Jim Johnson’s defense has always had a reputation for putting pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback to disrupt the offensive game plan, but with the way his big men up front performed against the run in 2007, it seems that the Eagle’s defensive line could be one of the teams greatest strengths in the near future.
Defensive end Trent Cole emerged as a star this year and truly made a name for himself in his third NFL season, leading the team in sacks with 12.5 and being named to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement. With his relentless motor and low pad style of play, Cole terrorized bigger offensive linemen throughout the year and became the first Eagle to record double-digit sacks in a season since Hugh Douglas had 12.5 in 2002. The former fifth-round draft pick from Cincinnati also earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against the Vikings in week seven, where he recorded 2 sacks and a career-high 13 tackles. Cole finished the season with 70 total tackles and was an integral part of a defense that held opponents to 95.8 rushing yards per game, ranking them seventh in the NFL in that category. After signing a 5-year contract extension in 2006, Cole is set to play for the Eagles until 2013.
Tackle Mike Patterson was another one of the Eagles young defensive linemen who had a breakout season, and the former first round pick established himself as a force on the inside. Standing six-feet tall and just under 300 pounds, Patterson is not massive when compared to other tackles in the league, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for with instincts. Patterson used his excellent football awareness to consistently find the ball carrier and recorded a career-high 67 tackles in 2007, along with four sacks and a forced fumble. The former USC standout also signed a contract extension in 2006, keeping him in a Philadelphia uniform through 2016.
Also on the interior, former Florida State star Broderick Bunkley earned a starting spot this season and showed tremendous potential. After a disappointing rookie year in 2006, Bunkley regained the confidence of the coaching staff with hard work and dedication in the off-season and developed into a solid run-stopper. With a scary combination of speed and power, the 24-year-old Bunkley helped the Eagles defense give up only 80 rushing first downs all year, ranking them tied for sixth in the league. He recorded the first sack of his career this season in week three against Detroit, and the former first round pick finished the year with three quarterback takedowns.
While he was not originally drafted by Philadelphia like Cole, Patterson, and Bunkley, veteran end Juqua Thomas also turned a lot of heads with his play in 2007. Thomas came into the league in 2001 after being signed as an undrafted rookie free-agent out of Oklahoma State by the Titans, and eventually was picked up by the Eagles in 2005. He started this season as a reserve, but played well when called upon and wound up starting the final seven games of the year. Thomas showed the ability to defend well against both the run and the pass and finished the season with five sacks, the second highest total on the team.
Providing depth on the line, Lajuan Ramsey, Montae Reagor, and rookie Victor Abiamiri all saw action during 2007 and should still be with the team next season. While they are solid players to rotate in occasionally, none of them are expected to be major contributors in the near future.
Jevon Kearse returned to the Eagles lineup after a serious knee injury sidelined him for most of the 2006 season, and “the Freak” did not look like the same dominating player he was in the past. A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Kearse provided a solid veteran presence and managed to record 3.5 sacks on the year, but he was taken out of the starting lineup midway through the season and was even deactivated for two games. At 31 years old, Kearse is in the twilight of his career and with the Eagles owing him over $8 million in 2008; his chances of being on the team next year are slim.
After his second unspectacular season in Philadelphia, end Darren Howard could also be in a similar situation as Kearse. Howard only had eight tackles and one sack in 2007 and since he is also set to make big money next year, he might be a salary cap casualty.
14-year veteran Kimo Von Oelhoffen came to the Eagles as a free agent last off-season, but was only signed to a one-year deal and only saw action in 8 games all year. He is set to hit the open market again at the end of the month and could be in a different jersey in 2008.
Although the Eagles might lose some of the veterans on their defensive line in the off-season, they can move on knowing that they have key players signed long into the future. With a solid starting group established, the defense will now have to focus on adding depth at both ends and at tackle as they prepare for 2008.
Final Grade: B
Andrew Pluta can be reached at email@example.com.