If we cast our minds back to the iconic 2017 season, the Philadelphia Eagles were a very different team to the one that was fielded in 2020. While there were many reasons for this, one of the biggest differences was the drop in interior defensive line depth & production. In 2021, that trend seems to be reversing.
The mainstay of the position is still Fletcher Cox, who recently took a pay cut to help the team, but the past few seasons have been difficult for him to cause as much disruption as we’re used to seeing. Some of this could be due to the fact he’s not getting any younger, but it’s not like he’s mad much stability in terms of a running-mate or much in the way of depth behind him.
Back in 2017, Beau Allen played a whopping 41% of defensive snaps, despite being a DT3, while Destiny Vaeao factored in over 22%. Since then, the Eagles have struggled to build a reliable four-man rotation.
Timmy Jernigan battled injuries during his bumpy tenure with the Eagles, Malik Jackson was given a hefty deal only to be shipped out one year later, and the team were leaning on the development of UDFA’s and underdogs behind that just didn’t really ever happen, meaning that Cox had to do all the heavy lifting inside.
After playing in 59% of snaps in 2017, he was made to play in 80% one year later. That number hovered around 75% over the next two years. It’s only been one week, but Cox only had to play in 57% of snaps in the season opener.
This was largely due to the strength of depth that the Eagles now have inside. Javon Hargrave was made the highest-paid nose tackle in the NFL by the Eagles last year and got off to a very slow start. Malik Jackson struggled to find a rhythm after missing the entire 2019 season. Hassan Ridgeway ended up suffering a season-ending injury, and the depth behind the trio was lacklustre at best.
This time around, things are different. Javon Hargrave caused absolute chaos alongside Cox against the Falcons and was able to sack Matt Ryan twice. Hassan Ridgeway carved his own slice of the cake by sacking Ryan and forcing an intentional grounding call. The duo looked dominant on Sunday, giving Cox fewer snaps, meaning in the ones he did play, he was also able to disrupt the passer just as much.
The wildcard here is rookie Milton Williams, who also got amongst the action on Sunday and proved to be just as elusive as he looked in the preseason, His versatility gives the position a real ace up its sleeve and it’s bound to be one that’s used frequently this season.
It’s early days, but if the Eagles can keep Cox fresh and continue to get this much production from the depth behind him, then there’s every chance that this becomes the strongest DT group that the team has seen since it went all the way to the promised land in 2017.
Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire