More Sports:

May 07, 2020

Where are the Eagles deep, and not so deep, after the 2020 NFL Draft: Defense edition

Eagles NFL
050720DerekBarnettBrandonGraham Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles would benefit bigly from a breakout season by Derek Barnett.

While the Philadelphia Eagles could still add a veteran here or there to their roster before the start of the season, it is still probably somewhere around 90-to-95 percent set. Here we'll take a look at each of their positions, and determine where they are strong, and where they still need help.

On Wednesday we started with the offense. Today we'll look at the defense.

Defensive end

53-man roster projection: Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, Genard Avery. (We also have Vinny Curry cracking the 53-man roster, though he's not currently on the team.)

Others: Shareef Miller, Joe Ostman, Daeshon Hall, Casey Toohill

The Eagles have three defensive ends who will be expected to produce in Graham, Barnett, and Sweat. Thereafter, it's sort of a mishmash of guys with unclear roles:

• Avery's best usage, in our view, would be as a hybrid linebacker / pass rusher. I don't think he can play DE at his size on normal down-distances, because he'll be a major liability against the run. And then even in obvious pass rush situations, I don't think you can line him up on the edge and expect him to get a high percentage of one-on-one wins, because his size will always limit his pass rush repertoire. His explosiveness is pretty clear, but it'll be a challenge to find ways to get him into games in that rush Joker role, without telegraphing to the offense what's coming, unless he can develop as a linebacker who can also cover and play the run.

• Ostman is similar to Avery in some ways, in that he's undersized, and the Eagles tried to use him in a Joker role before he tore his ACL during 2019 training camp. I do believe that Ostman has a better chance of becoming a traditional DE than Avery does, because of Ostman's strength, but it'll be hard to fit two specialty players like them on the roster. I think it's one or the other, and Avery has the unfair advantage of costing a fourth round pick to acquire.

• Hall has been productive when he has gotten opportunities, but he tore an ACL on a meaningless play at the end of the Eagles' NFC East clinching win over the Giants.

• Miller didn't play a single snap last season, despite a banged up defensive line. That's not a great sign.

• Toohill is a hyper athletic seventh round pick, but again, an undersized one like Avery and Ostman. He'll probably need a year to get bigger, and is a good practice squad candidate.

Are the Eagles in good shape here relative to the rest of the league? Graham is who he is, which is a good starting defensive end who isn't going to get big-time sack numbers, but will be consistently disruptive against the pass, and outstanding against the run. Some will appreciate that, some won't.

As for whether the Eagles have better ends than most, Barnett is the real key here. He has shown glimpses of a player ready to break out, however, durability has been an issue, and as an extension of that, so has productivity. He's still only 23 years old, younger than some guys who were selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, and he has made his share of huge plays in big moments. If he can take a big step forward in 2020, which I don't think is unrealistic, then the Eagles will have a really good defensive line that can carry a defense.

As is, I would say that no, the Eagles' defensive ends should not be viewed as better than the average 4-3 team. Should Barnett stay healthy and become something closer to a 10-sack kind of guy, then yes, they are.

Defensive tackle

53-man roster projection: Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Malik Jackson, Hassan Ridgeway

Others: Raequan Williams, Anthony Rush, Bruce Hector, Albert Huggins

Cox had a down year in 2019, which was at least partly caused by recovery from foot surgery performed during the 2019 offseason. Now fully healthy, the expectation will be that he will get back to being the elite DT that he was in 2018, when he had 10.5 sacks and 34 QB hits. We'll see.

Cox aside, the Eagles have spent big in each of the last two offseasons on the DT position. They signed Jackson in 2019 to a three-year, $30 million contract that they have so far gotten no return on yet. In March, they signed Hargrave to a three-year, $39 million contract.

Cox, Hargrave, and Jackson are the second-, seventh-, and tenth-highest paid 4-3 defensive tackles in the NFL, per OverTheCap.

Are the Eagles in good shape here relative to the rest of the league? They better be! But yes, the Eagles have invested heavily in the interior of their defensive line, and have a chance to be special there, assuming they don't suffer another major injury.

Linebacker

53-man roster projection: Nate Gerry, T.J. Edwards, Duke Riley, Davion Taylor, Shaun Bradley

Others: Jatavis Brown, Alex Singleton, Dante Olson

Throughout April, anyone who watches the team closely sort of knew that it was highly unlikely that the Eagles would address the linebacker position in the first round, given the team's draft history. Non-locally, linebackers like Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen were commonly given to the Eagles in mock drafts, and it's easy to see why. Draft analysts simply looked at the Eagles' LB depth chart, and probably went, "Ew."

In my view, it probably looks worse on paper than it actually is. While Gerry isn't an ideal three-down linebacker, he did make significant improvements in 2019. 

Edwards was a tackling machine against the run in his limited action in 2019, but he mostly only played on traditional run downs, and was largely untested in the passing game. At a minimum, he can play in a Joe Walker / Dannell Ellerbe type of role as a third linebacker on run downs, and be way better than either Walker or Ellerbe. That's his floor. To be determined if the Eagles will allow him to play more on passing downs in 2020, and how he will respond if given that opportunity.

Riley and Brown are both undersized but athletic, with some experience, while Taylor and Bradley are undersized but athletic, and rookies. They will probably need a year or so to get acclimated to the NFL.

Are the Eagles in good shape here relative to the rest of the league? Obviously, no.

Cornerback

53-man roster projection: Darius Slay, Avonte Maddox, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Sidney Jones, Cre'Von LeBlanc

Others: Rasul Douglas, Tremon Smith, Trevor Williams, Prince Smith, Michael Jacquet

The Eagles' corner situation should be greatly improved in 2020 with the addition of Slay, who is a legit No. 1 NFL corner. If he goes down... 😬

Opposite Slay on the outside will likely be the 5'9 Maddox, who is better suited for slot duty, but appears to be playing outside corner, for now, out of necessity. 

The Eagles are in good shape in the slot, with Robey-Coleman and LeBlanc, and while Jones has been a disappointment three years into his NFL career, he should at least be a good backup, either inside or outside.

Are the Eagles in good shape here relative to the rest of the league? We've been fooled by the corner position looking good on paper in the past, but, oh hell, I'll trick myself again... I think they might actually be good here, overall, at least if Slay can stay healthy for 16 games?

Safety

53-man roster projection: Jalen Mills, Rodney McLeod, K'Von Wallace, Will Parks, Grayland Arnold

Others: Rudy Ford, Marcus Epps, Elijah Riley

The starting safeties will be Mills and McLeod, pending further movement of Mills. While the corner spot got better with the additional of Slay, the safety position objectively got worse with the team no longer feeling the need to employ Malcolm Jenkins. We'll see how that goes.

On the bright side, the selection of Wallace in the fourth round is potentially great value, and Schwartz has a history of letting defensive backs play important roles as rookies. The feeling here is that he'll have an early, notable role.

Are the Eagles in good shape here relative to the rest of the league? For the first time in a while, no.


Follow Jimmy & PhillyVoice on Twitter: @JimmyKempski | @thePhillyVoice

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports

Add Jimmy's RSS feed to your feed reader

Videos