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July 05, 2016

Yes, the Eagles easily have the most-talented defense in the NFC East

Eagles NFL
070516JasonPierrePaul Julio Cortez/AP

This zero-handed tackling dummy is no match for Jason Pierre-Paul.

A few weeks ago, I tweeted that the Eagles easily have the most talented defense in the NFC East. The most talented offense? Not so much. Here's that tweet, so you can read it twice:

For some reason, David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News came hard after that tweet, and a dumb Twitter debate ensued. Murphy then doubled down on the Twitter debate by turning it into a 1700-word article he wrote "partially out of boredom" that the Eagles do not indeed have the most talented defense in the division.

It even included stick figures (!) which have been something I am known for in my writing (hat tip, or perhaps a full body tip to Zoo With Roy). I was going to write this entire post in a 3000-word run-on sentence, which is Murphy's style, but opted against it.

So, anyway, I'll bite. Let's take a look at Murphy's analysis, point by point, position by position, and check out the ex-baseball writer's football chops:


Seeing as safety and the interior defensive line are two areas where the there's no debate as to who is the best, let's just get them out of the way first. For some reason, those two spots were listed last in Murphy's piece. They also provided the shortest amount of analysis. Here's what Murphy wrote:

Safety: Eagles
This is the one position where the Eagles easily have more talent than the rest of the division. Jim Schwartz said this offseason he'd be surprised if Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod aren't regarded as one of the top safety tandems in the league by the end of the season. I agree.

Well, yeah. Who wouldn't agree? The Eagles clearly have the best safeties in the division. What is not stated is how bad the rest of the safety tandems in the division are.

The Giants are particularly noteworthy here. Second year player Landon Collins is good in run support, but struggles in coverage, as was expected when he was drafted by the Giants in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Opposite Collins, the starter will be one of the following warm bodies -- Cooper Taylor, Darian Thompson, Mykkele Thompson, or Nat Berhe. 

The number of career starts for all of those guys? 0.

In fact, barring a signing, or converting a cornerback to play safety, whoever starts opposite Collins will have played no more than 56 career snaps, or less than a typical full game. Collins aside, here are all the players listed as safeties on the Giants' roster, and their career snap totals:

Giants safeties Career snaps played 
 Cooper Taylor56 
Nat Berhe 32 
 Darian Thompson
 Mykkele Thompson
 Bennett Jackson
 Justin Currie
 Andrew Adams

Meanwhile, the Redskins are pairing soon-to-be 33-year-old DeAngelo Hall with free agent acquisition David Bruton, who has eight career starts in seven NFL seasons.

The Cowboys' safeties are one of the few areas of their defense where they're competent, with intriguing second-year player Byron Jones to go along with veteran Barry Church.

Safety tale of the tape, and there'a wide gap between No. 1 and the rest:

Safety Team 

Defensive tackle (Interior defensive line)

Murphy says:

Defensive tackle: Eagles

Again, I don't think many people will argue this, although don't sleep on the Giants. Don't forget, they signed Damon Harrison as well as Vernon, and Johnathan Hankins continues to improve. I wouldn't try to argue that they are on the same level as Fletcher Cox and Curry. But they are a stout pair of interior linemen.

To begin, allow me to correct David in noting that Vinny Curry plays DE. The Eagles may move him inside on obvious passing downs because he's difficult for opposing guards to handle, but he's a DE, not a DT. Bennie Logan is the other DT.

That aside, Fletcher Cox is being comically undersold here. Cox is, in my view, the clear-cut best defensive player in the division. Getting 9.5 sacks from an interior defensive lineman spot is very good as it is, but to do it in a two-gapping 3-4 scheme is incredibly impressive. Cox is a dominant beast, who took over games at times last season, most notably against the Saints, Patriots and Bills.

As for Logan, the Eagles drafted him to be a two-gapping defensive lineman. However, despite low sack totals, Logan has shown the ability to penetrate through the line of scrimmage, although his success in a penetrating scheme is something of an unknown. I personally think he'll thrive, but again, that's pure projection.

Murphy notes that Damon Harrison and Johnathan Hankins should not be undersold.

Harrison is a two-down player. He's a 350-pound run stopper, and good at what he does, but he's one-dimensional. In his four-year career, Harrison has 1.5 sacks.

Hankins, meanwhile, had a good season in 2014, starting all 16 games, while posting 51 tackles and 7 sacks. In 2015, he missed seven games, and had 30 tackles and zero sacks. So if by "Johnathan Hankins continues to improve," Murphy believes that going from 7 sacks to 0 is improvement, I'll just have to respectfully disagree.

