- Phil Sheridan, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- You learn more about what an NFL team thinks from what it does than from what it says.
The Philadelphia Eagles know they need to improve their defense if they’re going to repeat as NFC East champions and make more noise in the postseason. The Eagles allowed more passing yards per game than any team in the NFL in 2013. That is an obvious area to address.
“I think we can be better than 32 [ranked],” cornerback Cary Williams said. “I think we’re going to be much improved from last season.”
The Eagles drafted outside linebacker Marcus Smith of Louisville in the first round of last month’s draft. But there’s a real chance Smith won’t start ahead of Trent Cole right away. Indeed, the only definite new starter will be former Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. During OTA practices the past two weeks, 10 of the 11 starters from the end of last year were still at the top of the depth chart.
And that’s how you know what coach Chip Kelly, GM Howie Roseman and defensive coordinator Bill Davis really think. If they believed the defense was simply devoid of talent, they would have done more in free agency to add some. Instead, they appear convinced that it’s more important for the current players to grow within Davis’ 3-4 defensive scheme than to shuffle personnel.
“Overall, the whole defense has grown because we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing,” inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.
Last year, Ryans was adjusting to the 3-4 after playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He wound up playing more snaps than any inside linebacker in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s because Ryans stayed healthy, but also because Davis desperately needed his awareness and knowledge on the field on every down.
Ryans will likely carry just as heavy a burden in 2014. But the addition of Jenkins will help ease the strain a bit. Jenkins replaces Patrick Chung, who was hampered by injury last year, and rookie Earl Wolff, who replaced Chung as a starter.
“Malcolm is going to be the leader in the back end,” Ryans said. “He’s a guy who gets the guys in the right position. He can make the plays you want to make. He’s a great addition to our secondary.”
That should help the entire secondary play as a cohesive unit. So should some more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Eagles began to identify and develop strong players in their front seven last season. That process should continue and bear fruit in 2014.
Defensive end Cedric Thornton will begin this season as a starter rather than as a curiosity. Bennie Logan will be the nose tackle. Cole will be in his second season as a linebacker after spending 2013 making the transition from defensive end. Ryans, Cole, Connor Barwin and Mychal Kendricks should all be better after playing together for a full season.
Best of all, the defense experienced some success in that first year. The Eagles finished strong, earning the division title with a victory in Dallas in Week 17. Their first-round playoff loss to New Orleans showed them exactly where they need to get better.
“We understand what is expected from us,” Williams said. “We’re going to continue to build off what we did last year. I think we’re on the right path.”
Kelly, Roseman and Davis think the same thing. Their actions this offseason say so.