The Eagles roster has seen some big changes on both sides of the ball recently. From the additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, to the departures of Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan. It’s the latter that has sparked plenty of debate in recent weeks over how the team should fill that void.
The team acquired Chris Long to replace Connor Barwin, and a trade for defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan with the Ravens has seemingly ticked the other box. Although Jernigan is entering his final contracted year, he among the leagues premium run-stoppers and had a career high in sacks last season. The current situation would imply that the team are still going to draft a defensive tackle to develop under Jernigan, but could they be preparing for dominance by committee?
As it stands, the Eagles have five defensive tackles on the roster alongside Pro-Bowler Fletcher Cox. Jernigan will be supported by Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao in 2017, with Aziz Shittu looking to make the roster in his second attempt. Finally, former Seahawks DT Justin Hamilton will be looking to secure his NFL Future.
DL Coach Chris Wilson is incredibly high on Vaeao, while reports have circulated for a while referencing a potential extension for Beau Allen. If the team were so high on the pair however, why would they add Jernigan? The answer could be the secret to unlocking an elite Defense next season.
Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao acted as more than just backups, combining for a total of 66.3% of Defensive snaps last season. Injuries did play a factor into their involvement and the three starts of Allen, but their presence was certainly felt. The combination of Beau Allen and Vaeao was enough to see off the setbacks and keep the Eagles aggressive in the pass rush.
Howie Roseman spoke glowingly of the fourth-year defensive tackle at the NFL Combine:
“We’re excited about Beau. Both in his ability to be powerful in the run game and also his athleticism to work the edges. He has pass rush moves and with an increased opportunity, we think he will be an even better player for our team.”
UDFA Destiny Vaeao had two sacks in his rookie year. While he and Beau Allen rotated frequently into the frame in 2016, combining for 66% of defensive snaps, whether either can be regarded as a long-term starter is another question. It took a while for Fletcher Cox to heat up last season, as he went on to amass 4 of his 6.5 sacks that season in his last five games. The question is, when Cox receives that same kind of attention from interior offensive linemen and offensive coordinators, will Beau Allen or Destin Vaeao be able to step up to the plate as Bennie Logan did? That’s where Jernigan comes in.
With 14 sacks in three years, it’s clear that Jernigan has already proved himself in the NFL and established a firm reputation. But Bennie Logan wasn’t exactly Mr Nobody. Logan’s absence is certainly going to hurt the Eagles, but last season he actually only played in 45% of defensive snaps. The rest of those snaps were as we already know, played by the tandem of Allen and Vaeao.
One of the biggest problems for the Eagles defensive last season was that so much attention was being paid to Fletcher Cox. Offensive coordinators would gameplan to double and even triple team the man who landed such a groundbreaking contract before the start of the regular season..and rightly so. Cox is one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the league, so chaining him down had to be a priority. The problem was that Cox became the soul source of explosiveness at times, leaving the pass rush in an underwhelming state. This did of course aid the breakout of Brandon Graham..but the Eagles can’t afford to slump on the interior front.
It took a while for Fletcher Cox to heat up last season, as he went on to amass 4 of his 6.5 sacks that season in his last five games. With Timmy Jernigan standing alongside him at the line of scrimmage, coordinators cannot afford to leave either unaccounted for. Jernigan may be a premier run stopper..but with 5 sacks to his name last year, he has the tenacity to make life difficult for quarterbacks. Against the Jets for instance, Jernigan had 2 quarterback hurries, 1 sack and 4 stops.
Opposing teams will be between a rock and a hard place, knowing that one of these guys is going to wreak havoc. But by rotating combinations of the more elusive Destiny Vaeao in pass rush situations, and shaking things up with Beau Allen, it can create nightmares.
If you then factor in a rookie from this years draft..what you have is an unrelenting arsenal of weapons who can matchup to any situation. If it’s run Defense, Jernigan was a huge part in the Ravens 5th ranked unit last season..and Allen stuffed running backs 6 times last year, setting a new career high in tackles as well. If it’s pass Defense, Fletcher Cox will tear through the trenches, while a more elusive Destiny Vaeao can work his way outside and confine the quarterback.
Given that the Eagles rarely blitzed quarterbacks last season and most of their pressures came off of 4-man rushes, having an ability to flick a switch and change the landscape of a play at any time could help instill unpredictability that a blitz can bring, while leaving Hicks and Bradham to continue to grow as two of the best cover linebackers in the league.
The Eagles certainly need to add to the DT corps when building for the long-term, but the abundance of talent and faith showed in said talent could imply that a rotational effort would be best moving forward. An effort by committee could not only cause constant headaches for opposing linemen, but also take some of the attention away from Fletcher Cox, allowing him to feast like he was paid to. Jernigan is going to receive a hefty payday in 2017..and if teams prepare to use a zonal rushing attack or get the ball off quicker due to the new tandem, a committee effort would certainly add the unexpected explosiveness that seemingly lacked last year.
Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports