After adding depth to a unit that performed above most expectations last season, the Eagles front line should be a strong point of the defense in 2008. Trent Cole established himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber player at defensive end after a 12.5 sack season, but defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will have a tough decision to make about who will start on the other side.
Juqua Parker is the incumbent at left end after taking over for Jevon Kearse midway through last season, when it became apparent that "the freak" was unable to make an impact the way he used to. Parker stepped in and gave the Eagles another player with a high motor on the edge, and his placement in the starting lineup gave the defense a stronger presence against the run as they finished 2007 ranked seventh in the NFL in that category. An eight-year veteran from Oklahoma State, Parker played in all 16 games last season and registered 39 tackles, was second on the team with five sacks, and forced two fumbles.
At 250-pounds, he is relatively light for an every down defensive end, but he makes up for what he lacks in size with hustle. Originally signed as an undrafted rookie by Tennessee, Parker has developed into a solid pass rusher since joining the Eagles in 2005 and the organization rewarded him with a five-year contract extension before last season. He has the second most sacks among undrafted players since 2006 (including the postseason) with 12.5 quarterback takedowns, trailing only the Bears' Adawale Ogunleye.
While Parker has performed well when given the chance, expect Victor Abiamiri to put pressure on him and compete for a starting role on defense. A second-round pick in the Eagles 2007 draft, Abiamiri entered the league after a solid career at Notre Dame, where he was a former teammate of the Giants' emerging pass-rush specialist, Justin Tuck. In his last two seasons with the Fighting Irish, Abiamiri had 18.5 sacks and recorded 91 tackles, while being named the school's defensive lineman of the year both years. As a rookie last year, Abiamiri's playing time was limited, but he did manage to see action in six games and got his first NFL start against the Redskins late in the season.
Although he is still adjusting to the pro game, Abiamiri is a versatile player who brings a strong combination of size and athleticism to the defense. He has good feet for his 6-foot-4, 267-pound frame, and he excels at pursuing plays from the backside and making things happen behind the line of scrimmage because of his quickness. If Abiamiri develops more pass-rushing moves and learns how to shed blocks more effectively, he could be an impact player this season.
Also in the mix at defensive end will be Chris Clemons, who signed with the Eagles as a free agent in the off-season after playing in Oakland last year. Clemons was one of the few pleasant surprises for the Raiders last season, as he registered a career-high eight sacks while being on the field for only 37 percent of the team's defensive plays. He also had 20 tackles and forced two fumbles in a reserve role and drew some attention by making plays when he got the opportunity.
Since the Redskins signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia in 2003, Clemons has shown a true knack for getting to the quarterback, and he might be more of a household name if it weren't for a few season-ending injuries. He started his career by getting a sack in his first game, and went on to record three sacks in only six contests as a rookie, but he missed the first 10 games of that season with a pulled hamstring and missed all of the 2006 season due to a torn MCL. At 6-foot-2, 240-pounds, Clemons is somewhat of a defensive end/linebacker tweener, but his speed off of the edge makes him an effective blitzer and a tough match-up for slower offensive tackles.
Because of his experience and recent production, Parker is likely to remain the starter at defensive end when the season starts, unless Abiamiri shows vast improvement in training camp. Abiamiri will likely need more playing time under his belt to handle the starting role, but he could be a solid contributor this year. Clemons is a long shot to win the battle because he lacks the size to be a force against the run, but he will see a lot of action on passing downs and has the potential to put up good numbers in the Eagles aggressive defensive scheme.
Andrew Pluta can be reached at email@example.com