We recently took a closer look at how much the Eagles Offense has changed since the hiring of Doug Pederson and it’s safe to say that the unit has much more balance and overall potential. But what about the Defense?
The Eagles spent heavily on their Secondary in 2015 to ensure that the the team didn’t endure a repeat of what they suffered a year earlier. Add in some low-risk, high-reward linebackers and it seemed as if the Defense was primed for a relatively successful year.
As we know by now however, that wasn’t the case. The Eagles allowed more rushing yards than any other team in the NFL and ranked 30th overall defensively. They struggled with injury problems throughout the depth chart..but there were some positives as a result of these struggles, including the emergence of Eric Rowe. But a negligence to adapt and a less than efficient Offense meant that the odds were always stacked against a Defense ran by Billy Davis.
The Eagles are entering a new era in 2016..the era of Jim Schwartz. The former Bills Defensive Coordinator and Head Coach of the Detroit Lions has already made his presence known on the Defense by signing numerous players who have excelled under him previously. But how does the Defensive roster compare to how it looked 12 months ago?
A change to a 4-3 Defense means that there is going to be some big changes for the Eagles. Connor Barwin is reverting back to Defensive End and will be joined by Brandon Graham. In terms of depth on the line, there is much more currently than there was a year ago.
Cedric Thornton is now competing for a roster spot in Dallas and what was a seemingly thin area of the roster now has an abundance of talent. From 7th round pick Alex McCalister to the undrafted rookie Connor Wujciak, the Eagles have plenty of options at both DT and DE. Obviously, the roster is going to be trimmed considerably by the time the Eagles face the Browns in week one of the regular season, but it’s safe to say there’s much more competition for depth spots than there was this time last year..and a lot of that is because of the transition to a 4-3 Defense.
Then of course, there’s the elephant in the room. The Eagles made Fletcher Cox the highest paid player who isn’t a QB in the NFL by signing him to a six-year extension..but he wasn’t the only one to have his future cemented in the City of Brotherly Love.
Vinny Curry signed a huge five-year extension with the Eagles in the early stages of the offseason. This means that the Eagles now have both their starting DE and starting DT locked in place for the considerable future. With both Cox and Curry already looking like two of the most explosive talents on the roster, the transition to a system that fits their strengths should only see their play improve..an exciting prospect for Eagles fans.
Security, depth and talent have all improved dramatically since the arrival of Jim Schwartz. While we may only see between 6-8 of these names on the final 53-man roster, there’s so much depth on the line without even looking at the undrafted rookies vying to make an impact in training camp. On paper, the Eagles could well have one of the best D-Line’s in the NFL, especially in such an aggressive system. That prospect alone makes this one a no-brainer.
The move to a 4-3 Defense makes this tricky to judge. Barwin, Graham, Smith and Braman have all essentially transitioned to Defensive End so while the Linebacker unit will miss their presence, their impact will be felt much harder on the edge of the Defensive Line.
The problem here is that as things stand, the unit is very light on depth. Hicks suffered a torn pectoral last year that cut his stunning rookie campaign short, Bradham hasn’t played a full season since 2013 and Mychal Kendricks is yet to play in all 16 games during the regular season and missed three last year.
If history is to repeat itself and the Eagles suffer more injury setbacks, the weight of the linebacker core will fall onto the shoulders of:
prominent special-teamer Najee Goode,
7th round pick Joe Walker,
the undrafted Quentin Gause & Myke Tavarres ,
Travis Long, who tore his ACL in a non-contact drill last year..an injury he also suffered in College,
Former Patriots LB Deontae Skinner who last played an NFL snap in 2014
The Eagles could well turn to the versatility of the likes of Barwin and Graham to come back and fill the void if needed due to the extensive depth at DE..but it wouldn’t be favorable. The Eagles linebacker core is ruthless. Bradham was simply stunning under Jim Schwartz (check out our All-22 on him here) and we all know how explosive Jordan Hicks can be. But it’s light..last year may not have seen the most dominant linebacker corps in the NFL, but there was a solid amount of depth that allowed for plenty of rotation safe in the knowledge that talent and depth went hand in hand.
The Eagles may have entered last season with five corners, but Rice, Watkins and Evans were called up later on due to injury problems that continued to haunt the unit.
Byron Maxwell failed to live up to his big-money contract while Eric Rowe faced a trial by fire last year and came out a much more intimidating corner. Jaylen Watkins was making an impact under the radar (see how in our All-22 here) and Nolan Carroll looked brilliant until predictably, injury cut his season short.
Heading into 2016 however and there is much more structure at the position. Last year, it felt as though there were a few panic buys for the Eagles..with Byron Maxwell’s staggering contract being one of them. The direction is clear and versatility is going to be a huge factor when deciding who makes the final 53-man roster. The additions of Ron Brooks and Leodis McKelvin not only give the Eagles depth at corner, but prototypical players who embody the style of play Schwartz wants to implement.
Then of course, you have the guys competing for the depth positions at the roster. The Eagles are faced with a good problem for any team to have..too much depth. The Eagles could have a steal in Jalen Mills who was drafted as a Safety out of LSU and is not only competing at corner..but making big plays early on.
Sixth round pick Blake Countess will be looking to prove he has what it takes to make the final roster as he attempts to outshine the never-say-die mentality that Denzel Rice carries with him.
Finally..there’s JaCorey Shepherd. Widely regarded as a potential steal of the draft last year, Shepherd tore his ACL before he had a chance to step onto the field. A year later, the competition is stiffer than ever..but it means that no matter who wins in this intense war at cornerback, the Eagles will have position filled to the brim with raw potential, starting talent and a level of both aggression and versatility needed to make an impact under Jim Schwartz.
The biggest change here is the acquisition of Rodney McLeod. After Walter Thurmond decided to hang up his boots at the age of 28 to pursue a film-making career, the Eagles went after the former Rams Safety for one reason. He is the perfect example of a player who plays the type of football Schwartz wants.
At one stage last year, both Jenkins and Thurmond ranked inside the league’s top-5 safeties according to Pro Football Focus. A year later and in a system that plays to the strengths of two very physically dominant players, the duo could be primed for a huge season.
With Chris Maragos continuing to make a huge impact on special teams and Ed Reynolds acting as a slightly inconsistent backup with plenty of play-making potential, the unit could well be one of the most impressive on the roster.
The elusive fifth spot may not be used..but I have a hunch that the Eagles will actually use it as a gateway to sign both Jalen Mills and Blake Countess to the final-53 man roster. Mills has been very impressive at corner so far and with Countess having such a versatile skill set..could easily move Countess to Safety to fill the fifth spot. With two passes defensed and 71 tackles during his one season with the Tigers, Countess certainly has the fundamentals and would be learning over two of the best possible mentors for a young safety under Jim Schwartz.
The unit may not look all that different on the surface, but the inclusion of McLeod in a new system that demands physicality is massive. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod combined for a total of 191 tackles last season. Even Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis never combined for that many tackles in a single season. The pair even eclipsed the tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas (though Chancellor held out for five games) .
The Eagles could well end 2016 with one of the most dominant Safety tandems in the league. With talent running deep into the depth chart and the future of Malcolm Jenkins secured..this agains becomes a no brainer.
The change to a 4-3 system sent ruptures throughout the entire Eagles Defense, but for the most part those ruptures have helped create a unit that’s deep in talent, versatility and suitability to the scheme. The contract extensions of Curry, Cox and Jenkins are huge for the Eagles going forward..not to mention shifting the weight of Byron Maxwell’s contract. There may be no better DC than Jim Schwartz to lead this Defense. A Defense that is striving for an identity after having all the right pieces a year ago, but having nobody to fit them together.
Photo credit: Matt Rourke/AP