It’s a little frightening just how much fear that word strikes into the hearts of Eagles fans around the Draft window. The position is lighter than ever after the team allowed Nigel Bradham and Kamu Grugier-Hill to wade into free agency waters.
Outside of Nate Gerry, the entire group combined for 184 total defensive snaps. The likes of T.J Edwards, Alex Singleton, and Duke Riley, honed their craft on special teams and while they may be ready to take a step up, anybody could see that a group lacking so much in tackling consistency could really do with a few extra bodies, let alone a unit now missing 2/3 of its starting trio, and all 3 from the group that started the season.
But what if the Eagles have some kind of masterplan?
The Eagles made three very interesting moves during free agency at the Safety position. After letting Malcolm Jenkins go, the team brought back Jalen Mills and Rodney McLeod, before signing Will Parks to their roster. When you dig a little deeper, you begin to notice a pattern.
After an ACL tear ripped a very promising 2018 away from him, McLeod bounced back one year later with a more versatile role than we’re used to seeing. He’d flirted with box-play before, but 2019 saw far more of McLeod playing down near the Line of Scrimmage as opposed to a pure center-fielder.
The Eagles also brought back former seventh-round pick Jalen Mills, who has been one of the team’s team’s starting cornerbacks since 2016. In 2019, he’ll be moving to Safety. Mills does have experience at the position from his LSU days, but that doesn’t mean it will be a seamless transition. However, there’s one game that springs to mind…
Mills played all over the field against the Patriots and that performance gave Schwartz the confidence to move him up to Safety and potentially pick up where Malcolm Jenkins left off.
This is by far the most intriguing move. Parks is as versatile as they come. He spent 211 of his 537 snaps last year playing at nickel cornerback, but even more impressively, he manned linebacker spots and played run defense incredibly well.
Having a trio of defensive backs who all possess the ability to play down inside the box will not only lift the weight off the position as a whole, but also play into some bigger picture thinking.
Think about it…
The Eagles have progressively fielded more and more nickel/dime/big-nickel packages as the years have gone on and Malcolm Jenkins has been a focal point of it. Losing him is a tremendous blow in every sense of the word, but Howie has been known as a forward-thinking GM for quite some time and I don’t think that these moves are coincidental.
Think about it. Which teams would the Eagles likely face in the Super Bowl or even NFC playoffs? Kansas City, San Fransisco? Seattle? New Orleans?
All of those teams have one thing in common: Speed…and lots of it.
Swings, screens, sweeps and play-action help keep defenses honest and open the floodgates for some of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL.
In the 2018 wildcard game, the Chargers fielded seven-DB sets frequently in an attempt to stop Lamar Jackson and whatever wizardry Baltimore were cooking up. In fact, that entire year, they played more than half of their snaps in dime packages. Why is this important? They play the Chiefs twice a year, got blown out by the Saints, lost to the Rams, and beat the Seahawks.
Base defense in the modern game consists of a five-man secondary. That third linebacker is rarely seeing the field and in the case of the Eagles, if you can substitute a second linebacker with a versatile DB, why wouldn’t you? It’s about noticing the trends and getting ahead of the curve. Think of RPO’s and dynamic playmakers like Steph Curry and the three-point shot. The rest of the league has to play catch-up one way or another.
The Eagles schedule in 2020?
San Francisco 49ers
New York Giants Giants x2 (Hey Saquon)
Los Angeles Rams
Noticing a pattern?
The Eagles know that with a deficiency at the linebacker spot, it makes little to no sense spending a huge asset to upgrade it when the modern game is demanding less and less of the position. Considering that 2020 will see the Eagles face off against every lethally fast offense imaginable, it only makes sense to double-down on DB’s and disguise looks. They tried that with Nigel Bradham last year, bringing him into the B-Gap only to drop him into coverage, and it worked to some extent…but it would be salivating with Will Parks.
The missing piece…
Let’s not forget the man who is now the defensive run-game coordiantor and DL coach for the Eagles, Matt Burke. His appointment was mystifying at the best of times and his inclusion last year as a parrot on the shoulder of his old mentor Jim Schwartz didn’t make a lot of sense…until it did.
His season in Miami as defensive coordinator may have been atrocious, but one of his biggest criticisms from media and fans alike was the mismanagement of all-star Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was used…literally everywhere without a real spot to call home.
It didn’t work out too badly for the now-Steelers Savant, but that, along with general coordinating incompetence cost Burke his job. Is it a coincidence that the Eagles are now focusing on hybrid players and have appointed a player who coached Minkah to a better 11-game season than a 16-game season between two teams in 2019?
Burke may well be the missing piece of the puzzle to not only negate the loss of Malcolm Jenkins, but also the void at linebacker.
Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports