I want to take you back to 2017. Prior to the NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles opted to make a trade with the Baltimore Ravens, bringing in a defensive tackle by the name of Timmy Jernigan. The idea? To replace Bennie Logan with a run-stopper with an incredibly high ceiling who can play his way to a new deal.
Jernigan had it all and looked to be the perfect accompaniment to Fletcher Cox. With 14 sacks in three years for the Ravens, it was clear that the former Florida State run-stopper had already proved himself in the NFL and established a firm reputation. After a year where Logan only played in 45% of defensive snaps and the rest were filled by Destiny Vaeao and Beau Allen, Cox struggled to handle the double teams and newly found attention that his recent breakout brought with it. Jernigan would go a long way in taking the chains off the beast and letting him run rampant.
He ended his first year in Philly with 29 tackles but burst out of the gate early. Through nine games, he had 10 QB hurries, 5 QB hits and 1.5 sacks. An ankle injury looked to slow his progress, but it didn’t stop him from being one of the team’s biggest defensive standouts. As Jernigan wreaked havoc inside, the rest of the defensive line, Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox included, feasted. It was that stellar play that led the Eagles to sign him to a huge $48M contract. All of a sudden, the Eagles had one of the most ferocious DT pairings in the NFL and they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But then, disaster struck. It was announced that Jernigan suffered a herniated disc that would require surgery, keeping him out of action for the first half of the season at the very least. This was a worst-case scenario for Howie Roseman, who had just invested a considerable amount into the future of his defensive line. More importantly, it was a worst-case scenario for the Eagles defense.
The team scampered and brought in veteran free agent Haloti Ngata, but as predicted, the rubber on the Tires is fading fast. Losing Beau Allen to free agency, the Eagles insisted on using players such as Bruce Hector, Destiny Vaeao and Treyvon Hester, who have all rotated on and off the field as they have on and off the roster. The scary part however is that the Eagles defense hasn’t really, dare I say it, missed Jernigan as much as many suspected.
Through eight weeks, the Eagles have surrendered just 670 yards on the ground and four leading rushers against the Birds have been quarterbacks. You could attribute some of their run defense dominance last year to the fact that teams can’t really run the ball when down by 10 points or more, a frequent scenario. But to see that level of assertion remain in a drastically different scenario is extremely surprising.
“Everybody has got a job to do in the scheme. I think that’s — and our guys take a lot of pride in stopping the run. Honestly, our biggest thing in stopping the run the last few weeks has not been run game, it’s been quarterbacks.” Jim Schwartz told reporters on Monday. “That’s the bulk of our rushing yards the last couple weeks from [Panthers QB] Cam Newton and [Jaguars QB Blake] Bortles have been quarterback scrambles…
…But our guys take a lot of pride in it. They understand that their ability to rush and things like that depend on stopping the run.”
The lone criticism on the defensive line actually has very little to do with them. Offenses are trying to get the ball out faster in order to negate the lightning pressure that fries the offensive line so quickly while also taking advantage of the ‘off-coverage’ Schwartz deploys. Pass defense, as you can probably guess, is a very different discussion. But Fletcher Cox somehow already has 4 sacks on the season, just 1.5 less than in his lone campaign with Jernigan. He also led the NFL in QB hits going into the game against Jacksonville with 15. The Eagles are also getting a lot of production from their veteran edge-rushers in Chris Long and Michael Bennett.
That brings me onto my next point. Michael Bennett’s ability to flex inside and play defensive tackle has been an absolute lifesaver for Jim Schwartz and the Eagles defense. Bennett has been on a tear in recent weeks, with at least 0.5 sacks in each of his last 3 games and a huge 6 tackle outing against the Giants.
The whole ‘blame game’ between offense and defense after the loss to Carolina went back and forth, but the front fours ability to pressure the QB was never questioned, nor was their stout run defense. It’s safe to say the unit has survived without Jernigan and that’s only going to make life harder given the situation.
After the injury, the Eagles smartly restructured his deal. The final 3 years of his deal are now option years, with the defensive tackle set to make $11M in 2019, and $12M in each of the next two years. He was scheduled to make that anyway, only now, none of that money is guaranteed.
The Eagles clearly still want Jernigan around and restructuring his deal to give them more optionality was of mutual interest. With the Eagles able to pull the plug at any point after this offseason, Jernigan has to hit the ground running when he does eventually return, but even that’s a tall order.
The practices he’s been cleared for are ‘walkthroughs’ and it’s going to be a while until he starts thumping and trying to shed blocks at full strength on the scout team, let alone an angry offensive lineman in the midst of a playoff push.
This may well be a bigger ‘prove it’ year than when Jernigan first joined the Eagles…because if he can’t rekindle that form, it’s not as if the defense has totally collapsed in his absence. What was regarded as a cornerstone contract just a few short months ago now has some dark clouds looming and whether or not that Storm will fall completely depends on how Jernigan does fare when back on the field.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports