Ed Kracz
burlingtoncountytimes.com

The last time the Eagles spent their first-round draft choice on the defensive side of the ball, they landed Marcus Smith.

Yeah, thatís a big Ö gulp! Smith hasnít proven to be much of a catch and the Birds may soon be throwing him back into the sea of unwanted first-round picks.

Smith arrived in 2014, but to be fair, the teamís previous two first-round picks that were for the defense turned out to be standouts, with Brandon Graham arriving in 2010 and Fletcher Cox in 2012.

So now along comes Derek Barnett, chosen 14th overall last Thursday night.

When considering a depth chart for the Eagles defense, itís pretty easy to put him as the starting right defensive end.

ďI'm not going to sit back and wait my turn, but I'm going to come in and learn my role first and get around these vets and learn what I have to do first to get on the field,Ē Barnett said last Friday. ďMe being a first-round pick doesn't mean anything. It doesn't guarantee me a spot. I still have to come in and work and gain respect first.Ē

There are some other obvious starting candidates as I build a defensive depth chart for the Eagles. There isnít one posted on their website, yet, because there is still a long way to go to determine the pecking order at each position.

The coaches likely have some preconceived ideas of who fits where, but there are still plenty of hoops to jump through, beginning on May 12 when the Birds will hold a three-day rookie camp. That will be followed by a series of voluntary Offseason Training Activities (OTAs), the first of which will be May 23-25. The others are May 30-June 1, June 5-6, and June 8-9. A mandatory veteran minicamp closes out the spring from June 13-15 before attention shifts to the start of summer training camp sometime in late July.

The media gets to watch some of it and the players are available to be interviewed, so more will be known soon enough.

For now, here is one opinion of how the defensive depth chart may shake out:

RIGHT END

Derek Barnett, Chris Long

Why: Barnett is the rookie, Long is the veteran. This should be a fun competition to keep an eye one.

LEFT END

Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry

Why: Curry was supposed to start last year, but could not unseat Graham, who had a terrific season.

Work to do: Alex McCalister, Marcus Smith.

Comment: It was reported earlier in the week that Smithís fifth-year team option will not be picked up, so this is likely is final season unless he has a big-time breakout. Heck, he may not even make it to the season. Then thereís Curry, who, well, everyone knows that he has to be better this year. A whole lot better.

TACKLES

Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, Destiny Vaeao, Elijah Qualls

Why: Cox led the team in sacks with 6.5 last year. He can do more. He needs to do more.

Work to do: Beau Allen and Justin Hamilton.

Comment: Allen will likely start the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) as he recovers from a torn pectoral. Qualls, meanwhile, could be a real sleeper among the eight draft picks the Eagles made. The sixth-rounder from Washington could push Vaeao for playing time.

WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER

Mychal Kendricks, Kamu Grugier-Hill

Why: Because Kendricks is still here, thatís why.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER

Jordan Hicks, Joe Walker

Why: Hicks should just keep getting better. He is only 24.

STRONGSIDE LINEBACKER

Nigel Bradham, Najee Goode, Nathan Gerry

Why: Bradham played consistently for most of the year, though his production dipped a bit toward the end of the season.

Work to do: Don Cherry.

Comment: Keep an eye on Gerry. He is making the transition from safety, but he did play his freshman season for Nebraska at weakside linebacker. As for Walker, there were high hopes for him last year until an ACL tear in the final preseason game ruined it for the then-rookie. He could challenge for playing time at one of the outside íbacker spots.

LEFT CORNERBACK

Jalen Mills, Ron Brooks, C.J. Smith

Why: Mills played all 16 last year, with two starts. His role will rise dramatically.

RIGHT CORNERBACK

Why: Patrick Robinson, Rasul Douglas, Aaron Grymes

Work to do: Sidney Jones, Dwayne Gratz, Mitchell White.

Comment: Jones, of course, will start the season on the PUP list. I expect Douglas to push for a starting job sooner rather than later, so Robinson and maybe Mills could have their hands full fending him off. Gratz has the experience to play a role, so it wouldnít be wise to count him out. Smith and Grymes both showed flashes of ability in the preseason, but can they be counted to take the next step?

STRONG SAFETY

Rodney McLeod, Jaylen Watkins

Why: McLeod is on the second-year of a five-year deal he signed last offseason and has a salary cap hit of $5.6 million this year.

FREE SAFETY

Malcolm Jenkins, Terrence Brooks, Chris Maragos

Why: He may be approaching 30, but Jenkins was just named one of the top 100 players in the league by The NFL Network and is one of this defenseís leaders.

Work to do: Brooks will need to impress this spring and summer to keep his job.

Comment: Brooks and Watkins are solid backups and Maragos is a special teams whiz, but the Birds may only keep four safeties.

PUNTER]Donnie Jones

Why: Because they like him enough that he was signed to a multi-year contract extension last year.

Comment: He is entering his 14th NFL season and will turn 37 this summer, so it remains to be seen if he will see the end of that contract, which is scheduled to keep him in town through 2019. He is the organizationís leader in gross average, net average, and punts inside the 20. Jones has also played in 192 straight games, which is the fourth longest active streak in the NFL behind Texans punter Shane Lechler (238), Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (219), and Giants quarterback Eli Manning (199).


Much work still to be done before the roster is set in stone .