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May 22, 2018

10 players the Eagles can least afford to lose to injury

A year ago, we ranked the 10 players the Eagles could least afford to lose to injury, and they won the Super Bowl despite missing No. 1, No. 3, and No. 7 on that list.

Below are the 10 players the Eagles can least afford to lose to injury in 2018. Obviously, some of the below choices are the Eagles' best players, but we tried to also consider their importance to the scheme, depth behind them, long-term vs short term effects, and other factors.

10) Jalen Mills

Mills still has his critics, but the reality is that he's a very important piece in the Eagles' defense. If the season started today, Mills would likely start on the outside and move into the slot in nickel. And you know what? He'd play like he thinks he's Darrelle Revis in his prime. 

The Eagles have outside corners in numbers, but they completely lack experienced players in the slot. The improvement Mills showed from his rookie season to Year 2 in the NFL was significant, and the expectation here is that he continues to get better.

2017 rank: Unranked

2016 rank: Unranked

9) Derek Barnett

Barnett was really good as a rookie, as he had 21 tackles, 5 sacks, a forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown against Dallas, and two fumble recoveries. In the NFC Championship Game, he had a huge strip sack of Case Keenum with the Minnesota Vikings knocking on the door in the Eagles' red zone, and still very much in the game. In the Super Bowl, Barnett recovered the Brandon Graham's strip sack of Tom Brady. 

He made big plays in big moments, and is slated to take over as the starting RDE this season. Barnett has a chance to be a really good pass rusher in this league, and the Eagles would love for him to have another season of unstunted growth.

2017 rank: Unranked

2016 rank: N/A

8) Jason Peters

While Halapoulivaati Vaitai filled in competently for Peters and helped keep the Eagles' offense afloat, there's little question that the dropoff from Peters to Vaitai was noticeable. There are valid questions as to whether Peters can return from an ACL tear at the age of 36 and still be a great left tackle, but Peters is a freak of nature and by now I've learned not to bet again against him.

2017 rank: 7

2016 rank: 10

7) Alshon Jeffery

While his numbers (57-789-9) were far from elite, Jeffery gave the Eagles a legitimate presence on the outside at receiver for the first time in years, which helped open up the rest of the offense in the middle of the field, and in the run game. In the playoffs, he came alive, catching 12 of 18 targets for 219 yards (18.3 YPC) and 3 TDs, and making two great catches in the Super Bowl, one of which was for the Eagles' first TD of the game.

2017 rank: 6

2016 rank: N/A

6) Zach Ertz

Ertz is the No. 1 weapon in the Eagles' passing game, and a player that Doug Pederson and Nick Foles went to in the most crucial moments of the Super Bowl. He led the team in receptions, yards, and first downs, and was a big part of the Eagles' ridiculous success on third down, as well as in the red zone. And he even got some YAC last year!

2017 rank: 8

2016 rank: Unranked

5) Brandon Graham

In the biggest series of his football life, Graham came up with the game-winning strip sack of Tom Brady, helping the Eagles secure their first Super Bowl win. The importance of disruptive edge rushers can't be understated, and Graham is equally good against the pass and the run. While his stats aren't as good as some more recognizable pass rushers around the league nationally, Graham is every bit as good, as he is a complete defensive end, and not just a pass rush specialist.

2017 rank: 9

2016 rank: Unranked

4) Malcolm Jenkins

He can play in the slot, deep middle, linebacker, and outside corner. There isn't a more versatile, movable piece in the Eagles' defense, and Jenkins is fast, tough, and physical. As an added bonus, he also serves as a leader on the field and in the locker room.

2017 rank: 5

2016 rank: 4

3) Lane Johnson

This will be roughly the 100th time I've said this this offseason, but Lane Johnson was the best offensive tackle in the league in 2017. In 2016, the Eagles were 5-1 in games he played, 2-8 in games he didn't. With the NFL trending toward putting their best pass rushers up against the opposing team's right tackle, the Eagles are in a rare position where that strategy works in their favor. 

2017 rank: 4

2016 rank: 5

2) Fletcher Cox

The success of the Eagles' defense all begins with Cox. He's disruptive presence in the middle of the defense draws extra attention, giving the Eagles' edge rushers one-on-one opportunities in the passing game, and freeing up linebackers to make tackles in the run game. 

Cox's stats weren't eye-popping last season, but there's little question he's the best player on the defense. Beyond all of that, defensive tackle depth is also now a question mark after it was revealed that Timmy Jernigan had back surgery this offseason.

2017 rank: 2

2016 rank: 2

1) Carson Wentz

As we all saw, Nick Foles won a Super Bowl in Wentz's absence last season, but there's little question that Wentz is still by far the most important player on the team, both in the short-term and long-term. The Eagles would love to see Wentz make it through a full season in 2018, like he did in 2016, to help put some injury concerns to bed.

2017 rank: 1

2016 rank: 1

Side note: The Eagles roster is so good that a first team All-Pro (Jason Kelce), a starting Pro Bowler (Brandon Brooks), and other talented players like Jordan Hicks, Nigel Bradham, and Nelson Agholor didn't make the cut.

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