Eagles rookies are primed to steal the show and raise the bar on defense in week 17


It’s been a rollercoaster season for the Philadelphia Eagles and their #1 ranked rushing defense. A fairytale that has had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows still has a long way before a happy ending ends the book…and the next challenge comes in the way of Dallas. But as the Eagles prepare to rest starters and prepare for the playoffs, the next generation will shine through…just as they have all year.

The big news today was that Brandon Graham is out with an ankle injury. Naturally, that “next man up” mentality finds itself pushing Derek Barnett to the forefront once again. A first round pick well spent, Barnett’s 5 sacks this season are the most by an Eagles rookie since Fletcher Cox in 2012. Whether it’s blocking a Robbie Gould field goal, sacking Kirk Cousins twice on Monday Night Football, or most recently scooping and scoring on a 23-yard fumble as time expired against  Oakland, Barnett has been a menace all year long.

“When he’s been on the field, he’s found a way to make plays, including that last play of the game.” His defensive coordinator said at the podium earlier this week. “I know it probably didn’t count very much, but those are things that — both him — all our defensive ends don’t play every rep, but when they’re out there, they can play. It’s something we have to manage with any player, and Derek does a really good job.”

He will have an even bigger platform to showcase his talents this Sunday with Graham on the sidelines and the Eagles putting rotation and rest ahead of production at their best. That same notion trickles into a secondary that needs no introduction. With Jalen Mills questionable this week and the name of a coveted second round pick on the lips of many, there is plenty of intrigue surrounding the cornerbacks coming into this matchup. However the Eagles decide to approach the situation, one of their rookies will see game time.

Rasul Douglas has 14 passes defensed this season after making his first career start in week 3. It was in that same game that he picked off a pass intended for Giants receiver Brandon Marshall in a clutch situation. Douglas became the first Eagle to record an INT within his first two career games since Nate Allen in 2010.

Whenever someone has gone down, Douglas has been the man to step up. The third-round pick out of West Virginia has been one of the team’s brightest surprises and an exciting talent to watch develop. There have been bumps along the way, but Douglas has utilized his length and ballhawk tendencies to go up against some of the best in the game.

“I don’t want to itemize all of them, but Rasul has been there when he’s been called on.” Schwartz would allude to later in that same conference. “There was a couple times in this game where we had guys step out. [CB] Jalen Mills was cramping, had some injury things in this game, and that game was close, and they were in our plus territory, and Rasul stepped out, and maybe a lot of people didn’t even know he was out there. He’s made plays that have come to him this year, and I think he’s made good progress.”

The status of running-mate Sidney Jones is still up in the air. But the idea of seeing the second round pick who has had the most interceptions against Top-25 competition since 1996 sparks a new fire in the hearts of many. Jones was arguably the second-best cornerback in his class, but a devastating injury led him to the City of Brotherly Love. The Eagles are still playing cards close to their chest, but there is a chance that Jones is activated for the final game of the regular season, giving the coaching staff some actual game tape to use to enhance his development even further.

The fun doesn’t end there however. With over 30% of special teams snaps to his name, hybrid S/LB Nate Gerry has also started to carve a role on the Eagles defense. The Nebraska product hasn’t yet seen time on defense, but after starting from the bottom rung, his perseverance has led him to some big moments on special teams. Something Schwartz was also quick to mention.

“Nate Gerry started off the season on the practice squad, moved into a role, and he’s become a more dependable player.” The ever informative coordinator said. “I really can’t speak for anything other than defense, but I know that if he had to play, we’d have the confidence to be able to put him in the game.”

Finally, there’s former teammate of Sidney Jones, Elijah Qualls. Schwartz loves to keep his linemen fresh, rotating them frequently throughout any given Sunday which has enables Qualls to taste plenty of what the NFL has to offer this year. A bruising defensive tackle who has the athleticism of a defensive end, Qualls is a unique weapon that Schwartz may finally get the.chance to play around with should Cox or Jernigan be rested for any period of the game.

No matter where you look on this defense, there isn’t only depth. There isn’t only talent. But there are young and hungry rookies who have already contributed massively to the success of the team this year. The draft has been a home run in every sense of the word for Joe Douglas and Howie Roseman, but the fun is only just beginning. The next generation of Eagles will take flight on Sunday.


Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports