More Sports:

February 08, 2024

Ranking the Eagles' 2024 positional needs: Short-term, free agency edition

The Eagles have holes to address on defense. For 2024 specifically, the linebacker and safety positions need to be fixed.

Eagles NFL
122523NicholasMorrow Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles must have a better plan at linebacker than they did last offseason.

In advance of NFL free agency and the 2024 draft, we'll take two different looks at the Philadelphia Eagles' biggest positional needs. Here we'll evaluate the team's biggest needs, ignoring positional value. That's what the Eagles tend to address in free agency each year.

Once free agency has run its course, we'll rank the Eagles' positional needs more specifically in the draft, which will be more geared toward long-term roster building and positional importance. Those rankings will look a lot different. That's where you'll see positions like offensive tackle and cornerback.

1) Linebacker

The Eagles' depth chart at linebacker looks something like this:

Nakobe Dean Shaq Leonard (FA) Shaun Bradley (FA) Brandon Smith 
Zach Cunningham (FA) Nicholas Morrow (FA) Ben VanSumeren  

"I have a lot of belief, and I know [Nick Sirianni] does, as well, in Nakobe Dean," Howie Roseman said in his end of season press conference. "I believe in the player. I believe in the person. We lost two linebackers at that spot, two good players from our Super Bowl team, and we had Nakobe waiting in the wings. We drafted him for that role. Obviously, it didn't work out perfectly for him this year. That doesn't change the belief we have in the player."

In 2023, the Eagles hoped that Dean would become a good three-down linebacker, with no real backup plan if he didn't. Dean was up and down when he played, and when he didn't play he was replaced by an assortment of low cost free agents that the team plucked off the street.

The most competent of the bunch was Zach Cunningham, who Roseman praised during his presser.

"We felt like we'd have the ability to get an off-ball linebacker, WILL linebacker, who can run and hit, and honestly when you watch the tape, Zach Cunningham had a good year," Roseman said. "He really did. He had a mentality that we like for that position."

The Eagles got eaten alive in the middle of the defense all season long in the passing game because of poor linebacker play. The scheme didn't help, but their starting players simply weren't good enough, and their depth was non-existent.

Dean will be back in 2024, and so too maybe (?) will Cunningham, who also missed some time with a mix of injuries.

If the Eagles put all their eggs in the Nakobe Dean basket once again in 2024 and surround him with a bunch of players that other teams don't want like they did last offseason, that will not be an acceptable plan.

2) Safety

The Eagles' plan at safety last offseason was more reasonable than their plan at linebacker. They entrusted Reed Blankenship at one starting spot and hoped guys like Terrell Edmunds and Justin Evans would be solid enough vets while rookie Sydney Brown eased in.

Unfortunately, they suffered a bunch of injuries at the position, and the defensive staff did not do a good enough job finding an immediate role for Brown. 

At the trade deadline, they dealt for Kevin Byard, who had one great game against the Chiefs but was otherwise a liability.

Reed Blankenship Sydney Brown Mekhi Garner 
Kevin Byard (likely cap casualty) Justin Evans (FA) Tristin McCollum 

This offseason, cutting Byard and saving around $13 million on the cap will be one of their easiest decisions. Blankenship will likely return as a starter, and Brown will spend his offseason recovering from a torn ACL suffered in December. Evans could decide to retire after more or less missing yet another season.

The team may think of Blankenship and Brown as their starting tandem of the future, but that should be considered more of a hope than a plan. They need to add another starting-caliber safety who ideally also has some slot corner skills.

3) Running back

Swift's 2023 season started off hot, when he had 175 rushing yards against the Vikings Week 2 and 130 rushing yards against the Buccaneers Week 3. However, from that point on he did not top 100 yards in a game the rest of the season, and he averaged under 4 yards per carry. 

Still, in a down year for running backs league-wide, Swift finished fifth in the NFL in rushing yards, and he made his first Pro Bowl.

D'Andre Swift (FA) Kenny Gainwell Boston Scott (FA) Rashaad Penny (FA) Lew Nichols 

The Eagles probably have interest in keeping Swift on a modest contract, but there's a good chance that Swift and his representation will be looking for more money than the Eagles want to pay him. We'll see how that all plays out.

Gainwell will be back. Penny almost certainly will not, since the Eagles couldn't find a use for him. As for Scott, it's time the Eagles found an RB3 who can add some kind of added dimension to the offense and is more than just a guy who plays when the starter gets hurt.

4) Wide receiver

A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith are star players, and as such the passing offense goes through them. 

The Eagles' trio of "No. 3 receivers" — Olamide Zaccheaus, Julio Jones, and Quez Watkins — combined for 60 targets in 2023, or 3.5 per game. Brown and Smith combined for 270 targets, or just under 16 per game.

Zaccheaus was probably the most effective of that trio of WR3's, but none of them established themselves as a consistent producer.

A.J. Brown Joseph NgataAustin Watkins Jr.
Shaquan Davis
DeVonta Smith Quez Watkins (FA)Griffin HebertJacob Harris
Julio Jones (FA) Olamide Zaccheaus (FA)
Britain Covey

Again, feeding your best players is a good thing, and certainly nobody is advocating for a player like Watkins to get more targets, but the offense was also too geared toward Brown and Smith, who opposing defenses keyed in on. 

The Eagles must move on from Watkins at this point, and they should move on from the cooked Jones as well. Zaccheaus will likely want out, knowing that targets are too few and far between in the Eagles' offense. With all three receivers potentially on the move, the Eagles need more depth at receiver. 

A solid third receiver could at least keep opposing defenses honest and theoretically open up higher quality opportunities for the star players. I don't think the team can count on a rookie being that third option in the short term. They need to find a quality vet in free agency, and then also maybe draft a receiver who can find a role in the short term and become more of a key player long-term.

5) Quarterback

Marcus Mariota signed a one-year deal worth $5 million last offseason. He did not play any truly meaningful snaps last season.

Jalen Hurts Marcus Mariota (FA) Tanner McKee 

Spoiler: The Eagles are going to keep three quarterbacks again in 2024, which means that they are going to do something there, whether that's signing Mariota to another one-year deal, moving on from him and signing some other vet, or turning to McKee as the No. 2 and drafting a third quarterback.

So, it may not be the biggest need, but it's something they're definitely going to have to address in some way, so it makes the short-term needs list.

Follow Jimmy & PhillyVoice on Twitter: @JimmyKempski | thePhillyVoice

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports

Add Jimmy's RSS feed to your feed reader