Is defensive end that big of a need?

On the Eagles’ website, all that spews out is how the pass rush must be upgraded. They publish a whole bunch of scouting reports on defensive end prospects and drop not-so-subtle hints that defensive end is Philly’s top priority this offseason at every opportunity they get. The Eagles have already signed the Canadian Football League’s sack leader to a three-year deal and brought in the top defensive line coach in the league. Truth be told, I don’t think they have to do much more to address the position.

Obviously, the Eagles’ top pass rusher is Trent Cole. He’s only 28 years old, and remains one of the steadiest veterans in the league. He’s not the fastest or best pure pass rusher in the league. However, he gives consistent effort, is one of the top 4-3 ends against the run, and is very, very smart and instinctive. In a way, his 22.5 sacks the past two seasons are just a bonus for everything else he contributes to the defense that flies under the radar. He should be even better under Jim Washburn, but needs to be afforded more snaps off as he was extremely worn down towards the end of the year. In my opinion, the next best guy is Darryl Tapp, who should have been used a lot more last year. He’s still very young at age 26 and he was a lot more disruptive than his 3.0 sacks in 2010 suggest. He’s a very high energy player who is more physically gifted than Juqua Parker. He should play around 50% of the defensive snaps in 2011 and drop into coverage much less often. Cole and Tapp are my starters for 2011 if I’m Juan Castillo because of the combination of athleticism, energy, and strength that they offer.

Behind them, Juqua Parker will be the first end off the bench to get in the rotation. He’s the ultimate hustle player, but just isn’t as fast as you’d like a defensive end to be. He gives you every ounce of fight he has left in him as a former undrafted free agent who clawed his way into the Eagle rotation about five years ago. However, he’s small, slow, and gets worn down way too easily. Also, he will be 33 years old in May, so there’s no telling if the Eagles even plan to keep him on the roster for next season. They have a history of releasing productive veterans as they enter their mid-30s (Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, William Thomas…), and I have a sneaking suspicion that Parker could be the next to go. That would be a shame because although he’s no longer capable of being a full-time starter, he could certainly chip in 20 good snaps a game and provide good depth. The next guy in line would probably be Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, the Eagles’ third round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He played sparingly in 2010 and never really impressed me at any point. He was extremely productive in college, and is another one of those high effort players with pedestrian physical attributes. However, his youth, height, and speed combination is similar to those of some players that Jim Washburn has gotten a lot of good seasons out of. There’s no question that Te’o-Nesheim needs to step his game up to a new level next season, and I’m not sure anybody really knows how good he will be. At this point, I wouldn’t count on him to be anything more than a fourth defensive end.

Competing with Daniel Te’o-Nesheim for the fourth defensive end spot will be fellow second year player Ricky Sapp, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve. Sapp is maybe the most gifted pass rusher on the Eagles’ roster from a purely physical standpoint. He’s 6’4″, around 255 pounds, and is extremely athletic. Prior to the 2010 draft, Sapp was widely regarded as a second round pick, but he slid all the way to the Eagles in the fifth round. He’s a very natural and fluid pass rusher who can pursue from the back side. He’s a breakout candidate under Jim Washburn, and he has an awful lot of potential. Also fighting for a spot in the rotation will be Phillip Hunt, the CFL’s sack leader last season. He was a dominant player in Conference USA while playing for the Houston Cougars. Hunt isn’t nearly as good of an athlete as Sapp standing only 6’0″ tall and weighing a mere 248 pounds. However, Hunt packs a serious punch and looks very solid. He’s not an every down player, but he has proven he can dominate tackles at both the college at CFL level. It will definitely be interesting to see if he can beat guys like Jason Peters or Winston Justice instead of CFL tackles.

The wild card at defensive end is Brandon Graham. He suffered a torn ACL in the middle of his rookie season, and right now his prospects for 2011 don’t look very good. The Eagles seem very pessimistic about his chances of even playing at all in 2011, and I expect he will start the season on the PUP  (Physically Unable to Perform) list. If he does recover, he should strictly be a rotational rusher who plays around 20-25% of the defensive snaps. It would be stupid for the Eagles to panic and select his replacement early on in the draft knowing that he will return at full strength in 2012.

As of right now, I don’t believe defensive end is a dire need at all. Therefore, it would make sense that the Eagles only think it is because they have plans to release Juqua Parker and they know that Brandon Graham will not be ready to contribute in 2011. In this scenario, the Eagles would have no proven players behind Trent Cole and Darryl Tapp. I expect that one player out of Phillip Hunt, Ricky Sapp, or Daniel Te’o-Nesheim will become a solid rotational end and another one will be cut. Those are just the odds with talented but unproven players in today’s NFL. I believe the Eagles should hold onto Juqua Parker for one last season until Brandon Graham heals up, and I’m sure they will try to lure another pass rusher to town via free agency. Some names to watch for are Jason Babin, who has already expressed interest in reuniting with Washburn in Philly, and Mathias Kiwanuka, who doesn’t expect the Giants to offer him a long-term deal due to his injury history. My prediction for the draft is that the Eagles will draft a defensive end in the second round, where I’m sure they’ll be targeting Arizona’s Brooks Reed. Pittsburgh’s Jabaal Sheard would be a phenomenal pick, and I would also be satisfied with Sam Acho of Texas.

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