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November 30, 2017

The new Dream Team: How the 2017 Eagles were built, defense edition

Earlier today, with the Philadelphia Eagles in the midst of what looks like a special season, we began taking a position-by-position look at how this team was built, in case you haven't been following along closely over the last two years, beginning with the offense.

Here we'll cover the defense.

Defensive end

Brandon Graham: Graham has been a very productive player in terms of generating pressure as well as playing outstanding run defense, however, he has never put together impressive sack numbers. In 2017, Graham already has a career-high 7 sacks and has continued dominating in the run game. It doesn't seem this long, but Graham has now been with the team for eight years, and he is reportedly talking with the team about a contract extension.

Vinny Curry: In the past, Curry was always a situational pass rusher who was only effective on obvious passing downs. Curry signed a huge five-year deal worth $46.25 in 2016 that, frankly, has been a clear mistake. Still, while his production has not matched his pay, Curry's transformation into a quality run-stopping early-down defensive end has been one of the more interesting developments of the 2017 season.

Derek Barnett: As noted in the offense edition, the Eagles were able to pick Barnett 14th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft due to the Vikings' desperation trade for Sam Bradford. Despite a limited number of snaps, Barnett leads the team in tackles for loss and has 4.5 sacks so far as a rookie. Barnett turned 21 in June and is only going to keep getting better.

Chris Long: Long has been a great addition to the locker room, epitomizing the Eagles' closeness as a team. On the field, Long has 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in a reserve role. The Eagles signed him three weeks into free agency on a modest two-year deal worth $4.5 million.

Steven Means: Over the last two training camps and preseasons, Means has played his ass off, earning a spot on the roster both in 2016 and 2017. While not often active on game day, Eagles players widely praise Means' effort during practice and believe he would be a contributing player if not for excellent depth at defensive end. Oddly (I say oddly because he's more of a fit in Jim Schwartz's scheme than what the Eagles ran under Chip Kelly), the Chip regime plucked him off the Texans' practice squad at the end of the 2015 season.

SUMMARY: Although they don't have a Von Miller-type of star edge rusher, the Eagles' are very deep and talented at defensive end, that perhaps doesn't get enough credit for the way they all excel in stopping the run in addition to getting after the passer. This group is what it looks like when the "throw fastballs" at the offense approach works.

Defensive tackle

Fletcher Cox: Cox is the most talented player on the defense, by far, and the focus of opposing offensive line game plans. On the season, Cox has 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble return for a TD. Those numbers are good, but Cox draws so much attention from opposing offenses that he opens up so many opportunities for the rest of the defensive line. He was a first-round pick during Andy Reid's last season in 2012 and has been a stud in multiple schemes since.

Timmy Jernigan: The Eagles traded for Jernigan this offseason for the low cost of simply moving back 20 spots in the third round. As it turned out, with the lower third round pick, they were still able to land CB Rasul Douglas, who has played well as a rookie. Jernigan has been a penetrating force along the defensive line, and he was rewarded with a four-year extension worth $48 million. On the season, Jernigan has 2.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss playing along the interior line of the No. 1-ranked run defense in the NFL.

Beau Allen: The Eagles were discussing a new contract with Allen early this offseason, when he tore his pectoral muscle, putting the start of his season in jeopardy. Allen recovered quickly and never missed a game. He is a quality situational run-stuffing lineman.

Destiny Vaeao: Vaeao is 2016 undrafted free agent who is kind of "just a guy," but has given the Eagles snaps along the DL to give Cox and Jernigan rest.

Elijah Qualls: Qualls is a rookie sixth-round pick who was on the rough end of some harsh coaching by defensive line coach Chris Wilson in training camp. He is typically inactive on game day but has gotten a small taste of playing time as a rookie.

SUMMARY: Cox and Jernigan are a fantastic one-two punch on the interior of the line, both as run stoppers and pass rushers. They are perhaps the biggest reason for the Eagles' top-ranked run defense, along with top DT reserve Beau Allen.


Nigel Bradham: Bradham was an unheralded free agent acquisition in 2016, but he has out-performed his two-year, $7 million contract, serving as a solid starter in multiple linebacker roles for the Eagles. Bradham is probably best known for punching a cabana boy (or cabana man, or whatever) over a dispute over an umbrella, but he's actually a pretty good guy, as he is active in the community. I'm not sure the Eagles would have won their game against the Carolina Panthers without Bradham, and he is a good candidate for a contract extension. He leads the team with 57 tackles

Mychal Kendricks: Hey look, Kendricks is a good football player again. Not too many people saw that coming after three down years. Kendricks is second to Bradham in tackles, with 54. He also has 2 sacks and 6 pass breakups, although those stats don't properly illustrate the way Kendricks has flown around the field this season. The Eagles would have been more than happy to trade Kendricks this offseason had a decent offer come in, and they almost did, as Kendricks was nearly dealt to the San Francisco 49ers. The Eagles are lucky that deal never happened.

Joe Walker: Walker was a seventh-round pick in 2016. He is now a quasi-starter in the middle of the Eagles' defense, though that role may be coming to an end soon with the Eagles acquisition of Dannell Ellerbe.

