- Phil Sheridan, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- If the question was whether or not Jerry Azzinaro's approach would work with NFL players, the answer wasn't quite what you might expect.
Sure, Azzinaro had the Eagles defensive linemen he coached hitting the blocking sled every day, working on fundamentals and reinforcing techniques. But if you were looking for veteran NFL linemen to resist, you were looking in the wrong place.
Defensive ends Fletcher Cox (23), Cedric Thornton (25) and nose tackle Bennie Logan (24) aren't much older than the players Azzinarro was coaching at Oregon before Chip Kelly brought him to Philadelphia. Cox, Thornton and Clifton Geathers each had one year of NFL experience. Logan and Damion Square had none.
The only veteran, free-agent signing Isaac Sopoaga, was traded away in midseason to make room in the starting lineup for Logan.
Point is, the Eagles have a very young group of defensive linemen who quickly became an asset in their first season in Bill Davis' system. If the truism that players make their biggest improvement between Year 1 and Year 2 holds true, this group should be a real strength in 2014.
Cox, a first-round pick in 2012, took a little time to adjust to the two-gap system Davis and Azzinaro preferred. Simply put, he had to become responsibility for both sides of the offensive lineman in front of him instead of attacking one side or the other. It is a less intuitive way to play, but Cox steadily improved.
Those techniques allowed Thornton, an undrafted free agent, to establish himself as an impact player. Kelly and Davis routinely singled Thornton out as the Eagles' most productive and consistent defensive lineman.
Logan, a third-round pick last year, made Sopoaga expendable and started the rest of the year. Logan doesn't have the massive size associated with the nose tackle -- he goes about 310 pounds -- but is expected to add some bulk in the offseason.
Square, Geathers and Vinny Curry provided depth and played well in various situations.
The youth and potential along the defensive line put the Eagles in an enviable position as they continue to build their defense. If they find a bigger, more physical nose tackle in free agency or the draft, they can move Logan to end or rotate him in on passing downs. They don't have a pressing need for an end, but their rotation system means they can always use more depth and different types of linemen.
Davis sometimes uses a 4-3 look, allowing outside linebackers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham to rush from the more familiar three-point stance. As the Eagles defense evolves, with players selected to fit the system, Davis can be more creative and maximize the potential of his front seven.
Azzinaro is the guy in charge of getting that potential from the linemen. He couldn't have done much better in his first season.