The Case for and Against Defensive Line With the Eagles First Draft Pick

The Eagles have a glaring hole at cornerback and a desire to add playmakers on offense, so it's no wonder defensive line feels like a bit of an afterthought heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. At the same time, a strong case can be made defensive line is actually this team's biggest offseason need.
While the D-line is increasingly under the microscope as the draft draws near, it continues to appear overshadowed by more glamorous positions. Maybe that's because the Eagles have so much invested there already. Fletcher Cox became one of the highest-paid players in the NFL last summer, Brandon Graham enjoyed a career year and was named second-team All-Pro in 2016, and Vinny Curry is owed a ton of money, too.
In theory, those three players should've combined to anchor the unit. In reality, that's not quite how things worked out.
There were weeks where the Eagles' defensive line dominated the line of scrimmage and completely took over games. Then there were weeks where the front four played small and seemed to disappear. No surprise, the defense was aggressively average on the whole, ranked 15th in the league against the run and tied for 16th in sacks -- right down the middle.
If defense wins championships, that's not nearly good enough. Furthermore, in a wide-nine scheme under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, success starts up front. The Eagles can't afford to be inconsistent or merely average at the point of attack, which should be reason enough to go lineman in round one. Of course, that's not the only reason.
Currently in possession of the No. 14 pick overall, the Eagles are also in what you would hope is a rare position to draft an impact pass-rusher. There is such a premium on finding athletes who can get to the quarterback, the blue-chip prospects tend to fly off the board. Case in point, there's a very good possibility three of the first five picks in 2017 will be defensive linemen.
Half of the 16 players who recorded double-digit sacks in '16 were former first-round picks. In 2015, it was 11 out of 16. In other words, if the Eagles want a defensive end or tackle who has the potential to be a difference maker, their best chance is to strike early.
Even if cornerback or running back are considered greater needs, this year's class is supposed to be incredibly deep at both positions. The Eagles can wait and still find starting-caliber prospects at both spots. While that's possible along the defensive line as well, the likelihood decreases dramatically.
Three players does not a front four make. For that matter, four isn't enough, either. The defensive line is subject to a lot of rotation and substitution to keep everybody fresh, and as of right now, the Eagles are neither deep nor top heavy.
The line's interior is particularly concern after the departure of Bennie Logan in free agency. Cox will now be joined by Beau Allen, who might be a better fit for the wide nine in all honesty, but is relatively unproven as a full-time starter. Allen can also become a free agent next year, and behind them, only Destiny Vaeao has meaningful NFL experience.
End isn't much better. Graham is coming off of a stellar season, but still only had 5.5 sacks, while Curry's new contract is looking like a bust after a 2.5-sack campaign. Chris Long replaces Connor Barwin, which doesn't really change things, and Marcus Smith is also in the mix. Simply put, opposing quarterbacks aren't exactly in fear of the pressure the Eagles are bringing off the edge.
If quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, what's second? Either protecting said quarterback, or getting the opposition's signal-caller to the ground.

A great pass-rush has both the ability to stifle the opponent's offense and cover up potential weaknesses in the defense -- particularly in the secondary. Think what guys like Von Miller, J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack mean to their teams. The presence of a perennial double-digit sack artists can completely change the complexion of a game plan.
As fantastic as they are, Cox hasn't become that yet, and Graham may never. There's still room to add a true force on the line, which would not only make a porous secondary better, but his teammates up front, too. If defenses win championships, like the cliché insists, adding a true, premier pass-rusher and all-around dominant force up front should be the Eagles' top priority this offseason.

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