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August 31, 2022

Eagles are looking for 'interchangeable' defensive backs with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson trade

In the aftermath of the trade, the Eagles are preaching versatility when it comes to their secondary scheme.

Howie Roseman can't stop winning trades. A front office executive that's become an expert at rebuilding rosters after having a part in crashing them, Roseman's two-year transformation of the Eagles is incredible. It feels like the Carson Wentz saga was a lifetime ago given the way that Roseman has reshaped the Birds' present and short-term future. 

The Eagles trading for Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on Tuesday is one of those deals. Gardner-Johnson is just 24 and should be able to make an impact this year as a presumed starting safety (more on that in a bit) and could be a fixture in the years to come if the Birds hand him a new contract this offseason.

The Gardner-Johnson trade, while great simply based on moving a couple of late Day 3 draft picks for a guy of his talent, did raise some eyebrows given his position. While Gardner-Johnson played both safety and cornerback during his time at Florida heading into the 2019 NFL Draft, he was primarily used as a nickel corner in New Orleans in 2021. 

That seems quite alright with Roseman and Nick Sirianni, who emphasized secondary versatility when speaking with the media on Tuesday afternoon. "Interchangeable" became a buzzword.

"There are some different things that we're able to do where [defensive backs] are interchangeable," Sirianni said. "When you ask them to play the deep half and when you ask them to play in the box and when you ask them to play the deep third. So, there are some interchangeable parts."

With defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon's scheme in place, the organization likes safeties who have corner experience. Gardner-Johnson will likely be thrown in as the team's starting safety in Week 1. The Eagles want their safeties to come from a true coverage background rather than this old-school vibe of a box safety crushing running backs while working downhill. That's easily apparent with the Gardner-Johnson acquisition, Josiah Scott's time this summer getting reps at both corner and safety, and even starting slot CB Avonte Maddox's success playing safety back as a rookie. 

Looking at the goals of Gannon's defense, that philosophy makes sense. Gannon's system is predicated on preventing deep throws and chunk gains down the field, allowing what may come underneath in the hopes of slowing down explosive offenses. The Birds have a defense that should be among the best in stopping the run with Brandon Graham, Jordan Davis, and Fletcher Cox here and a steadily improving linebacker unit. That leaves the safeties' place in the passing game even more important, underscoring why they believe a versatile corner-safety in Gardner-Johnson is exactly what they want on the back end. 

"If the offense knows what you're in and what you're doing, it's easier for them to pick you apart when they know exactly what coverage there is to do," Sirianni said about the looks the defense will give opponents this season. "A lot of it comes from the disguise, as well, is what I'm getting at, the disguise of how you're trying to show one picture to the offense and play another thing. That's where a lot of those pieces are interchangeable." 

If, for example, the Eagles' defense went with dime coverage on a given play, that "interchangeable" adage works. Darius Slay and James Bradberry, of course, are true outside corners. When taking into account possible Gardner-Johnson, Maddox, Scott and Marcus Epps combinations, there's ample room to camouflage exactly what the D wants to do with players who could fill a variety of roles on the field.  

There will be few, if any, excuses for Gannon in 2022. The Eagles have the best defensive tackle rotation in the sport, are now deeper at pass rusher, have made strides at the linebacker position, and reinforced the defensive back group. Gardner-Johnson's arrival doesn't mean the team needs to be prepping for the second coming of Malcolm Jenkins, but Gannon's job got a tad easier and his schemes can now be a bit more creative in the aftermath of another great Roseman value play. 

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