A season ago, the Giants got three sacks from their interior defensive linemen, all by Cullen Jenkins, who is currently unemployed. They have no interior pass rush threat to speak of.

As for the Redskins and Cowboys...

• The Redskins are moving former OLB Trent Murphy inside to DE in their 3-4 scheme, with the dirty but talented Chris Baker opposite him at the other DE spot. The Skins are OK at DE, however, NT Kedric Golston is little more than a warm body.

• Tyrone Crawford signed a big contract extension last offseason, and while he has shown flashes of pass rush ability, he has yet to break out as a pass rusher (8 career sacks) and is a liability in the run game. The Cowboys' other projected starting DT, old friend Cedric Thornton, was a good run stopper in Philly but has four career sacks.

Interior defensive line tale of the tape, and there's a wide gap between No. 1 and the rest:

Safety Team 

Edge rusher

This whole section by Murphy made my brain hurt. I pulled some select excerpts (in italics), with rebuttals thereafter:

A lot of this depends on the health/mindset of Jason Pierre-Paul.

"Health?" He has one hand.

Sacks are a poor way to quantify performance, but we're simply looking to grant benefits of the doubt, so I suppose you can argue that Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham are a sack better than Olivier Vernon and Pierre-Paul, whatever that means. 

Wait. Sacks are a poor way to quantify performance of edge rushers? On what planet? I mean, sure, if you're Jason Babin and you're entirely eschewing all other defensive responsibilities, then yeah, your sacks are meaningless because you're hurting your team far worse in other areas. So if the argument by Murphy is that Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are that type of selfish player, he may have a point. But that's not his argument. He's just generally dismissive of sacks in general.


Here are the top 10 team sack leaders a season ago, and whether or not they were among the 12 of 32 teams that make the playoffs in the NFL:

Team Sacks Playoffs 
 Broncos52 YES (Won Super Bowl) 
 Patriots49 YES 
 Steelers48 YES 
 Chiefs47 YES 
 Texans45 YES 
 Panthers44 YES (NFC Champs) 
 Lions43 NO 
 Packers43 YES 
 Vikings43 YES 
 Bengals42 YES 

Sacks shmacks. Who needs 'em?

A season ago, the Giants faced the fourth-most pass attempts in the NFL and they only registered 23 sacks, which was good for 30th in the NFL. Robert Ayers was their sack leader with 9.5, and he's now gone.

As a result of their kitten pass rush in 2015, the Giants panicked in free agency. They grossly overpaid for Vernon, who was a good pass rusher in Miami, but certainly not among the best in the game. Over his four-year career, he has averaged just over seven sacks and one forced fumble per season

 Olivier VernonTackles Sacks FF FR 
 201232 3.5 
 201357 11.5 
 201446 6.5 
 201561 7.5 
 64 games196 29 0 

According to, he is now the highest paid 4-3 DE in the NFL, on a five-year deal worth $85 million. His cap numbers the next five years will be $13mm, $16mm, $17mm, $19.5mm, and $19.5mm.

By comparison, Vinny Curry, who has yet to start a single game in the NFL, has 12.5 fewer sacks and the same number of forced fumbles in 38.5 percent of the number of snaps that Vernon has played:

 PlayerSacks FF Career snaps 
 Olivier Vernon29 3121 
 Vinny Curry16.5 1203 

To be fair, Curry was typically used as a situational pass rusher, meaning that a higher percentage of his snaps were against pass plays. But again, we're talking about the Eagles' third guy here versus the highest paid DE in the NFL.

But if your'e going to (judge performance on sacks), you have to judge the Redskins on sacks too, and despite whatever Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith (a rookie in 2015) lack in all-around game, they know how to get to the quarterback.

This is point I agree with. In fact, I'd say the Redskins have the best set of edge rushers in the division. Like the Eagles, the Redskins have three edge rushers with a reasonable track record of getting to the quarterback.

Murphy notes Kerrigan, a player I believe is very similar to Barwin, but playing in a scheme that better suits his skill set. The Skins also have Preston Smith, as Murphy noted, who showed promise as a rookie. The player who went unmentioned is Junior Galette, who had 22 sacks with the Saints from 2013-2014, but tore his Achilles during Redskins training camp a season ago. He'll be back.

