Eagles Enter Draft To Put Finishing Touches on D
By Lance Epstein
It was obvious to any fan, player, associate, coach or expert that by the end of the Eagles season, they needed to do some major retooling and possibly a complete overhaul to rebuild a once intimidating defense.
Under former and late-great defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the defense finished outside the top 10 only three times during his ten-year tenure. This past season, under first-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, the defense finished 12th and were particularly awful against the pass. This is amazing to most considering that just two-years ago, the defense was the mainstay and was ranked third in the entire league.
True the departure of free safety Brian Dawkins and key injuries to defenders such as Stewart Bradley, Omar Gaither and even Sheldon Brown took its toll on the defense. Still in 2009, the defense appeared to deteriorate in front of our eyes, looked a step slow and could not get off the field when they needed to the most. In fact, the defense looked more like a piece of Swiss cheese (numerous holes) than the ferocious defense that carried the Eagles to the 2009 NFC Championship game.
Even though the Eagles needed to formulate a drastic transformation, they had some key and valuable elements to work with. Brodrick Bunkley, Asante Samuel, Trent Cole and Quinton Mikell all in the fold, the Eagles could possibly revamp a defense in just one offseason. It also helped the Eagles’ depth that restricted free agents Omar Gaither, Ellis Hobbs and Akeem Jordan signed their one-year tender offers to stay with the club.
Many Eagles fans entered the offseason hoping and demanding that in an uncapped year that the team would splurge. They were expecting the Eagles would make a giant splash for star defensive end Julius Peppers.
Unfortunately, the charge for his service was ridiculously overpriced. The Chicago Bears will learn soon enough like the Washington Redskins did when they overpaid for the always off-and-on Albert Haynesworth.
Instead of reeling the few big name players that were on the free agent market this offseason, the Eagles front office, run by new GM Howie Roseman, decided to take a much different approach. Undoubtedly they could have gone with the quick fix and worried about future problems at a later date, but they did what any smart, common sense organization would have done. They rebuilt and did not deny the evitable.
Roseman and head coach Andy Reid constructed and followed their well thought-out, step-by-step plan. Seemingly it looks as if it worked out beautifully leading up the draft. The first piece in renovation of the Eagles defense was to get rid of the aging veterans and the “me firs” attitude that safety Mikell said was hovering over the Eagles defense.
"There was just a lot of negativity," Mikell said. "A lot of people weren't putting the team first. Everybody's guilty of it at some point - I've been guilty of it here and there. But when it's all the time, then it's a problem. We've never had that before, since I've been here. We've never been a selfish team, where guys were more worried about what they did individually than how we did as a team.
"But we had guys who were more concerned about how the game plan affected them. It was, 'How am I going to get my sacks if we're doing this,' instead of, 'Hey, let's go out and do whatever it takes to win the game.'"
Some of the key veterans from last year’s squad like Darren Howard, Jason Babin, Will Witherspoon, Chris Clemons, Sean Jones, Chris Gocong and Sheldon Brown were given their ticket out of town or shown the door.
The Eagles decided to go younger and reconstruct an entire defense in the 2010 offseason. There thoughts were that they needed to be a faster and quicker defense, but at the end of the season they were slow-footed. Most of those players were starting to show glimpses of deterioration in their game.
None was more evident than Sheldon Brown. Brown began the season with a bang by pulling in two interceptions in the first game. Then Brown had a hamstring injury that affected his play the entire course of the season. Throw in the fact he yearned for a new contract and was turning 31 years old the writing was on the wall.
While fans point to his hamstring troubles being his demise in 2009, it wasn't. In the last two seasons, Brown's play has taken a significant drop off at the end of the season. Playoff teams such as the New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals of 2008 constantly attacked Brown.
The Vikings connected on three deep passes down the sideline on him and one went for a touchdown. The playoff game against the Giants, quarterback Eli Manning just missed on two-long touchdown passes to a wide open Steve Smith and Dominic Hixon against Brown. As for the Cardinals, Brown had no answers to Jeremy Urban and Steve Breaston when the club needed him the most.
Now look at this season, the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers this year attack Brown late in the season. Second-string wide receivers were consistently picking up first downs in critical junctures of the game. As painful as it was to see Brown go to the Browns, it was the right business decision, which leads to step two of the master plan.
In step two, Reid accumulating a plethora of draft picks and young veteran pieces to make significant strides on the rebuilding front. Surprisingly, they did it while at the same time they washed their hands clean of overpriced or aging veterans.
The first of the Eagles five offseason trades was trading for a defensive end to improve the pass rush off the edges. The Eagles had finally admitted that the Chris Clemons experiment was over and turned the page.
