Eagles Camp Countdown: #5 – Defensive Line
The Eagles defensive line will be deep in 2012, as there is a chance the Eagles cut one or two players along the line who land elsewhere. Then there’s Brandon Graham, a first-round pick entering his third season and trying to prove he’s not a bust.
There is also a pair of potentially exciting rookies to watch in Fletcher Cox, a first round defensive tackle, and Vinny Curry, a second round defensive end.
Cox could challenge veteran Mike Patterson for a starting spot at defensive tackle, as Patterson comes into camp after off-season brain surgery.
Cullen Jenkins returns as the Eagles best defensive tackle after racking up 5.5 sacks and 40 tackles last year. A focus for Jenkins is likely to be keeping his production levels up over the course of the session, as the veteran notched five sacks in the first five games of 2011, and just .5 sack in the final 11 games.
Behind Jenkins, the Eagles have three players looking to answer big questions:
Has Mike Patterson recovered quickly enough from brain surgery in January to be in optimal condition headed into the season?
Will Fletcher Cox be able to come in and contribute at a high enough level in his rookie year to be a starter?
Can Antonio Dixon stay healthy after dealing with a knee sprain in training camp last year and a torn triceps that ended his season in Week Four?
If the Eagles get three yes’s, they’ll have a deep, talented group of defensive tackles. If they get three no’s, they’ll be in trouble.
Patterson can be a solid, reliable presence in the middle, having been underrated for much of his career as he’s not a prolific pass rusher on the inside. Cox has the chance to be just that, and to be moved to the outside on running downs in order to get Dixon, a big run stuffer, onto the field more often.
Behind the top four, Derek Landri and Cedric Thornton lead the charge to battle for the last roster spot on the interior of the defensive line. Landri is a hard-working player who is full of energy. The veteran was with the Eagles in training camp last year and received the call to come back to town after Dixon’s injury.
Thornton spent most of last year on the practice squad, before being moved to the active roster when Steve Smith went on the Injured Reserve. The Eagles have spoken highly of the former undrafted free agent, but this will be a key year to take another step in his development.
Finally, the Eagles have a pair of undrafted rookies in Tevita Finau and Frank Trotter, who will look to make a name for themselves at Lehigh.
At defensive end, the starting jobs are safely secured by Trent Cole and Jason Babin, who combined for 29 sacks last year. Cole likely believes he can improve on his 11, as he was hampered by injuries at times in 2011.
Babin’s 18 could go up as well, as he was less productive when Cole was not on the field. If both stay healthy all year, they’ll be a lethal combination.
Vinny Curry, a second round choice this year, racked up 23 sacks in his final two seasons at Marshall and looks to challenge Brandon Graham and Darryl Tapp for playing time.
Graham is extremely motivated after calling himself a bust in the offseason. Graham had three sacks in his rookie season, but got on the field for just three games last year with four tackles as he rehabbed from microfracture surgery on his knee.
Tapp notched 2.5 sacks last year in 12 games, but fought through minor injuries throughout the year. It’s an important camp for the 27-year-old, who does not have a roster spot guaranteed.
Phillip Hunt provides a challenge, after coming out of nowhere last year to dazzle in training camp. Hunt got two sacks in nine games of action last year, and at 6-foot-0 and 244 pounds, would benefit greatly from a little extra bulk.
Monte Taylor rounds out the defensive ends as an undrafted rookie from Cincinnati.
At defensive end, the Eagles keep Cole, Babin, Graham, Curry and Tapp. The first four are virtual guarantees, while Tapp has all of the ability to benefit greatly from Jim Washburn’s coaching along the defensive line. Last year could have been a breakout year for Tapp had he stayed healthy, but this year he’ll fly under the radar a bit.
At defensive tackle, pen in Jenkins, Patterson, Cox and Dixon. The Eagles cut Landri in camp last year, and would probably be happy if the 28-year-old was outperformed by Thornton, who is cheaper and has four years of youth on Landri. That said, Landri’s motor won’t let him be outworked and I think he earns the spot.
Ryan Messick covers the Eagles for 97.3 ESPN FM. Follow him on Twitter.