Dannell Ellerbe: Ellerbe is a 32-year-old veteran and former Super Bowl winner who the team signed a few weeks ago. With the Saints a year ago, Ellerbe had 44 tackles, 4 sacks, and 2 pass breakups in nine games (eight starts). According to Josh Katzenstein of The Times-PicayuneEllerbe was unable to pass a physical before training camp began in July, due to a foot injury. He also suffered an assortment of other injuries since the Saints traded Kenny Stills to the Dolphins for Ellerbe and a third-round pick in 2015. You may be seeing more of Ellerbe soon.

Najee Goode: Goode has been on and off the Eagles' roster for years. He's a classic back-of-the-roster guy, but a good one, in that he's a core special teamer and can play multiple linebacker spots in a pinch.

Kamu Grugier-Hill: Kamu will always be remembered for serving as the Eagles' kickoff specialist against the Dallas Cowboys after Jake Elliott went down with a concussion. However, he's more than that. Grugier-Hill is a quality special teams player (he's even on the ballot for the Pro Bowl) and is an intriguing linebacker prospect because of his speed and athleticism. The Eagles signed Grugier-Hill off the New England Patriots' waivers at final cutdowns in 2016.

Nathan Gerry: Gerry was a fifth-round pick of the Eagles in the 2017 NFL Draft. He has been active on game day for five games, despite being waived and landing on the practice squad earlier this season.

SUMMARY: There was major concern that the Eagles' defense would take a big hit after the team lost Jordan Hicks for the season, but that has simply not happened, as Kendricks and Bradham have had very good seasons.


Jalen Mills: If not for off the field concerns and a bad 40 time, Mills would have gone much sooner in the draft than he did, but the Eagles were happy to take him in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft. While Mills does not have superstar measurables, he has confidence, smarts, and swagger, which has helped make him a legitimate starting cornerback in the NFL.

Ronald Darby: Fearing that the cornerbacks were not good enough heading into the season, the Eagles traded a 2018 third-round pick and Jordan Matthews for Darby, who is now the Eagles' most athletically gifted corner. Darby had a long recovery from a serious ankle injury, but in the three games he has played, he has looked good.

Patrick Robinson: Robinson was signed off the scrap heap to a one-year veteran minimum deal three weeks into free agency. After the first 10 practices of training camp, I polled 30 Eagles media observers, asking them to give me one player whose stock was up, and one whose stock was down. Robinson (rightfully) led the team with 14 "stock down" votes. As it turned out, Robinson simply got better every day and has become an outstanding slot corner for the Eagles all season.

Rasul Douglas: Douglas has had more ups than downs as a rookie, and looks like he may eventually be a solid NFL starter. He was great value in the third round and has enabled the Eagles to take their time with Sidney Jones' rehab.

Jaylen Watkins: Watkins has corner/safety versatility like many of the Eagles' defensive backs, and he has played well when he has gotten opportunities this season. He's a former fourth-round pick that has been written off repeatedly but somehow keeps landing back on the roster. The improvement in Watkins' physicality over the years has been impressive.

SUMMARY: Heading into 2017, the Philadelphia Eagles' cornerback position was thought by many to a potential season-ruining roster hole. Eleven games later, the Eagles are 10-1 and have gotten very good play from their top four corners, Darby, Mills, Robinson, Douglas. They have been the biggest pleasant surprise on this team.


• Malcolm Jenkins: Jenkins is one of the most underrated players in football. He can do everything. He plays center field, he's a physical presence in the box in the run game, and he can cover slot receivers and tight ends. He is as versatile a defender as there is in the league, not just because he can do a lot of things, but because of how well he does them all.

Rodney McLeod: McLeod signed a nice five-year, $35 million deal in 2016, which started off great, but ended shaky. McLeod has been a playmaker once again in 2017, picking off three passes, forcing a fumble, and breaking up six passes.

Corey Graham: Graham is a veteran safety/corner with a Super Bowl win under his belt. He had a rough moment against Kareem Hunt and the Chiefs earlier this season but has otherwise been a solid player when needed. The Eagles signed Graham in August. With all the poor safety play league-wide, it's hard to imagine how he was still available.

SUMMARY: The safety position has been a strength of the Eagles' for a few years now, and that's no different in 2017.


Donnie Jones: Donnie J'owns.

The fallen

Jordan Hicks: Hicks wasn't off to his best season this year when he went down with a ruptured Achilles. Still, it's a big loss for the Eagles' defense, though the Eagles have more than adapted.

• CB Sidney Jones: Jones remains on the NFI list. If and when the Eagles activate him, Jones will be allowed to practice for three weeks before the Eagles will have to decide whether to add him to the 53-man roster or shut him down for the season. The Eagles have no immediate plans to start that process.

• S Chris Maragos: Maragos suffered a knee injury against the Panthers and was placed on IR. He was the Eagles' best player on their kick coverage unit on special teams and served as the Eagles' special teams captain. Without Maragos, the Eagles did give up a long kick return to the Cowboys a few weeks back.

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