They traded Clemons and a fourth-round pick to get a speedball defensive end in Dayyl Tapp. Tapp was once thought of as a second-round prospect that was on the verge of becoming a very nice DE in the NFL. His rookie season, he registered seven sacks. His last two seasons, he managed only see the field in limited action and recorded only 7.5 sacks.
Nonetheless and more importantly, the Eagles were intrigued by his high motor, which should help out Trent Cole, who constantly received double teams over the last two seasons.
The next move was to bring in injured Colts defensive back Marlin Jackson. Jackson was not the player many fans were coveting as the free agency period began. Most fans bashed the move since they questioned whether he would ever be the same player after two consecutive season ending ACL tears.
Yet, if he is healthy, he has the talent and versatility to play corner and both safety positions. Not only play those spots, but also excel at them. He might not have been the glamour move, but he has the potential to be a steady and pleasant force at safety. Experts feel that if he returns to form, he is one of the best bargains of the spring.
The most unbearable move was the next one and turned off the majority of fans. Reid got rid of the leader of the defense in Brown along with Gocong. However, the Eagles got themselves great market value by acquiring the Browns fourth and fifth-round picks as compensation. Additionally, the Eagles nabbed Alex Hall who could be a great asset on special teams and maybe even a diamond in the rough.
Trading Brown was hard for many fans to swallow and even had reservations on how shipping one of the best players on a mediocre defense was helping make a defense better.
Today answered that particular question. The Eagles used that fifth-round pick (137th overall) to obtain former first round pick Ernie Sims from the Detroit Lions. Of course, some enthusiast will complain and say he is an undersized linebacker, but just four years ago he was considered to be a premiere defenders coming out of college. In fact, if he did not get injured this past season there is no way the Eagles get him for the low price of a fifth rounder.
The acquisition of Sims' puzzle piece fixes a lot of problems for the Eagles. Coming into the draft, the Eagles were counting on Akeem Jordan as the weak-side linebacker. The scary part about that is that Jordan has not played an entire season in the NFL as a starter. While the jury is still out on whether Jordan can be a NFL starting caliber linebacker, Sims is a difference maker. Sims athleticism, speed and natural instincts will have him flourishing in McDermott's defense scheme.
Moreover, Sims allows for much required depth in the linebacking corps. Without the draft being added to the equation, the Eagles were counting on two injured linebackers at middle linebacker. Certainly, if Bradley returns to form like everyone expects, the position is fine.
But if he doesn't, Omar Gaither was next in line and he too had his season cut short last year by a foot injury. Sims has played all three-linebacker positions and done so at a high level. He is the ultimate insurance policy incase there is a repeat of 2009’s musical chairs at the middle linebacker position.
Lastly, Sims enables the Eagles to have Hall, Jordan and incumbent start Moise Fokou to battle it out in training camp for the starting SAM linebacker position (McDermott toyed with the idea early last year of moving Jordan to SAM and Gaither back to weak-side). The addition of Sims make a defense that had 11 different starting linebacker combinations last year, actually look like a complete product.
The final trade that has yet to, but certainly will assist the rebuilding of the defense was sending the face of the franchise in McNabb to Washington. Fans will always question the move of trading him within the division.
Other will ask how does his exit have anything to do with the defense. His departure gives the Eagles the 37th pick in the draft. Furthermore, the ammunition to move up and snatch a defensive player they covet. Maybe someone like that safety Earl Thomas or perhaps even blue-chip prospect Eric Berry.
Despite all the moves, whether fans agreed or screamed bloody-murder about them, the final phase of the plan has not come to fruition yet. On Thursday night and all the way until Sunday night when the Eagles finish signing undrafted free agents, the franchise will put the finishing touches on the portrait that is the defense.
For Reid and Roseman this draft will determine how the rest of their careers go with Philadelphia. For Eagles’ loyalist, it reveals how the young defense will blossom over the next three-to-five seasons.
If the Eagles strike gold, then the club can smile as they have the youngest team in the league on both offense and defense. More importantly, they would possess a dynamic offense and a championship caliber defense.
On the other hand, the Eagles cannot afford to have multiple busts with five draft choices in the first 87 picks. At the end of the day, if the Eagles franchise is off the mark in their talent evaluations then Reid, Roseman and Joe Banner's jobs will cease to be. Although for long-time Eagles supporters, their dreams of a championship defense and a Lombardi Trophy will be completely destroy.
Although there is much more then the potential busts to this nightmare. McNabb could be facing the Eagles for the next four seasons as a Redskin, tormenting the city of Brotherly Love and their deficiencies on D.
For fans of the Eagles, the rebuilding process of the defense sounds like a very smart idea and they even have provided their full faith to the organization in doing so. On Thursday night’s NFL Draft, they hope to be rewarded, as they will be glued to their TV sets. They will be praying that the Eagles secure the right players to complete their newly restored defense.