Juan Castillo may have been the happiest person on the field when the Philadelphia Eagles held their offseason workouts.
Castillo's transition to defensive coordinator after 13 years coaching the offense linemen didn't go so well last season. Castillo seemed overmatched at times. He had trouble making adjustments during games, his unit underachieved and he was heavily criticized.
When the St. Louis Rams fired Steve Spagnuolo, the Eagles were interested in bringing back their former defensive assistant coach. But Spagnuolo went to New Orleans, so Castillo kept his job.
That means he gets another chance to do something he loves. Castillo lives to teach. And he had more time to do it this summer.
Castillo was in a tough spot last year because the NFL's lockout eliminated all the minicamps and Organized Team Activities. Castillo couldn't introduce his system to players until the shortened training camp opened. That put him at an even greater disadvantage than other coaches.
“I think what was hard last year is that we weren't able to teach our concepts,” Castillo said. “When we were installing coverages in training camp, we were installing two or three coverages at a time. This year, we can go one at a time, and the guys understand it. We really are a lot further along.”
The defense played better during a season-ending four-game winning streak, albeit it came against weaker opponents. Still, some viewed it as a sign that players had finally grasped Castillo's schemes.
The Eagles then addressed the defense throughout the offseason. The acquisition of two-time Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans filled a gaping hole in the middle. They further bolstered the linebacker corps by selecting Mychal Kendricks in the second round of the draft. They also improved an already strong defensive line by drafting tackle Fletcher Cox in the first round and end Vinny Curry in the second round.
“It's exciting because we have some really good young players,” Castillo said. “Some of those young guys have a chance to help this year, so really it's exciting and it's also good that we can help our defense so that they can be prepared with the veteran guys.”
Ryans was a major upgrade for Philadelphia, giving the defense its first star-caliber middle linebacker since Jeremiah Trotter was in his glory days. Ryans left Houston as the Texans' all-time leader with 637 tackles. He also had eight sacks, six forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and two interceptions in his six-year career. He earned Pro Bowl honors following the 2007 and 2009 campaigns and was an Associated Press All-Pro selection in 2007.
“He's a leader. He's done it,” Castillo said. “They can look to him and the way he carries himself on the field, the way he carries himself off the field, it's unbelievable.”
Ryans has already made his presence felt in camp.
“It's all about enthusiasm and energy,” he said. “That is one thing if you can create here at practice, then it goes on into a game. When you can create your own energy, it definitely helps when you are on the road and the fans are not there.
“When guys can get each other up and excited, it helps out a lot.”
Another important player with a pedigree is cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. He hardly played like a two-time All-Pro in his first season in Philadelphia after signing a $60 million free-agent deal. Asomugha had a tough time adjusting to Castillo's system and was asked to play a different role than the one he was used to in Oakland.
With three Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks in the secondary, the Eagles tried using Asomugha in various ways instead of just letting him cover the opponent's best receiver. It didn't work out. So, Asante Samuel was traded to Atlanta in the offseason, allowing Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to be the starters.
“The second year is completely different than the first year,” Asomugha said. “Even for a rookie that is going into his second year from his rookie season, I think the biggest jump is those years. I think the comfort level will be much better as far as taking on that role and guys listening to you. You really want to know what you're doing before you step into that role.”
The Eagles did make one big change on the defensive coaching staff, hiring Todd Bowles to coach the secondary. Bowles finished last year as Miami's interim head coach, going 2-1. He replaced Johnny Lynn in Philadelphia.
“I think nowadays every player is different and you have to try to relate to them and see what makes them tick,” Bowles said. “No different than any other coach and you'll find out what makes them tick and teach them that way.”