With much of the focus being on the new-look Eagles offense, Philadelphia quietly has some exciting football brewing on the other side of the ball. Jonathan Gannon‘s avante garde approach to defense has been writing on the wall for the NFL for years — moving towards a more positionless perspective of what defenses can deploy. Without really trying to, the Eagles front office has built an exciting group of versatile young talent that will fit seamlessly into the new scheme. Couple that with a coaching staff that seems hell-bent on catering their playbook to the talent of their roster, there are a ton of tantalizing candidates for most improved player in 2021.
From interviews and coaching history, it’s very obvious that Gannon will place a premium on a few key traits: versatility being by and far at the core. That trait will be front and center in two facets — having the football IQ to play multiple schemes, disguise coverage and know your responsibilities, and having the physical skill set to carry out that assignment. I see the first characteristic on that list being the vital component as a good coaching staff can work around most physical limitations. Gannon has also drilled home the need for high effort players, which again, the Eagles have in droves.
Based these characteristics, who is in a position to benefit the most?
High IQ, scheme versatility and swagger all fit Avonte Maddox to a tee, but finding a place for him on this defense is the real hurdle. If it were up to me, Maddox would move into the slot full-time. However, I don’t know that throwing Zech McPherson or any of the other young corners on the roster into the CB2 role makes this a better team for Week 1. If young talent can facilitate Avonte’s move into the slot, I think be could really see a rise in production. He doesn’t have the length to be a major disrupter, but he covers a lot of space for a man his size. He’s a fearless tackler and his IQ would lend well to the position. With more disguises and trickery on the docket, I think his quick twitch and decent ball skills could translate to an uptick in turnovers.
However, on the outside — I just don’t see the same opportunity. It’s really a match-up game and I’m not sure how he will fare against the bigger WRs he may face. Regardless, being in a defense that is more than willing to give safety help will certainly be a boon.
I should preface this by saying I don’t think the change in defense will be a huge boost for any of the Eagles defensive linemen. That has nothing to do with Gannon’s secondary friendly approach — more to do with Jim Schwartz’ DL first mindset. Nevertheless, better coverage will certainly benefit the front end of this defense. In addition to the uptick in production we expect out of Sweat just predicated on talent and work ethic, I can see him being the defensive lineman that capitalizes most on the possibility of stand-up rushing. As talented as the defensive end group is, they do lack in length. Josh has length and then some to add to a quick first step and a lethal speed to power move.
With motor and effort being the baseline trait for Eagles’ defensive ends for years, each and every player will benefit from the possibility of increased “coverage sacks“. It will help turn those inflated QB pressure stats into sacks. However, with more gap responsibility and discipline required for this defense — instead Schwartz’ go-gettem’ m.o. — there will be less of an opportunity to win outright. That doesn’t necessarily mean less sacks, but on the outset I don’t see a major jump in D-Line numbers for the Eagles.
The Third Linebacker
Behind Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton, there is a clear opportunity for whoever may be the third linebacker in the rotation. It’s possible that either of those two could see their playing time cut into if any of the depth options show promise early in the season. I think the main kink to iron out is whether or not Alex Singleton is a more natural fit on the strong side or the weak side. The other factor that could play a role is whether Wilson stays at MLB in dime and nickel packages, or bumps over to the weak side.
My gut tells me T.J. Edwards is the third best linebacker on the roster. He’s a natural MLB, but his headiness and natural feel for the football would translate well to the weak side. However, Edwards was in on 58% of snaps last season and it’s hard to say that that number will see a major jump in 2021. He’s still the most likely candidate for MLB of the future — and I’m certain the Eagles want to see what he can do in his contract season — but Eric Wilson’s addition throws a bit of a wrench into that plan. It will depend on Gannon’s penchant for speed at the position and how quickly the other two candidates can develop. Alternatively, if Wilson moves to WILL in two linebacker sets, T.J. is a no-brainer to fill the middle of the defense.
My heart tells me that this coaching staff really wants to see what Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley can do. I am a huge fan of what Taylor can eventually bring to this roster, but I imagine that Bradley has the inside track for playing time this season. Davion’s length will lend better to the strong side than his draft-mate, but his inexperience could gum up his development in what figures to be a much more diverse playbook than what Jim Schwartz ran last season. A lot of early predictions have Bradley as the third ‘backer in line for playing time, which could very well be the case. Nevertheless, I do believe that T.J. Edwards is a better football player at this stage of their careers.
Whoever it may be, there is a massive opportunity to earn some playing time as the third LB on this roster. It will likely be a combination of all three options, but I imagine that one player will eventually earn the role. It will be an exciting competition to watch throughout the season.
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