No matter how good the NFL playoffs have been so far, I know I am far from alone among Eagles fans in turning at least some of my attention to the upcoming draft and free agency. This season isn't even over yet and I'm itching to get to the next one.
I hope the players feel the same way.
I'm already on record with the idea that the Eagles are going to look to draft a defensive end in the first round to improve their pass rush. But since that time I've done a little digging through some old statistics to see if that's really where the problem lies:
And in pretty graph form:
Led by Trent Cole, the defensive ends didn't have their best season in recent years, but they weren't far off. The real difference was everywhere else.
I've been puzzled the last couple seasons by what I perceive to be -- without supporting statistics -- a decreased frequency of blitz calls by Jim Johnson. I guess, though, when your defensive ends can only manage eight sacks between them (2003 season), you have no choice but to send the house as often as possible.
Part of the challenge with blitzing, though, is that it requires guys who are good blitzers. Gocong, Gaither and TKO v2.0 aren't the quickest guys out there, nor do they have much experience in this system at hiding blitzes. Hopefully that improves as they stick around.
However, the biggest difference in the pass rush since 2004 has been the virtual disappearance of the defensive tackles. That group averaged 14.5 sacks from 2001-2004. The last three years they haven't gotten above eight. That's a big deal, because it suggests the Eagles aren't getting the kind of "in your face" pressure that quarterbacks most hate. It also is an indication that simply trolling the leftover bin for guys who can pass rush from the DT spot (Reagor, Jasper, Scott -- even Howard) isn't getting it done.
The thing is, there's no chance the Eagles make a big signing at that position. They've invested two #1 picks in Patterson and Bunkley. The thought has to be that these guys will continue to improve as they get further along in their careers -- particularly Bunkley, who came out of college with virtually zero technique and is only now learning how to use his hands.
But this may be a situation where improving pressure at another position (left DE) gives the guys in the middle a bit easier path to the QB. A rising tide and all that. So I still think the DE call for the first round is a good one, but if the team decides to go the free agent route, here's a good list of who's available. Some particularly intriguing candidates include:
Jared Allen, UFA, Kansas City Chiefs
He’s just 25 years of age, and has shown that he is among the league’s best at his position. He’ll be a high priority for several teams once the signing period opens.
Justin Smith, UFA, Cincinnati Bengals
Smith is an intriguing player. He’s consistent, experienced, and has a powerful motor... He won’t command elite dollars, but he could be valuable to a handful of teams and may find a suitor willing to open the checkbook a little bit.
Terrell Suggs, UFA, Baltimore Ravens
He is still a true talent and will attract some large offers from various teams, but Baltimore will do everything they can to sign him to an extension, especially considering that he recently turned just 25 years of age.