The first-round of the 2017 NFL Draft finally kicks off tomorrow! All the speculation and guesses on who the Philadelphia Eagles select will finally be put to rest. Then we’ll all be able to celebrate or be miserable about our selection until the season begins. But enough about that, let’s discuss a pressing issue that, to me personally, seems to be overlooked by the fanbase.
The Eagles absolutely have a big need at edge rusher. Many of you might disagree with that take alone and laugh it off as another silly article that tries to sway your draft decision. That’s definitely not my intention. I just would like to bring some facts to the table on why this need is actually a glaring one for the Eagles and not as avoidable as perceived.
We all know the Eagles main pressing needs are at cornerback and running back. Luckily those two position groups are filled with talent in their respected classes and those needs will be addressed at some point during the draft. The Eagles also possess a hole at edge rusher.
Brandon Graham really came into his own last season and has shown he’s a perfect fit for Jim Schwartz’s wide-nine defense. But as a natural pass-rusher in this defense, Graham falls short of filling that void. Graham had five and a half sacks in 2016, but his presence was felt all over the field generating 83 pressures in 2016, which was the third most in the NFL. Those numbers are a result of Schwartz’s defense and will continue with Graham being perfectly suited for the system.
His sack numbers don’t reflect the great season Graham had and a huge result of that was the more double-teams he saw after teams realized he was a legit threat. On the other side of the defensive line, the Eagles had Connor Barwin taking up majority of the starter snaps and Vinny Curry rotating in. The two combined for seven and a half sacks. Neither posed enough of an impact and as a result hurt the Eagles from rushing the edge.
The Eagles released Barwin during the offseason due in large part to the clear misfit he was in Schwartz’s defense. The Eagles re-signed Curry to a huge extension prior to the 2016 season and I’m willing to bet Howie Roseman would not offer that extension this offseason if Curry was primed to hit free agency.
The team brought in 32-year-old Chris Long during the dying down part of free agency. Long has started 18 games the past three seasons, but coming over from New England, where he played a rotational role majority of the season, looks to be an upgrade over Barwin. The sack total (four in ’16) is one lower than Barwin’s, but he generated the same amount of pressures as him on fewer snaps.
— Ryan Smith (@PFF_Smith) March 28, 2017
Still, the Eagles need to reward Schwartz with a premiere pass-rusher his most notable successful defenses have been accustomed to if they ever hope for their defense to perform up the standards he’s coached in previous spots. In addition to that, Graham and Curry are 29 when the 2017 season begins, so just another reason to highlight why it’s a need.
The Eagles had 33 sacks in 2016. Compare that to the sack numbers from two years ago in 2014? That’s 16 less (49) than that. Let’s take a look at Schwartz’s recent defenses and see how they fared.
Schwartz was the Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator in 2014. That season there defense finished ranked 4th in the NFL in total defense. Why you ask? Simple, their pass-rush. The team finished with 54 sacks.
That year Mario Williams (1st round pick) had 14.5 sacks and Jerry Hughes (1st round pick) had ten. That’s 24.5 sacks combined from the team’s starting edge rushers and only 8.5 less sacks than the 2016 Eagles.
Let’s take a look at the 2013 Detroit Lions, where Schwartz spent his last season as the team’s head coach. That team also finished with 33 sacks and were the 16th ranked defense in the NFL. Why didn’t they do well? Simple, they only got production from one edge rusher. Ezekiel Ansah (1st round pick) spent his rookie year racking up eight sacks. The other three edge rushers on that team combined for six sacks. Schwartz was fired after the season and the team finished 7-9 (3rd in NFC North).
Time to view the 2012 Detroit Lions defense. The defense was ranked slightly higher (13th in NFL), but again the pass-rush from their edge rushers was dismal. The team finished with 33 sacks and Cliff Avril (3rd round pick) led them with 9.5 sacks. The other edges combined for six sacks. The Lions finished 4-12.
Are you noticing a pattern yet? If not, let’s continue. The 2011 Detroit Lions defense finished with 41 sacks. Oh, that’s better. This season they got production from their edge rushers. Cliff Avril led the team with 11 sacks, while Kyle Vanden Bosch (2nd round pick) finished with eight sacks. The rest of the edge rushers combined for seven and a half. The Lions defense was ranked 23rd, but their pass-rush helped push their defense enough for a wild-card berth on a 10-6 season.
Let’s end with the Lions there. I don’t want to bore you with a long article, but this info could help prove my opinion even more.
Schwartz inherited a 0-16 team and he did his best with what he could from 2009-2013. His most successful season there was 2011 and the pass-rush is what led his defense. Let’s just take a look at his last two seasons as the Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator now.
Here’s one example of Schwartz thriving without mass production from a singular edge rusher. The 2008 Titans finished 13-3 with 44 sacks. Their edge rushers combined for 28.5 of those sacks. They utilized a lot of them with Jevon Kearse (1st round pick, but on his last leg), Jason Jones, Jacob Ford, Tony Brown, Dave Ball and Vanden Bosch. Their defense was ranked 7th that season. the Titans lost in the divisonal round of the playoffs.
Same thing in 2007, expect this time they had mass production from one of their edge rushers. The Titans defense finished ranked 5th in 2007 with 40 sacks. Vanden Bosch led the way with 12 sacks. Antwan Odom (2nd round pick) the other starter had eight and the rest of the edge rushers combined for ten. The Titans went 10-6 and lost in the wild card round of the playoffs.
As you now see, the repetitive run with Schwartz’s most successful seasons as a coach in the NFL is when he’s getting top production from his edge rushers. The Eagles group, besides Graham, did not give him that type of production this past season. I also pointed out what round majority of his successful rushers went in to prove a point about the higher drafted the more consistent results.
If the Eagles truly want to a possess a defense that performs up to the standards Schwartz has shown above, especially during his Buffalo tenure, it’s going to rely on the defensive line mostly to get them to those standards.
You may not see edge rusher as a dire need, especially with the holes at running back and cornerback, but in this defense under Schwartz, it most certainly is. Don’t be shocked if thats the route they go during the first-round tomorrow. Thanks for reading.
Mandatory Photo Credits: Yong Kim, philly.com staff photographer