Eagles face potentially damaging defensive dilemmas heading into the offseason

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The Eagles enter the most important offseason in franchise history. After hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 52 and parading it through the City of Brotherly Love, Howie Roseman and company now have to keep the band together as best as possible. A big free agency drain potentially awaits, with Nigel Bradham, Trey Burton and players such as Patrick Robinson all waiting for a new contract that may not arrive due to the Eagles lack of cap space. But it’s what lies down the line that’s a little more frightening.

The Eagles have 20 players entering their contract year, many of whom will be looking to secure their futures in Philadelphia. There are three players mixed in among those whoever who will either hold significant pulling power in negotiations, or could leave the Eagles scrapping to try and replace their presence and production.

 

Brandon Graham:
This one goes without saying, but Brandon Graham has waited patiently in the wings while the defensive end group has been reenforced. Whether it was Vinny Curry’s extension, the drafting of Derek Barnett or even the veteran addition of Chris Long, Graham’s consistent excellence has gone unrewarded for too long. With 9.5 sacks in 2017 along with 2 forced fumbles and 47 tackles, Graham was a menace on the outside for anyone that stood in his way. A key cog in both the Eagles pass rush and their run defense, replacing him would be no easy task…but one the Birds’ may have to be prepared for.

If Graham endures yet another offseason without an extension, he will be entering his contract year knowing he’s a pending free agent entering a market that he will most likely dominate. As pass rushers continue to be paid growing sums of money for their services, there is bound to be a slew of teams who would jump at the chance of acquiring Graham’s services.

The Eagles could always seek to trade Graham, as Baltimore did with Tim Jernigan last year, however doing so would leave their DE group looking like this.

DE1: Vinny Curry
DE2: Derek Barnett
DE3: Chris Long
DE4: Steven Means

Curry bounced back well this year and Barnett flashed some elite potential, but this lineup would not field the same powerful rotation as it did last year. The Eagles would be wise to try and backload a contract to Graham, but it’s something that could also sting them in the future, given they’re already projected to have the least cap space of any team through 2021. This decision is a truly perplexing one where any possibility is just as likely as the last…but it’s one that could change the heart of the defense.

 

Jordan Hicks:
As horrifying as this may be to suggest, next season could also be the last we see Jordan Hicks play in midnight green. Simba has really taken over the Animal Kingdom since stepping up after DeMeco Ryans moved on and it’s safe to say that when healthy, Hicks is one of the most impressive coverage linebackers in the league.

Hicks rebounded from a slump at the start of the season, amassing 28 tackles and recovering a fumble in the seven games played prior to the Achilles injury that cut his year short. Hicks dropped in the draft originally largely due to durability concerns and with two season-ending injuries in three year’s those questions are justified.

However, when on the field, Hicks is a force to be reckoned with. 100 career tackles, seven interceptions and 14 passes defensed in his first 24 games along with four fumble recoveries, saw Hicks become the fifth player in history to post those numbers during such a short timespan. The former Texas Longhorn has been sensational. In 2016, he allowed a passer rating of just 53.7 when targeted.

Hicks now enters what is very much a ‘prove-it’ year. An inability to stay healthy in a season where the Eagles could well be without Nigel Bradham could be absolutely costly. It’s unlikely that the Eagles will pay Hicks prematurely because investing in uncertainty is something that seems to have been stripped from this franchise.

Hicks faces a crucial year in 2018 while the Eagles could potentially get more value now by negotiating an early contract, the risk-reward factor may be too great. If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that Hicks is an outstanding talent who leads this defense by example. What we don’t know is how often he’s able to do it.

 

Ronald Darby:
The Eagles secondary faces plenty of potential changes this offseason as I documented below. But one question on the minds of many will be what happens to Ronald Darby. The former Buffalo Bill was a late acquisition by the Eagles in a trade that sent Jordan Matthews to Buffalo in exchange for some emergency cornerback help. After two impressive years with the Bills, Darby came as good as advertised…at least in the games he played.

As secondary rebuild continues, Eagles have even more questions to answer at cornerback

In 8 games with the Eagles, he had 9 passes defensed and added three interceptions, surpassing expectations after arriving in the heart of preseason with very little time to get acquainted with the team or the scheme. An injury sustained in week one kept Darby sidelined for half of the season however and with Sidney Jones set to step into the Eagles secondary picture next season after overcoming an injury setback of his own, there may well be some overcrowding.

The question is, can the Eagles afford to keep Darby long-term? Corners are always in high demand at the NFL level, especially those who have Pro Bowl potential and are just 24-years old. The Eagles would be undercutting the market by ensuring they keep Darby as a long-term fixture in their secondary, but can they afford to?

 

The Eagles may not be able to afford to keep all three of these players in the bigger picture, but will they instead take a gamble knowing that all three starters had huge roles to play in the Super Bowl run that has every chance of being repeated? Losing any combination of these elite talents will undoubtedly sting the Eagles defense, but it’s how the team build contingency plans to account for the potential loss that will decide how successful the defense is in 2018.

 

 

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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