Shifting Schemes: Philadelphia Eagles Switch to 3-4
This offseason we’ve seen many teams hire of new defensive coordinators and change their defensive schemes. I have already wrote about the shift from the Browns, Cowboys and Saints. In this piece I look at the Eagles’ transition to a 3-4 defense.
Over the last several years the Eagles have ran a base 4-3 defense. A new coaching staff, including former Browns linebacker coach Billy Davis, brings many changes. How will this transition impact those in IDP leagues heading into 2013?
IDP owners need to be aware of some big changes on the defensive line. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are shifting to outside linebacker, and Fletcher Cox is moving from defensive tackle to defensive end. Cox has good size to fit the position, as he’s just under 300lbs and is building off a solid rookie season. He displayed an ability to get to the quarterback, finishing with five sacks and 25 total QB pressure in 303 pass rush snaps. While high tackle numbers aren’t expected out of the tackle position, he did finish with 39 and a decent 7.4% tackle frequency (including 9.5 tackles for loss).
Cox is a solid pass-rusher who could see one-on-one opportunities, but it remains to be seen if he can produce stats worthy of being on an IDP roster. If playing in an-all IDP league, he’ll be worth adding as a late round DL3, but in mixed leagues, he should be an in-season waiver wire pickup or used as an injury fill-in.
Vinny Curry, another second year player, was drafted under the previous regime to play 4-3 defensive end. He wasn’t able to do much his rookie year, appearing in just 89 defensive snaps and producing just three total QB pressures. There was speculation that he might be on the trade block during the draft, but his spot appears safe. The Eagles didn’t address the linebacker position in the draft (signed Connor Barwin), though they didn’t have a chance to draft Dion Jordan.
Curry could play as outside linebacker, but CSN Philly has him slated as a five-technique end and he has already bulked up to 278lbs. His IDP value heading into 2013 is murky at best, as he’ll battle Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan for the starting defensive end spot opposite Cox.
Cedric Thornton is entering his third season and appeared in all 16 contests for the Eagles in 2012, logging 406 defensive snaps making the most of his appearances. He registered a sack and 10 total QB pressures in 181 pass rush opportunities. Thornton could see time on the strong side of the line and could be asked to stuff the run, where he had a 6.6% run-stop percentage in 2012. At around 310lbs, he could excel at the role and help an Eagles defense that struggled against the run last season. As mentioned with Curry, he’s locked in a position battle and doesn’t offer much IDP upside in 2013.
Bennie Logan was drafted 67th overall and was a 4-3 defensive tackle for LSU and will be looked upon to play a more situational role as a rusher in obvious passing situations. The nose tackle in a 3-4 really doesn’t hold much IDP value, so Isaac Sopoaga shouldn’t be an option even in the deepest of leagues.
DeMeco Ryans is one of the few linebackers that has experience within a 3-4 scheme. In his last year with the Texans, he started all 16 games. Still recovering from an Achilles injury, he was removed from nickel packages and finished with 64 tackles in 682 defensive snaps in 2011. Ryans enjoyed an IDP career revival in Philly, recording 113 tackles (86 solo) at a 10.5% tackle frequency. But can Ryans play the ILB?
Ryans certainly says he can. According to him, he can play in any defense, but Houston was running more packages where he was coming off the field. He’s healthy after playing in nearly 100% of the snaps in 2012, and should be able to transition fine to the new scheme. Ryans ADP, according to MyFantasyLeague, has him being drafted as the 38th linebacker. I like him to finish among the top 30 linebackers. He’s an undervalued LB2 in IDP leagues.
Mychal Kendricks has playmaker written all over him, even though he might be a bit undersized to play ILB. Kendricks played some weak side, but was mostly the strong side linebacker. He recorded 75 tackles (14 misses), but didn’t figure too prominently in the pass rush. Kendricks played the 3-4 at Cal, so he knows the basics. It was good to see Kendricks appear in just under 95% of the total snaps as a rookie, so if he can hit 1,000 snaps and increase his tackle frequency to 10%, he could flirt with 100 tackles. I feel comfortable with drafting him as an LB4 for depth in the later rounds of IDP leagues as he has the upside to finish as an LB3.
Trent Cole is coming off his worst season, statistically, as a pro. In 755 defensive snaps he registered just three sacks and 45 total QB pressures in 432 pass rush opportunities. Just to show the decrease, in 2011, he had 44 QB hurries alone. Cole is known for his speed, but he didn’t seem to mesh well with Philly’s Wide-9 scheme. Now that he’s transitioning to outside linebacker, once again, he’ll be put in an uncomfortable situation. Eagles beat writer Jeff McLane has observed that he looks like a fish out of water. The Eagles aren’t going to ask Cole to drop into coverage, but he will be responsible for setting the edge and also getting to the quarterback. This transition doesn’t bode well for Cole’s 2013 IDP success. If used properly, Cole could manage double-digit sacks, but will not be worth drafting in standard format IDP leagues.
The Eagles surprised everyone by signing Connor Barwin to a six-year, $36 million contract. Barwin saw a big dip in his sack production from 2011 to 2012, as he went from 11 to four sacks and saw his total QB pressures decrease as well. Barwin was asked to cover more, however, seeing a marginal increase in his pass coverage responsibilities. In looking at some film, Barwin was the sacrificial lamb to free up JJ Watt, as he took on more blockers.
The Eagles, and potential IDP owners, are hoping that they’ve signed the 2011 version and not the 2012 version of Barwin. As the only outside linebacker with 3-4 experience, and a big contract, Barwin is going to have every chance to play and could, once again flirt with double-digit sacks. As for his IDP value in 2013, it might just lie in deeper, all-IDP leagues.
The defender I feel real bad for is Brandon Graham. He has the stigma of being the guy the Eagles selected over Jason Pierre-Paul. After a knee injury wiped out his 2011 season, he emerged as a force towards the end of the 2012 after Jason Babin was let go. In just 435 defensive snaps, Graham established himself as the team’s best pass rusher. Graham finished with 45 total QBP (seven sacks) in just 220 pass rush snaps. After the 2012 season, he seemed to be putting his game together and looked prime to be an IDP producer in 2013. Now, a scheme change could stunt his progression and Graham knows that his roster spot isn’t guaranteed. Like the other defenders that are switching their roles, his IDP value is limited to those leagues whose scoring systems value the bigger plays, like sacks, over tackles.
The Eagles made some additions to their secondary, including signing former Rams CB Bradley Fletcher. Fletcher established himself as a solid corner in 2010 producing four interceptions and 11 passes defensed on 83 targets, but an injury wiped out a promising 2011 season. So after appearing in just 374 snaps and finding himself in Jeff Fisher’s doghouse last season, he joined the Eagles in the off-season. Fletcher is slated to start outside, opposite Cary Williams (another free agent addition). Fletcher is a physical corner and isn’t afraid to play near the line of scrimmage. Another plus, is that he doesn’t miss tackles. So, as long as he’s healthy, he should see plenty of targets, which makes for a nice CB2 target in those IDP leagues requiring a cornerback.
Cary Williams was another corner that the Eagles brought in during the off-season. Williams appeared in 1,101 defensive snaps and finished with 75 tackles, four interceptions and 17 passes defensed on 102 targets. The only issue with Williams was the fact that he allowed 935 yards (4th most among corners) and six touchdowns. But, like Fletcher, he doesn’t miss tackles, as he missed just three out of his total tackle opportunities in 2012. He plays physical and isn’t afraid to mix things up, and like Fletcher, can be looked at as a decent CB2 in IDP leagues requiring a cornerback.
Philadelphia brought in two injury prone safeties, Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips, to try to shore up the defensive backfield. Chung has teased his IDP owners since his 96 tackle 2010 season, but injuries have caused him to miss 20 games over the last two seasons. This past season was the final straw for the Patriots as he appeared in 12 games, starting eight.
The Eagles are hoping that his injury woes are behind since they are counting on him to be their in-the-box safety and be on the field for every down. Luckily for Chung, he’s been reunited with Chip Kelly who’s likely to utilize his strengths. Chung is penciled in at strong safety and has the upside to finish among the Top 20 defensive backs. He should be drafted as a DB2, but carries injury risk with his upside.
Phillips was brought in to start at free safety opposite Chung, but will battle Nate Allen for the starting job. Like Chung, Phillips has been injury prone, battling knee injuries during his career and missing 23 games since 2009. He hasn’t accumulated more than 82 tackles in a season, but he has been a solid cover safety. Recent MRIs have shown that Phillips’ knee is looking good and that he’s ready to go.
Right now, Allen is ahead of him on the depth chart, but until Phillips can stay healthy and prove his knees are good, he’s only worth a flier in deeper leagues with deep benches. In standard IDP leagues, he could be worth adding as a waiver wire pickup if he ends up with the starting gig.
Mike Woellert is a Senior Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow Mike on Twitter @PFF_MWoellert