As for the Cowboys, their pass rush is an absolute joke. The Cowboys' sack totals and NFL rankings the last three seasons:

Year Sacks NFL Rank 
 201234 20 
 201334 25 
 201428 28 
 201531 25 

But the worst part is that the Cowboys don't have a single player on their roster with at least 10 career regular season sacks. Not one. Below is every player on the current roster with at least 0.5 career regular season sacks:

Player Career regular season sacks 
 Orlando Scandrick9.5 
 Rolando McClain9.5 
 Tyrone Crawford
 Demarcus Lawrence
 Jack Crawford
 Cedric Thornton
 Kyle Wilbur3.5 
 Sean Lee2.5 
 Terrell McClain
 Benson Mayowa
 Andrew Gachkar
 Anthony Hitchens
 Casey Walker
 Brandon Carr
 Terrance Mitchell
 David Irving0.5 

Greg Hardy is gone, and the Cowboys will be without Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence for the first four games.

Murphy then wrote 300 words on ProFootballFocus' rankings, which he explains that he doesn't value, then goes ahead and enumerates their defensive end rankings anyway. For the purpose of brevity, you can go read that part on your own if you'd like, but he punctuated it with this:

But if you were doing an edge rusher draft for this season, I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that Vernon, Pierre-Paul and Kerrigan would all go before him. 

Again, and apologies for driving home this point, but JASON PIERRE-PAUL ONLY HAS ONE HAND, and we already noted Vernon's unimpressive career numbers. So OK, let's say teams would take Vernon over Barwin, Graham, and Curry (and I'm not so sure they would take him over all three). Is there really that big a difference?

There are no bona fide star edge rushers in the division. But, the Redskins and Eagles have three quality ones, the Giants have 1.5, and the Cowboys have none.

Edge rusher tale of the tape:

Edge rusher Team 


Murphy says:

You can make an argument for either Washington (Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland) or the Giants (Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). I don’t think you can make an argument for the Eagles being higher than third. Pretty much any reference you can think of supports this, so I’m not going to waste too much time with it. The addition of first-rounder Eli Apple and the presence of Trevin Wade in the slot pushes me toward the Giants.

Lol. The presence of Trevin Wade? What? Trevin Wade, for the 99.9 percent of you who don't know, was a former seventh-round pick 2012 who is already on his fourth team in the NFL. In 2013 he played in two games for the Saints. In 2014, he played in none, and they cut him a week into the season. He remained unemployed for a month and half, before landing on the Lions' practice squad. Last season, he played in all 16 games, starting three, on the third worst defense in NFL history.

For his career, Trevin Wade has zero interceptions. But... #ThePresenceOfTrevinWade!

OK, that aside, I do agree with Murphy here that the Giants and Redskins unquestionably have better corners than the Eagles. 

The only player within any kind of reasonable striking distance to Fletcher Cox for the title of "best defender in the division" is Norman, although Norman still has to prove that he can be as effective playing behind a front seven nowhere near as talented as the one he was afforded in Carolina.

In our All-NFC East team, we took Norman and DRC. Janoris Jenkins is an overpaid gambler who will occasionally make big plays, but will also often pay for his risks. Still, he is probably the best "No. 2 CB" in the division.

If Byron Jones hadn't been moved to safety, I'd say the Cowboys would be in the discussion with the Redskins and Giants, but any team who may be starting Morris Claiborne is in trouble. Brandon Carr has been a high-priced disappointment, although Orlando Scandrick can play.

The Eagles have an aging Leodis McKelvin as the current No. 1 CB, with a mishmash of guys competing to start opposite him, or in the slot. Eric Rowe showed a lot of promise his rookie season last year and was thought to be a likely starter, but even that's not a guarantee. The Eagles at least do have depth here, which is more than what the Cowboys can say, but we'll be over-critical and slot the Eagles last, for now.

Cornerback tale of the tape:

Edge rusher Team 


Murphy writes: 

I'm guessing Kempski's still operating on the belief that Mychal Kendricks is who Cris Collinsworth said he was on Thursday Night Football several years ago (some hybrid of Dick Butkus and the Bubonic Plague), but Kendricks never was that guy in those years, and last year was so obviously not that guy that everybody kind of conceded the point.

Well, no, but he's a better linebacker than what most of the rest of the division is rolling out.

First, let's get the Redskins out of the way, as they run a 3-4. There's a good reason why the Redskins selected ILB/safety Su'a Cravens in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and it's because their personnel in the middle of the field stinks. None of their three main inside linebackers -- Perry Riley, Will Compton, and Mason Foster -- would start for most teams, and they are all liabilities in the passing game.

