After taking a look at every position on the offense, it’s time to turn our attention to the Defensive side of the ball. The Eagles made plenty of offseason changes to Schwartz’s unit, but just like on the Offense, there’s still much to be decided. Here’s a closer look at one question that hangs over each position on the Eagles Defense.
Defensive line: Rotational roles will be crucial under Jim Schwartz, but who will earn them?
With Derek Barnett acting as the cherry on a very juicy offseason cake for the Eagles Defense, the trenches will be subject to plenty of competition during training camp. It’s a well known fact that Schwartz uses plenty of rotation to keep his pass rush and his players fresh..but with the additions of Chris Long and Timmy Jernigan, there’s only so much room beneath the starters..which means we could be subject to a few surprises.
Marcus Smith, Steven Means, and Alex McCalister are three of the seven names who will need to leave it all out on the practice field in order to secure a spot in the rotation at defensive end, while Vinny Curry has a lot to prove if he is to retain the starting role he was paid to inherit. Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett appear to be the logical starters, but with the rotation being so crucial.. the questions over DE depth are imperative to the Eagles success.
At defensive tackle, the ruthless tandem of Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan look set to lead the unit, but beyond that things get interesting. Last season saw Destiny Vaeao and Beau Allen combine for 66% of defensive snaps behind Bennie Logan, and it’s likely that 2017 sees much of the same. The only difference is, that Allen may miss a lot of the offseason workouts due to a torn pectoral muscle. This opens the door for sixth-round pick Elijah Qualls, former Seahawks DT Justin Hamilton, and UDFA, Craig Winston. This roster battle may be one of the most underrated on the roster, but as aforementioned, the committee aspect of such an explosive defense cannot be overlooked, keep an eye out for some training camp heroes in the trenches.
Linebacker: How will depth behind the starters shake out?
Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham cemented themselves as the long-term starters in the Jim Schwartz Defense last season, combining for 187 tackles in the process. The duo emerged as reliable coverage linebackers who could contribute in the pass rush. From the 5 interceptions of Jordan Hicks, to the two sacks and two forced fumbles from Bradham, the future definitely flashed brightly in 2016..but depth remains an issue.
Both Hicks and Bradham completed a full 16-game season for the first time in their careers, but the team were almost forced to roll in nickel sets most of the time, due to the absence of Ron Brooks and a lack of coverage ability from Mychal Kendricks, pushing Malcolm Jenkins to be the next best option.
The team plan on bringing Nate Gerry into the box as a linebacker, but his impact there will certainly be a storyline to watch, as will the return of Joe Walker, one of last year’s training camp standouts. It will be extremely interesting to see who makes up the depth positions this year, and how many linebackers the Eagles carrie into the regular season. But as things stand, depth is thin..and should an injury strike, the heartbeat of the Defense could be in jeopardy.
Cornerback: With every starting role up for grabs, who can prove their worth in Training camp?
To put it simply, there isn’t a spot at cornerback that isn’t up for grabs. From the starting roles on the outside which look to be contested between Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas for now, to the slot where veteran Patrick Robinson aims to make his mark, it’s all for the taking. Aaron Grymes and Mitchell White will be the underdogs heading into training camp, but with Dwayne Gratz, Randall Goforth and C.J Smith all vying for roster spots, this is set to be one of the most exciting positional battles for quite some time. It would be difficult to predict just who the starters will be, but it’s one of the most prominent questions being asked..and one that will be answered in due course.
Safety: Does Jaylen Watkins have competition?
The Eagles Safety position is set for years to come. The tandem of Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod may be one of the most efficient in the league, while special teams ace Chris Maragos adds crucial value to Fipp’s unit. The question becomes, what about the backup spot?
Jaylen Watkins transitioned to Safety during Training camp last year, saving his future with the Eagles and going on to play a vital role, filling in for Jenkins as he covered slot duties. But after signing a one-year tender, his long-term future is in doubt..and there are several candidates licking their lips at the chance to make an impact this offseason, proving their worth to Jim Schwartz.
Former Raven Terrence Brooks and UDFA Tre Sullivan will be the two names looking to displace Watkins, or at least find a spot on the practice squad in case they’re needed. While Jenkins and McLeod have their roles secure, the battle at the third Safety spot is one that could have a huge impact, given how much action Watkins saw last year.
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