EAGLES POSITIONAL REVIEWS
During the next two weeks, The Inquirer will preview the Eagles' offseason. Free agency begins on March 10, and the draft is April 30-May 2.
Mon, March 2: Defensive line; Tues., March 3: Outside linebacker; Wed., March 4: Inside linebacker; Thurs., March 5: Cornerback; Fri., March 6: Safeties
The Eagles' most consistent unit in 2014, especially on the defensive side of the ball, was their defensive line. Every lineman except for defensive end Cedric Thornton is under contract for 2015. Thornton is a restricted free agent. More on him later. Fletcher Cox took a quantum leap in his third season and moved into the upper echelon of the league's top defensive linemen. He has one year left on his rookie contract, but the expectation is that the Eagles will try and extend Cox before the coming season. The organization has been committed to keeping homegrown talent and Cox amazingly is still only 24.
Bennie Logan made progress in his second season and has developed into one of the better run stopping nose tackles in the NFL. The Eagles' starting three up front – Cox, Logan and Thornton – consistently fulfilled their two-gapping responsibilities and grounded a defense that successfully emphasized stopping the run. Cox was as dominant as a pass rusher and played 80 percent of defensive snaps. Logan and Thornton (55 percent) weren't as productive on passing downs (one sack between them) but Vinny Curry found his niche as a pass rushing specialist (nine sacks). The Eagles have dangled Curry on the trade market in the past, but he has one more season left on his rookie deal and has likely become too valuable to deal.
Beau Allen and Brandon Bair (17 percent) were rotational linemen, but neither played well enough to suggest they could supplant the starting three. Allen should get another opportunity to show that he belongs on the roster, but the 30-year-old Bair could be forced out if Taylor Hart is ready to play. Hart, a fifth round draft pick, was inactive all of last season. He needed to get stronger. He has to now go out and perform and prove he wasn't a reach.
Nose tackle Wade Keliikipi, another Oregon product, spent last season on the practice squad and was signed to a futures contract in January.
The Eagles have until March 10 – the start of free agency – to tender Thornton. They have four options: Tender him at a first-round level, a second-level, original round level or right of first refusal. The tender level designates the one-year salary and the compensation should another team make an offer and the Eagles weren't to match. There's no reason to think the Eagles won't tender Thornton at a first or second round level or try to work out a long-term deal. He was stout against the run for the second straight season, and while he hasn't provided much as a pass rusher, Thornton is the type of hard working leader Kelly wants on his roster.
FREE AGENT OPTIONS
Despite the likelihood that there will be some attractive names on the free agent market, it's unlikely the Eagles will dip into those waters. The Lions announced on Monday that they wouldn't franchise tag Ndamukong Suh. If they can't work out a deal, he'll be the most attractive free agent interior lineman. He is best utilized in a 4-3 one-gap scheme. The same could be said of teammate Nick Fairley. Terrance Knighton of the Broncos, Dan Williams of the Cardinals or Jared Odrick of the Dolphins would probably appeal to the Eagles if they had a glaring need up front, but they'll command big paychecks.
There are some lower level free agents that could intrigue the Eagles if they wanted to strengthen their rotation and push Allen and Hart. Kendall Langord (6-foot-6, 313 pounds) of Rams, Leger Douzable (6-4, 284) of the New York Jets and Tyson Alualu (6-3, 295) of the Jaguars have some potential upside and are 29, 28 and 27 years of age, respectively.
It is unlikely the Eagles will expend their first round pick on an interior lineman, although there are some attractive prospects that could land in their laps with the 20th overall selection. Southern Cal defensive tackle Leonard Williams (6-5, 302) is expected to go within the first five picks. Washington nose tackle Danny Shelton (6-2, 339) could be a top ten selection.
But Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown (6-2, 319), Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (6-4, 336) or Oklahoma defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (6-5, 329) could be too good to pass up if one were to drop to No. 20. There's mixed opinion on Oregon's Arik Armstead (6-7, 292), although it's safe to assume which side Kelly comes out on. If Armstead were to fall into the second round, would the Eagles have a hard time passing on a 3-4 defensive end that knows the scheme, is long and has a 34-inch vertical leap?
Ohio State's Michael Bennett (6-2, 293) and Iowa's Carl Davis (6-5, 320) could also be second round talents. The Eagles will likely be more inclined to swing in the later rounds. Knowing Kelly's preference for tall, long-armed defensive ends, Mississippi State defensive end Preston Smith could be an option. He's a slim 6-5, but he ran a 4.74 40-yard dash at 271 pounds at the combine and has the frame to add 20 pounds. Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson (6-6, 294) worked out with interior linemen at the combine and matched up well, running the 40 in 5.03 seconds.