Free agency kicks off in a little under two weeks and the wheels are already in motion for the Philadelphia Eagles. Jason Peters has been handed his fate, while reports of the team’s interest in names like Byron Jones continue to snowball. But among the 20 pending free agents from last year’s team, there are three that nobody is discussing whose return should be considered a priority.
This should be obvious. For some reason, the Eagles were able to extend both Jake Elliott and Rick Lovato during the heart of the season, but their star punter remained unaccounted for and is now set to hit free agency. Whenever the Eagles offense sputtered to a grinding halt, it was Johnston’s iron leg that at least negated what would’ve been promising field position.
It’s a real shame that the Aussie doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Through the weeks where the defense was dragging a dying offense back into games, it was Johnston who was giving Schwartz and his men a realistic chance to do so.
Johnston ranked inside the top 15 of just about every metric possible in 2019, with his average of 46.4 yards per punt ranking him 9th in the NFL. At one point, he was actually over the 50 mark. 28 of his 71 punts landed inside the opponents 20.
In fact, his two seasons with the Eagles have been more than just impressive. With a net punting average of both 42.7 (2018) and 42.3 (2019) both ranking inside the top 30 net single-season averages of all time.
Johnston is a restricted free agent which should make this decision a little easier, with the Eagles needing to place a tender on him to retain his services.
For me, the acquisition of Ridgeway in exchange for a 7th-round pick was one of the offseason steals for the Eagles. The now-25-year old DT was originally a fourth-round selection back in 2016 and since then, had played in 34 games (starting 6), notching 41 tackles, 6 TFL, 4.5 sacks and one pass defensed. In 2018, he only played in 6% of snaps, tallying 6 tackles. But he appeared in five games that year and also had 3 tackles, 1 TFL and 0.5 sacks in the Colts short playoff run.
Some attributed his lack of usage to being drafted into the wrong scheme, but all it took was a quick glance at the tape to see just how high his ceiling really is.
In two weeks for the Eagles, Ridgeway played in 55 defensive snaps. 36% in week one and 47% in week 2, as well as a third of special teams opportunities. With Malik Jackson and Timmy Jernigan both suffering injuries, his role would increase and his production would follow suit.
With 2 sacks and 6 tackles in 3 weeks, Jackson was firing on all cylinders until the inevitable injury bug found its way to the bright young talent.
One week after the best game of his career as an Eagle, Hassan Ridgeway was placed on injury reserve. He notched 2 sacks, 4 QB hits, and 4 tackles for a loss in his short stint replacing the DT’s above him on the roster and flashed plenty of upside in the process.
Ridgeway is still young, is bound to be cheap and clearly has a lot of unharnessed potential. With a new Defensive Line coach in town and a total lack of depth, this move makes too much sense.
As a player, Howard is a little less under-the-radar, but in a free agency class with names like Nigel Bradham Jason Peters, and Rodney McLeod, it’s easy to overlook his impressive 2019 campaign thanks to a confusing ending and the emergence of Miles Sanders.
Through the opening nine weeks of the season, Howard would carry the ball 119 times for 525 yards, amassing his highest yards per carry since 2017. Prior to the injury he was on track to set a new career-high in touchdowns and recorded a memorable hat-trick against the Packers. His dominant north-south skillset was the perfect fit for Pederson’s offense, with his decisive running and nasty mentality proving to be too much for opposing defenses, complimenting the more elusive and versatile Miles Sanders, who was developing in the shadows.
The Eagles do face some questions now. Sanders had an electric rookie campaign, but there’s no doubt that the thunder/lightning combination worked wonders and aided his development. Corey Clement is also a free agent and that would leave only Boston Scott and Elijah Holyfield to backup their prized second-round pick.
The injury that Howard sustained may lead to a quieter market than if he had recorded yet another impressive full-season, a cheaper contract, and a return home for number 24.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke)