Leo Pizzini is a Hall-of-Fame poster who has taken a sabbatical from the EYE's daily rumblings over the past year… But it was Leo who coined the term "5-Year Trend" for the windows of opportunity that emerge for any team's shot at competitive growth in the NFL. According to Leo, who was a defensive specialist (safety) in his collegiate and semi-pro playing days, you've got roughly 5 years to build a true contending offense and defense in the NFL… and when your 5 years are up, one way or the other, you've got to start from the beginning again.
We've seen that trend play out over and over again… and according to Leo's theory, the Eagles under Chip Kelly's post-Reid era are actually in the 3rd year of a growth trend opportunity, since so many holdovers from Reid's bottom-out team of 2012 are still on the roster.
It's a harsh formula, to be sure, but the reality is algebraic in Leo's vision— he suggests that the Eagles as a collection of talent bottomed out in 2010, a year in which they actually made the playoffs.
Positive trend = x + y – z…. where x = 3+ year veterans with upside, y = rookie and 1-year veterans with potential, and z = guys past their prime that should be traded or released.
Even Leo's formula does not account for coaching changes or general management decisions specifically. But my guess is he is working on that algorithm in his spare time.
With the fresh air blown into the organization in 2013 by Chip Kelly's presence and new staff, it might be tempting to think that the Eagles are coming off their first year of an exciting new trend. But Leo's formula brings realism and urgency to that fantasy thought—- we're still working with what remains of a descending trend going back to 2010… and if you go with Leo's theory, we've got exactly two years to establish a conference winner before it all comes crashing down again…
With those theories in mind, let's evaluate one-third of the premise— what's the prognosis for the Eagles' defense?
Early in the season, just after an embarrassing 52-20 loss at Denver, new Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis was taking a lot of heat.
The team's transition to a 3-4 defense wasn't going smoothly. Players were having trouble learning the system. Others were struggling with new positions.
Davis urged skeptics to trust him, insisting that the system would eventually work.
He was right.
The defense bounced back. It still gave up a lot of yards – the Eagles finished the regular season ranked 29th in yards allowed per game at 394.2 – but kept opponents out of the end zone. They gave up 21 points or less in 10 of the next 11 games. They also had 31 takeaways, tying for third in the NFL one year after ranking last with 13, and they added two interceptions in their 26-24 loss to New Orleans in the playoffs.
Assuming they can upgrade at several positions, the unit should be even better in 2014. Here's guest analyst's David Weinberg's final grades for the Eagles defense…
Their statistics belie their importance to the defense this season.
Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton both enjoyed solid years at defensive end after beginning their careers at defensive tackles in 2012. Cox, the Eagles' first-round draft pick in 2012, made 66 tackles according to team statistics and led the front three with three sacks and 21 quarterback hurries. Thornton added 78 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Vinny Curry got off to an encouraging start but tailed off in the second half of the season. He had four sacks but was shut out in the last six games.
At nose tackle, the Eagles traded under-performing veteran free agent Isaac Sopoaga to New England in late October, clearing the way for rookie Bennie Logan to get more opportunities. Logan, a third-round draft pick, contributed 43 tackles, two sacks and seven hurries. Rookie free agent Damion Square showed potential but needs to get bigger and stronger.
This unit was the strength of the defense.
Inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks excelled. Ryans was the best defensive player. He led the team with 177 tackles to go with four sacks and two interceptions, plus another interception in the playoffs. Kendricks ranked second with 137 tackles and had four sacks, three interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Together, they became the fourth and fifth players in Eagles history to earn at least four sacks and two interceptions in the same season.
New outside linebacker Connor Barwin provided steady play and leadership. He had 82 tackles and five sacks. Trent Cole struggled at first in making the switch from defensive end but led the Eagles with eight sacks. Brandon Graham had three sacks as a backup.
They have to find a way to make Cole and Graham happy next season. Cole was upset that he wasn't on the field more often. Graham wants to be a starter, preferably at defensive end.
The defensive backs had an up-and-down season.
The Eagles ranked last in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 289.8 yards per game. Some of that was due to an inconsistent pass rush, and also due to being out on the field for about 35 minutes a game on average… but some members of the secondary also struggled.
Brandon Boykin was a standout. He finished tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions, despite playing in just 51 percent of the defensive snaps as a slot corner. Cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams were major upgrades over Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, though Williams gave up his share of big plays. Fletcher was steadier and snared an interception against the Saints…. but missed a lot of time due to injuries.
Safety Nate Allen had a somewhat nice season after terrible performances in 2011-12. He improved his tackling and ranked third on the team with 87. Patrick Chung was a major disappointment. Rookie Earl Wolff would have replaced him but was hampered by a knee injury down the stretch.
The Eagles desperately need at least one more high-trending safety.
Awards for defense, and special-teams……………….
MVP (defense): Linebacker DeMeco Ryans
Biggest surprise: Defensive end Cedric Thornton
Unsung hero: Cornerback Brandon Boykin
Biggest disappointment (defense): Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga
MVP (special teams): Punter Donnie Jones
Biggest surprise (special teams): Donnie Jones
Unsung hero (special teams): Tight end James Casey
Biggest disappointment (special teams): Returner Damaris Johnson