Do the Eagles have enough in-house firepower to prepare for months without Timmy Jernigan?

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News broke today that Eagles DT Timmy Jernigan could be set to miss up to six months due to recent surgery on a herniated disc in his back. A restructured contract and plenty of speculation later and the Eagles are now in a very interesting spot. Do they seek a long-term replacement for Jernigan or instead look in-house for an insurance policy? Here’s why the team already have more than enough firepower to keep the ship afloat in Jernigan’s absence.

 

In-house options:

Let’s start with the guys already on the roster. Losing Beau Allen to the Bucs all of a sudden stings that little bit more for the Eagles, but they’re not totally unequipped to deal with the situation. They have put extra emphasis on having a deep defensive line rotation since the arrival of Jim Schwartz and now they will really reap those rewards.

The Eagles have survived games without Jernigan before. They’ve survived games without Cox before. What they could be preparing to endure however is a season where Jernigan returns 6-8 games in and even then, there’s no way of knowing how ready he will be to start forklifting 300 lbs offensive linemen. The question simply becomes ‘can anybody on the Eagles roster step up?’

 

Destiny Vaeao:
The former undrafted free agent actually combined with Beau Allen in his rookie season to play in 60% of defensive snaps. He amassed 15 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble in that time and even when the pressure ramped up on the following offseason, Vaeao beat out the competition to retain his spot as a depth piece in the rotation. He’s played in 27 games as an Eagle so far and has flashed the potential to fill in when needed. Still young enough to grow and marinate behind Fletcher Cox and a rampant defensive front, Vaeao was always going to be a name worth watching, but now he is even more so.

 

Elijah Qualls:
A former teammate of Sidney Jones, Qualls was drafted in the sixth round of last year’s draft, but he was unable to force his way into the rotation. Playing in just six games and amassing 4 tackles, the big-bodied and extremely athletic defensive tackle has the bulky frame required for the position, but didn’t seem able to make any offseason noise, leading to being buried on the depth chart and seeing minimal snaps.

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Haloti Ngata:
The biggest wildcard here is 34-year old veteran, Haloti Ngata. After a serious injury, a prove-it deal saw the former Lion and Raven flock to Philadelphia for one last shot at a long-term deal. A five-time Pro Bowler, Ngata, if healthy could be the perfect short-term replacement for Jernigan until one of the younger players is ready to step up permanently. Why, you ask?

The Eagles allowed an average of just 80 rushing yards per game last year which was the least in the NFL. Their stout run defense was a large reason behind their dominant campaign and it’s only getting better.

Before Ngata’s 2017 injury, the Lions actually gave up an average of just 74.6 yards per game and boasted one of the best run defenses in the NFL. After his injury, the Lions gave up over 100 yards in seven of the final eight contests. It would be safe to say there’s a direct correlation between the Lions production with and without the 6’4, 340 lbs defensive tackle.

Ngata isn’t the most ideal replacement in the long-term, but he at least provides a sense of stability until the team can figure it out, so long as he can stay healthy.

 

Winston Craig:
After trying out for the Eagles having gone undrafted, Craig was offered a contract by the team…and it’s easy to see why. This 6’4, 290 lbs, pass rusher simply exploded in 2016. With 8 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss in his final season alone, leading the team in those categories as well as QB hurries, Craig even added a pick and 3 passes defensed to his tally. A team captain for the Spiders, Craig ended his four-year career at Richmond with a total of 166 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 13.5 sacks and 2 picks.

In preseason for the Eagles, Craig amassed four tackles before being among the final cuts the team made. He was later signed to a contract, bringing him back for a second shot at breaking into the roster.

It’s interesting that Craig completely contrasts the style of Elijah Qualls, the Eagles sixth round pick from 2016. Craig is a tenacious pass rusher, who carries his weight well and is extremely agile, using his long wingspan to his advantage. While the bigger bodied Qualls thrives in plugging holes and run Defense, although he may have a niche under Jim Schwartz.

Craig may be the biggest underdog of all defensive tackles listed, but his leaner frame may just contain enough overlooked explosiveness to thrust him into the picture once preseason starts. Craig will be battling a tough war, but if he can really show up against players such as Isaac Seumalo in training camp, then who knows?

 

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Aziz Shittu:
After losing out to Destiny Vaeao in the 2016 offseason battle, the Birds kept him around on their practice squad and the Stanford alumni once again makes the 90-man roster. CBS Sports once compared the Defensive lineman to Vinny Curry which should tell you all you need to know. The 6’2, 288 pounder ended his final collegiate season with a bang, racking up 3.5 tackles for a loss, eight overall and 1.5 sacks in the Rose Bowl en route to earning Defensive MVP. After suffering a torn ACL in 2014, Shittu bounced back with 56 combined tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.

Shittu will have another opportunity to solidify himself a depth spot on the roster and with more competition than ever, it will be interesting to see how far he’s developed.

 

 

The wildcard:

Jim Schwartz is one of the most adaptable coaches in the league. The reason why this pass rush is so relentless is due to the amount of depth and versatility it possesses. In nickel looks, Schwartz will often play a defensive end inside or trick offensive lines by dropping the tackles back into coverage. There are so many ways for the Eagles to use their vast array of weapons, that’s almost difficult not mention the entire DE rotation as suitable replacements…which leads us to the following.The Eagles responded very quickly in parting ways with cornerback Daryl Worley after his arrest. Michael Bennett, not so much. Bennett still remains on the Eagles roster despite being arrested for the alleged assault of an elderly worker at Super Bowl 51. The whole case is confusing to many, which could be why the Eagles are yet to pull the trigger. If they do keep him around…look out.

Jim Schwartz and his rampant rotation of defensive ends were a nightmare for opposing offenses last year. Their 38 sack total doesn’t really show just how lethal the pass rush was, with pressures and hurries headlining a season of pure dominance. The pressure off the edge now receives a huge boost in Michael Bennett, a veteran pass-rusher who at 6’4, 247 lbs, has been a large reason behind Seattle’s defensive reputation.

Bennett posted up 8.5 sacks and 40 tackles last year, his ninth season in the NFL. The three-time Pro Bowler also tallied 24 quarterback hits despite battling injuries. What makes him so valuable is that he can play either inside, or outside. So in a rotation of Michael Bennett, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, WHO DO YOU BLOCK?! If you have an answer, switch Bennett outside and place Qualls or Vaeao inside. There won’t be much that will stop the Birds’ pass-rush next year.

Even if Bennett isn’t on the roster, a wildcard such as fourth-round pick Josh Sweat could be all the Eagles need to patch over the hole until Jernigan returns.

 

It’s safe to say that the Eagles have plenty of firepower to work with in the absence of Jernigan, especially considering that his return is expected. If the injury was going to end his career, the Eagles would’ve released him. instead, they sought optionality and cap space paired hand-in-hand. They won’t want to commit to another franchise piece if their existing one can still surpass expectations.

It’s perfectly viable that the Eagles seek a long-term replacement for Jernigan. Building through the trenches has become such a fundamental building block for this team that it seems absurd that they’d stop it now. After having both DT spots ticked off for at least four years, it’s unlikely they hit the panic button and sign a free agent to a long-term deal…although they seek trade options and ‘prove-it’ contracts to pave them over until the Draft…but that’s for another article.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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