Previewing the Eagles' offseason: Defensive tackles
Fletcher Cox, Beau Allen, Destiny Vaeao, Aziz Shittu, Justin Hamilton
The Eagles believe Fletcher Cox is the foundation piece for their defense, and they showed that when they rewarded him with a six-year, $103 million contract last summer. Cox earned his second Pro Bowl appearance after recording 6.5 sacks last season, although he did not have the outstanding year expected of him after the contract and the transition to a 4-3 defense. Offensive lines keyed on Cox, often double-teaming him. His sack production declined from 2015, but he was still consistently disruptive. Cox remains the key to the Eagles' defense, and he's entering his age-26 season. He should be right in his prime.
Beau Allen is the next most experienced player under contract. Allen transitioned from a 3-4 nose tackle to a 4-3 penetrating defensive tackle, even starting three games when Bennie Logan was absent. At 6-foot-3 and 327 pounds, Allen is a load in the middle and is hard for offensive linemen to move. He finished with only a half-sack, but he showed that he could go north-south last season, and could take on a bigger role in 2017 if Logan is not re-signed.
Destiny Vaeao made the Eagles as an undrafted rookie last season and played 26 percent of the defensive snaps. Vaeao will likely compete for that same role next season, with a possible uptick in usage. The Eagles need young players on rookie contracts at the position, and Vaeao is one the coaches like.
Aziz Shittu was on the practice squad last season and will compete for a roster spot in 2017. Justin Hamilton signed with the Eagles this offseason after bouncing around practice squads in Green Bay and Seattle. He has not yet played an NFL game.
The top pending free agent on the Eagles is Bennie Logan, and he presents a tough decision. Logan is a homegrown core player who has started since entering the lineup midway through his rookie season in 2013. He's not spectacular, but he's a reliable starting defensive tackle who is stout against the run and showed pass-rush ability last season. He finished with 2.5 sacks in 13 games.
Logan fits how the Eagles want to build their roster – a third-round pick who was drafted and developed – but they also need to be realistic about resource allocation. The team has already invested heavily on the defensive line, with expensive second contracts already dished out to Cox, Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham, and Connor Barwin. Even if the Eagles traded, released, or restructured Barwin's deal, Logan would be the fourth player on the line locked up to a big contract. That's a tough spot for the Eagles – especially when Cox is one of the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL. So the guess here is that Logan finds a better deal elsewhere – which would not be an indication of what the Eagles think of him, but rather, the reality of NFL economics.
However, if the Eagles do not keep Logan, the Eagles would need to replace 46 percent of the defensive snaps. That's a big responsibility, and it likely wouldn't all come from internal options.
Also, Allen is eligible for a contract extension this offseason, so that's another roster decision for the Eagles.
If the Eagles were going to invest big dollars at defensive tackle this offseason, they might as well just keep Logan. That means they'll probably be priced out of top defensive tackles such as Carolina's Kawaan Short, Baltimore's Brandon Williams, Kansas City's Dontari Poe, and Arizona's Calais Campbell, and maybe even the Giants' Johnathan Hankins. Not all of them fit in the Eagles' defensive scheme, either.
New Orleans' Nick Fairley, 29, makes sense as a veteran Band-Aid option. Fairley has experience under Jim Schwartz and had a career-high 6.5 sacks while starting all 16 games last year. But after taking a one-year deal the past two offseasons, he could be in line for a multi-year deal this season. If the price is right, though, Fairley could fit.
Baltimore's Lawrence Guy started 10 games last season and could be in line for a bigger role this season. He will turn 27 in March and has become a solid player with the Ravens after bouncing between teams earlier in his career. Denver's Sylvester Williams, 28, is a former first-round pick who has started the past three seasons for the Broncos and is set to hit the market. Oakland's Stacy McGee, 27, started nine games last season and had 2.5 sacks in the first five weeks of the season.
If the Eagles looked for a defensive lineman early in the draft, it would more likely be an edge rusher than an interior guy. The top defensive tackles in the draft are Alabama's Jonathan Allen (6-3, 291; a 3-4 DE who can play 4-3 DT), Michigan State's Malik McDowell (6-6, 276), and Florida's Caleb Brantley (6-2, 314). Allen has already drawn comparisons to Cox. McDowell is only 20, but could be better as a defensive end. Brantley was second-team all-SEC last season, but he is full of talent and would fit in the Eagles' scheme. However, the Eagles' other first-round needs could have them looking elsewhere.
The Eagles could address the position on Day 2 or early on Day 3, when Clemson's Carlso Watkins (6-4, 312), Michigan's Chris Wormley (6-5, 297), Washington's Elijah Qualls (6-2, 293), Notre Dame's Jarron Jones (6-5, 315), and Alabama's Dalvin Tomlinson (6-3, 312) will be viable options. Of that group, pay attention to Wormley. The three-year starter was all-Big Ten last season. Qualls, similar to Logan, brings strong run-stopping ability.
Charlotte's Larry Ogunjobi is a small-school prospect who could go on Day 2. The 6-3, 304-pounder started playing football as a high school sophomore and started every game of his college career, although it was not against top competition.
UCLA's Eddie Vanderdoes (6-3, 320) was a former top recruit who had a strong start to his college career before tearing an ACL as a junior. Two years off the injury, he could intrigue teams with his talent.
Other prospects to watch are Auburn's Montravius Adams (6-3, 308), Iowa's Jaleel Johnson (6-3, 309), North Carolina's Nazair Jones (6-5, 295), Ole Miss' D.J. Jones, and LSU's Davon Godchaux. By Day 3, the Eagles could be looking for a defensive tackle to join a rotation with Allen and Vaeao next season.