Eagles Training Camp Preview: Defense

PLAYER TO WATCH: LB JORDAN HICKS

Simba as he was commonly referred to as by his teammates during his rookie season in the NFL was a welcomed surprise for a 3rd round draft pick.  Jordan Hicks entered the 2015 campaign looking to compete for a backup role at 3-4 inside linebacker and largely make his bones on special teams.  Injuries and lack of performance by the Eagles veteran group of linebackers provided Hicks an opportunity for starting snaps as a rookie.  He more than held his own and many would argue he was the defensive MVP during his time on the field.  Hicks season was cut short on a Sunday Night in Dallas when he tore his pectoral muscle.  Oddly enough this was the same game he came up with the best play in his young career and possibly the best play for the Eagles all season.  Hicks jumped an out-route by Cowboys backup quarterback Matt Cassel and took it 67 yards the other way for an electrifying score.  My cohort claims he jumped off his sofa in excitement and nearly gave his wife a heart attack with his screaming.  The former Texas Longhorn certainly had a nose for the football during the eight games he played in, five of which he started.  Hicks recorded 50 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, three pass deflections, and two interceptions.  Gone from the Eagles linebacking corps are Demeco Ryans and Kiko Alonso.  This leaves Hicks as the man in the middle of the new 4-3 defensive scheme which will be coordinated by Jim Schwartz.  Hicks will be called upon as the signal caller on the field and in only his 2nd NFL season he’ll be looked to as a vocal leader for the Eagles defense.  During his time in Austin, Hicks predominantly played outside backer in the 4-3 scheme although he called the plays which he’ll be asked to do this season as well.  The 4-3 scheme may better suit the playmaking ability for Hicks which only time will tell if that’s true or not.  A major concern, other than his lack of experience, is his recent injury history including the pectoral tear from last season.  While at Texas, Hicks also suffered injuries to his Achilles and his hip.  As Chip Kelly once said the best ability is availability which is a serious concern for Hicks at this point in his young career.  Another reason to be worried about the injuries to Hicks is the lack of depth behind him at the linebacker position.  Najee Goode is the most experienced and capable backup on the roster as it stands currently.  I have full confidence Hicks will be a great leader for this defense and the type of player Jim Schwartz wants on the field as an extension of a coach.  However, the Eagles defense struggled mightily without Hicks on the field last season and could be facing similar issues if he goes down again in 2016.

 

PLAYER TO WATCH: DB JALEN MILLS

I decided to list Mills as a defensive back rather than a cornerback or safety at this point because he may be moved around.  The versatility to play both positions is one of the main attributes the 7th round rookie from LSU brings to the Eagles.  Mills has impressed during the recent team activities garnering praise from third year wideout Jordan Matthews who thinks Mills will be a key contributor to the defense right away.  However, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has cautioned fans and reporters to let things play out as the pads haven’t even been put on yet.  Mills stands approximately 6’1 and just a tick above 190 pounds providing him the opportunity to play both corner and safety during his four years at LSU.  He started 46 games in total eventually moving to safety and handling nickel corner duties as an upperclassmen for the Tigers.  Right away I like the pedigree from playing in the SEC and versatility Mills brings to the secondary where he’ll be competing with multiple players.  Many assume second year corner Eric Rowe will be starting opposite free agent signee Leodis McKelvin.  However, Nolan Carroll who was resigned to a one year pact has seen first team reps at the same position in place of Rowe.  How the second cornerback position shapes up could impact the snaps Mills sees as a rookie.  At this point, I believe Mills will be competing with a handful of players for the starting nickel which he has experience playing.  The previously mentioned Nolan Carroll, JaCorey Shepherd, Ron Brooks and Denzel Rice are names to watch for the nickel battle as well.  Jaylen Watkins has been taking reps at the safety position so I’ll leave him out of this mix for now.  Scouts were concerned after Mills ran a slow forty time at the NFL combine even though he clocked a much faster time at his LSU Pro Day.  From the nickel spot Mills will be able to use his physical style of play to jam receivers rather than relying on his ability to turn and run with speedier outside receivers.  Mills was well worth the risk in the 7th round despite his off the field issues which most certainly affected his draft stock.  I’m most looking forward to see Mills play out of the entire 2016 draft class excluding Carson Wentz of course.  Even if Mills is not able to initially get snaps under Schwartz’s defense look for him to contribute with Dave Fipp on special teams.

 

BATTLE TO WATCH: BACKUP DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan make a dynamic pair at the starting defensive tackle position for the Eagles.  Behind that lies great uncertainty and potential disaster if either Cox or Logan falls to injury.  The incumbents are Beau Allen and Taylor Hart who were both drafted in the 2014 draft.  Allen has been serviceable for a 7th round draft pick and backup nose tackle who can hold up against the run.  He’s played in all 32 games during his time with the Eagles, but has yet to record his first NFL sack.  On the other hand, Taylor Hart has been incredibly underwhelming as a 5th round draft pick who was undoubtedly selected because of where he went to college.  Hart didn’t dress once during his rookie campaign and failed to record a sack through the 14 games he played in the 2015 season.  He’s got the size at 6’6, but has never really played 4-3 tackle especially in the scheme Schwartz is going to run.  Hart will need to impress throughout camp and preseason to have any hope of making the 53 man roster.  Four year veteran Mike Martin was signed during the offseason to compete for a backup spot as well.  Martin was drafted by the Titans in 2012 and recorded 3 sacks as a rookie.  Since that time he’s battled injuries and coaching staff changes resulting in only one sack since 2012.  Martin only signed a one year deal and admitted Jim Schwartz was a big reason he came to the Eagles.  As it stands right now, I like Martin as the first backup to the starters based on his familiarity playing 4-3.  An intriguing name to round out the group is undrafted rookie from Stanford, Aziz Shittu.  Shittu battled injuries while at Palo Alto likely leading to him going undrafted back in April.  He’s known for his ability to eat up space and let the linebackers behind him make plays.  Pass rushing is not his forte, but scouts note he has improved in that area during his career at Stanford.  Shittu displayed his talents on New Year’s Day against Iowa in the Rose Bowl where he won Defensive MVP.  The undrafted tackle had 8 tackles, 3 and a half of which were for a loss, to go along with 1.5 sacks.  The toughness and consistency Shittu possesses makes him a candidate to stick on the roster especially with the lack of depth as mentioned.

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