers has reciprocated the feelings back towards Eagles, the price tag might be too overwhelming.

Not only might the price tag be too high, a lot of team will be lining up to get his services. Also, Peppers is an athletic and intimidating force but at the same time tends to take plays off and is going to be 30 years old.

One player who might be a steal considering he is coming off an ACL tear is Aaron Kampman. If Kampman did not tear his ACL, he would easily be considered a top five free agent. Kampman is a high risk signing but the reward could be even higher.

Knowing the Eagles they probably will look at a younger alternative and improve their front four through the draft. Bear in mind, NFL Draft guru Mike Mayock has given 13 defensive end prospects with first round grades. Seemingly, it appears that at least one will fall to the Eagles at 24, if they are so inclined to pull the trigger at that position.

Despite the free agency market being shallow due to the uncapped year, there are players who can transform a suspect defense into a legitimate force.

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