Jan 172011
Eagles DE Brandon Graham

Could Eagles DE Brandon Graham play in a 3-4?

By Justin Adkins:

As the Eagles search for a new defensive coordinator to replace both the fired Sean McDermott and the legend of Jim Johnson, they may also want to consider a complete overhaul in approach and philosophy.

Instead of keeping their base 4-3, it may be time to consider a switch to a 3-4 defense.

The NFL is a copycat league, and the 3-4 is currently en vogue, with half the league either using it full time or as a base with some variations (the Ravens and Dolphins, for example).

Here are all the teams currently using the 3–4 — Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins, and Houston Texans.

Here are the 2010 playoff teams still remaining — Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets, and Pittsburgh Steelers.  Only the Bears run a 4-3, and even that isn’t traditional as they use the Tampa 2.

Should the Eagles jump on the 3-4 bandwagon like they were Philly-area Cowboy fans (just without the latter’s lack of integrity and odor)?

It’s a tough call for two reasons — they need a coach to implement and develop it, and more importantly, they need the personnel to play in it.  Unfortunately, they are not stocked with many traditional 3-4 type players.

The key to a 3-4 is having big, athletic, powerful lineman who can occupy multiple blockers and explosive edge rushers who can get to the quarterback and wreak havoc.

For the pass rushing linebackers, it’s likely that Trent Cole would transition well.  He was initially projected as a pass rushing linebacker out of Cincinnati, and with all his talent he could be probably do it not only effectively but at a very high level.

They could also turn the pointlessly high selection of undersized 2010 third-round pick defensive end Daniel Te’o Nesheim into a positive, since he likely will never do anything as a d-end in a 4-3 but could potentially perform well on the outside in the 3-4.

Veteran Juqua Parker is already a bit undersized at end in a 4-3, so moving to the outside may help him as well.

The Eagles will also get top pick Brandon Graham and Clemson’s Ricky Sapp back from injury, who are both yet more undersized 4-3 defensive ends likely better suited for 3-4 linebacker.  With Graham initially struggling to find his way on the Eagles line, even getting moved inside at times in the Darren Howard-role until they scrapped that plan, he may flourish if unleashed from the edge.  Sapp could provide solid depth.

Really, the way the Eagles draft defensive ends (don’t forget undersized third-round picks Chris Gocong and Bryan Smith) you’d think they would have already made the switch by now.  Instead of using high picks on guys who need to be shoe-horned into a 4-3, they should adapt and use them in a 3-4.  Smith is probably working at Wal-Mart right now, so they could give him a call and see if he can come back and try to give them some return on their otherwise completely wasted third-round pick.

For the inside, the Eagles could probably turn Stewart Bradley into an effective 3-4 linebacker, pairing him with the slightly undersized Jamar Chaney to form a sold if unspectacular tandem.  Ideally they need to identify a true impact player on the inside to be completely effective.  Bradley could have been that guy at one point, but with injuries wearing him down, it’s not likely.

The other problem they have is that their former first-round (and well paid) defensive tackles, Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, are horribly suited to a 3-4 and would need to be either traded or cut to make room for better, more appropriate players.  Same for former second-round pick Trevor Laws.

What they need at end are tall, athletic guys who can take on double teams and be stout against the run.  Unfortunately, guys like Richard Seymour don’t grow on trees.  That said, it is definitely easier to find 3-4 ends than it is the 4-3 variety so that will play in their favor.

The Eagles will also need to find a wide body who can play nose tackle, someone who will blow up the middle of an opponent’s offensive line, taking on multiple blockers and allowing the inside linebackers to make plays.  They do not have that person on the roster, though at around 6’3″, 330, Antonio Dixon could serve in the role until an elite one is acquired.  It’s a damn shame they didn’t get to draft Haloti Ngata, seeing the Ravens snatch him up just a few picks ahead of where they ultimately took Bunkley.

With the 23rd pick in the first round, the Eagles should be able to identify a quality defensive player suited to the 3-4.  Unfortunately, they also desperately need to address cornerback and the offensive line, so they may not have the luxury of targeting 3-4 players.  They could of course gain more high picks if they trade a quarterback, but with the NFL’s unsettled labor situation that’s unlikely.

Speaking of labor uncertainty, the Eagles will also likely be limited in their pursuit of free agents.  Combined with their acknowledged lack of regard for the linebacker position, it will be even more challenging than normal to acquire scheme-appropriate players this offseason.

And that’s just the player side.  Finding a high-level coach for the 3-4 will be even more challenging, especially now that Rob Ryan has been hired in the same capacity in Dallas.  Not only is Buddy’s son skilled, he brings what the Eagles defense has sorely lacked the past two seasons — fire, passion, and intensity.

No matter who the Eagles hire and no matter what scheme they run, they better find someone who can add some spark and backbone, and they better find some players who can lay some wood.  As it stands now, the defense has little personality, and worse, no one who scares an offense outside of strictly zone corner Asante Samuel.  Even Pro Bowler Trent Cole has seen his sack numbers dwindle, especially late in the season.  As he wears down more and more, the Eagles defense will be in more and more trouble.

What they need is a hitter and a leader, someone who will take the D on his back and find ways to win.  It’s a good thing they saved that few million dollars by allowing Brian Dawkins to leave.  Can’t risk losing the Salary Cap Championship.

As it stands, the Eagles probably won’t move to the 3-4 as they’re likely to promote secondary coach Dick Jauron, a long-time 4-3 proponent.  If Jauron takes the rumored job as the Browns defensive coordinator, it’s being hinted that the Eagles will look to former Falcons and Seahawks coach Jim Mora, Jr., another 4-3 guy.  Unless they’re willing to take a chance on an inexperienced assistant, there isn’t much out there.  Of course, Jeff Lurie took a chance on an inexperienced assistant 12 years ago, so anything’s possible.

Ultimately, the Eagles defense needs to make one change more than any other — get better.

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