As for the rest of the division, here are the projected starters for each team:

 CowboysKyle Wilbur?  Anthony Hitchens?Sean Lee 
 Eagles Nigel BradhamJordan Hicks Mychal Kendricks 
 Giants Devon KennardKeenan Robinson JT Thomas 

The Giants' linebackers over the last decade or so have stunk. This year is no different.

So that brings us to the Cowboys' linebackers vs. the Eagles'.

The most talented linebacker in the division is Sean Lee. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. However, Lee's ligaments are made of dandelions. Lee's injury history going back to his time at Penn State:

• 2008 (Penn State) - Torn ACL. Missed the entire season.

• 2009 (Penn State) - Sprained knee. Missed 3 games.

• 2010 (Dallas) - Strained hamstring. Missed 2 games.

• 2011 (Dallas) - Dislocated wrist. Missed 1 game.

• 2012 (Dallas) - Toe. IR. Missed 10 games.

• 2013 (Dallas) - Hamstring. Missed 5 games, including Week 17 finale vs Eagles.

• 2014 (Dallas) - Torn ACL. Missed the entire season.

• 2015 (Dallas) - Concussion, hamstring. Missed 2 games.

The career path of Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks is following a similar path. He was only available in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft because of medical concerns, and he sustained a season-ending pectoral injury his rookie year. However, when he played, he was great. In roughly 6.5 games last season, Hicks had 50 tackles, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions, one pick-six, one sack, three pass breakups, and he knocked out Tony Romo for half the season.

Meanwhile, Kendricks has not lived up to his level of talent, although there have been flashes. For example, I remember tweeting this last offseason:

Is that good? Maybe that's what Cris Collinsworth saw in him? Maybe?

Kendricks has been inconsistent, no doubt. But Sean Lee aside, look at the Cowboys' other linebackers with Rolando McClain having been suspended for 10 games. Hell, look all of the NFC East's projected linebackers above. Would you take any of that junk over Kendricks? 

God no.

As for Bradham, is he "a guy?" Sure, but so are the rest of the linebackers other than Lee, Hicks, and Kendricks. Bradham is a role player. He'll be on the field in base sets, when the NFL has become a sub-package league.

Linebacker tale of the tape:

Edge rusher Team 


First, my final tale of the tape:

 Edge rusherRedskins Eagles Giants Cowboys 
 Interior DLEagles Cowboys Giants Redskins 
 LinebackerEagles Cowboys Redskins Giants 
 CornerbackRedskins Giants Cowboys Eagles 
 SafetyEagles Cowboys Redskins Giants 

To be clear, it's not as if the Eagles are world-beaters defensively. Not even close. They are nowhere near the level of teams like the Denver Broncos or Seattle Seahawks. But in comparison to the rest of the division, which is not a high bar, the Eagles have the most talent.

Murphy says: 

The Eagles have a decided advantage at safety but the Giants and Redskins have a decided advantage at cornerback. Cox is a tremendous talent, but so is Vernon, whatever you think about the price the Giants paid to sign him this offseason. Is it a given that the Eagles have the best front four in the division?

Yes, it's a given, and no, Vernon is not "a tremendous talent." Also, the Eagles have a decided advantage not just at safety, but also along their defensive line. That's more than half the friggin' defense.

I'd probably take them first for Cox alone, but the Giants aren't that far behind when you consider the upside of Vernon/Harrison/Hankins/Pierre-Paul.

What upside? Harrison is exactly what he is and nothing more, and for the umpteenth time...


The Eagles aren't head and shoulders above anybody at linebacker.

They absolutely are head and shoulders above the Redskins and Giants.

If I had to take one defense for 2016, it would probably be the Giants because of their pass coverage/pass-rush potential, which is how games are won in the NFL. The Eagles would be right there, and I wouldn't argue vehemently against someone who opted for their strength/versatility in the middle of the field (Cox/Bennie Logan, Jenkins/McLeod).
To note, the 2015 Giants were the third worst defense in the entire history of the NFL. In regard to their "pass coverage/pass rush potential," here is where they ranked in various pass defense stats in 2015:

 2015 Giants defenseStat Rank 
 Pass yards allowed/game298.9 32 
 Yards per pass attempt7.7 25 
 Pass TDs allowed31 T-25 
 Opponent completion percentage66.3% 27 
 Passing first downs allowed236 31 
 Percentage of passes resulting in first down37.0% 27 
 Receptions of 20+ yards allowed62 30 
 Sacks23 30 
 Opposing QB rating95.9 21 

But Olivier Vernon.

Follow Jimmy on Twitter: @JimmyKempski