INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
I am splitting up the front seven into three categories: Interior Defensive Line, Edge Defenders, and Off-Ball Linebackers. DL is a little easier to quantify statistically than OL, but just like with OL I’m going to use some innovative stats to try and add a quantitative component to this writeup. They include Power Runs, Stuffed Runs and Adjusted Line Yards. Starting with the interior defensive line, I am ranking them as:
1. Philadelphia Eagles
2. New York Giants
3. Dallas Cowboys
4. Washington Redskins
4. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Depth Chart: Jonathan Allen, Ziggy Hood, Terrell McClain, Stacy McGee, Phil Taylor, Matt Ioannidis
I want to preface this by saying I love Jonathan Allen and he was a tremendous get for the Redskins in the draft, particularly without having to trade up to get him. In the next few years, assuming health holds up, I think he is going to be a legitimate force at 3-4 DE/4-3 DT.
2016 is of limited relevance in projecting this unit for 2017, because it looks like the only returning players are Ziggy Hood and Matt Ioannidis (maybe). But much as I love the addition of Jonathan Allen, he’s the only tangible upgrade you can point to on this unit, and that gain is offset by letting their best defensive lineman from 2016, Chris Baker, walk in free agency. Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain are just guys, and those signings are particularly head-scratching when you consider they are paying McGee about $5M/yr, McClain about $5M/yr, and Chris Baker signed with Tampa Bay for about $5M/yr. Baker and Allen could have been a real headache in the backfield for opposing offenses.
The strength of this unit going forward will be Jonathan Allen, but it’s hard to bank on a rookie stepping in and having a major impact on a defensive front, particularly when the guys surrounding him are, at best, just guys. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if they wind up outperforming the Dallas DL in 2017, just hard to project it with so much turnover at the position and Allen the only real bright spot, personnel-wise.
3. DALLAS COWBOYS
Depth Chart: Maliek Collins, Cedric Thornton, Tyrone Crawford, Steven Paea, Joey Ivie
One of the challenges in projecting the Cowboys interior defensive line is there isn’t exactly a clear picture on who is going to play there. Tyrone Crawford split time between DE and DT last year. David Irving moved all over the line. Anecdotally, I think I can recall Demarcus Lawrence lining up on the inside on passing downs. I’m including Tyrone Crawford as a DT and Irving and Lawrence as DEs in these rankings, but Marinelli does like to move these guys all over the defensive front.
I expected the stats to show a train wreck for the Dallas DL, but they weren’t quite as bad as I was expecting. The Cowboys were 8th overall defending the run did a good job making plays in the backfield against the run (8th in stuffed run percentage). That said, the splash plays like sacks and tackles for loss were mixed in with consistently below average performance and an inability to stop teams in power run situations, ranking 25th in the NFL.
Unclear how exactly this unit will look by Week 1. I really don’t think there is a true 1-tech on the roster, just a whole bunch of mediocre-to-bad 3-techs and Ced Thornton, a 5-tech. But, Marinelli doesn’t really utilize a traditional 1-tech/3-tech alignment, and, as noted, likes to move guys all over the front. The major contributors from 2016 will be returning for 2017 apart from Terrell McClain, and he’s not somebody I expect the Cowboys to miss much.
I always have the sense that the Cowboys defense is playing on the edge of a knife, and if the offense falters a bit and puts the defense in unfavorable field position, score situations or just puts them on the field for more plays, they are going to collapse. They held it together last year, but I still have that sense heading into 2017.
2. NEW YORK GIANTS
Depth Chart: Damon Harrison, Robert Thomas, Dalvin Tomlinson, Jay Bromley
I didn’t really get the Damon Harrison signing last year. It didn’t make much sense to me to pay that much money to a two-down run stuffer who didn’t really offer anything in the pass rush. I was wrong. Harrison was a monster inside for the Giants last year and transformed their defensive front, clogging up the middle and giving freedom to the other 10 players on defense to be utilized in Steve Spagnuolo’s wacky blitz schemes. The numbers aren’t eye-popping for the Giants DL; They ranked 3rd in total run defense, but just 14th defending power runs and 20th in stuffing runs. The run defense was aided by defenders at the 2nd and 3rd levels being able to attack the ball carrier and limiting open-field yards, but it was Harrison and Johnathan Hankins blowing up the middle that made that possible.
I was a little surprised the Giants let Hankins walk without a legitimate player on the roster to take his place. I think Dalvin Tomlinson pencils in as the starter next to Harrison, and he should be a decent player in that spot. He also doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher, but should do well occupying blockers and playing the run, which has a lot of value in Spagnuolo’s defense.
As far as depth goes, yuck. Robert Thomas and Jay Bromley figure to return in their roles as primary depth/rotation guys for the Giants. Neither played much last year, and the Giants will be hoping they don’t play much in 2017 either.
1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Depth Chart: Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Destiny Vaeao, Elijah Qualls, (Beau Allen)
This ranking is largely based on the strength of the best defensive player in the division, Fletcher Cox. Cox was basically unblockable one-on-one last year, so teams hardly did it. In a few late season game breakdowns, Fran Duffy showed how Cox was getting doubled and occasionally tripled on almost every snap, and often making plays in spite of that. When he was single-blocked, against the run or the pass he was a force in the backfield nearly every time.
You can see how Jim Schwartz’s attacking front-four defense plays out in the stats. They ranked 13th overall in rushing DVOA, but 3rd in the NFL in stuffing runs. They were one of the best defenses in the league at keeping most run plays under 5 yards, but also gave up the 8th most run plays of 10+ yards. They were also one of the worst teams in the league at surrendering 2nd level and open field yards, because when the defensive line doesn’t make the play it leaves the LBs and Safeties exposed. The defense will give up some of those big plays, but also get more than its fair share of drive killing plays like sacks and TFLs, and I expect that to continue in 2017.
The Eagles let Bennie Logan go in free agency and brought in Timmy Jernigan via trade. I liked Bennie Logan a lot, but Fletcher Cox was creating one-on-one opportunities for him and Logan wasn’t good enough to consistently take advantage; he’s more of a lateral player than an attacker. Jernigan’s numbers aren’t impressive, but according to Baltimore writers his biggest strength is winning one-on-one upfield, so hopefully for the Eagles that swap yields positive results. Beau Allen is expected to start the season on the NFI/PUP list, so EJ Qualls could see some snaps early in the season.
Up Next: Edge defenders, probably the toughest group to project in this division.