The Philadelphia Eagles have prioritized the defensive line as a premium building block for success dating back to the days of Reggie White and Jerome Brown. The significant investment of resources reached its pinnacle in 2017 when an overwhelmingly deep cast made up arguably the best position group on the team during the most successful season in franchise history.
Bill Belichick put it best ahead of Super Bowl LII when asked about drawing up a game plan to face Philadelphia’s front four. “It’s a lot more than four. I wish it was four. It’s about eight, nine,” he told the media.
Howie Roseman prioritizes backup defensive linemen more than certain starting positions because of the need for an effective rotation up front. He followed the same blueprint that worked in 2017 to construct the 2022 roster.
How does this year’s unit stack up against the fearsome defensive line that helped lead the Eagles to hoist the Lombardi Trophy five years ago?
Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett (2017) vs. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett (2022)
Two obvious layovers still hold status as the leaders of the defensive line, but the Eagles shouldn’t expect Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham to play at the level they did in 2017.
Cox went through a five-year stretch from 2014-2018 when he was in the conversation as a potential All-Pro defensive tackle (DT) every season. At 31 years old, he isn’t the same player. However, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon should expect more from Cox in 2022 than he showed during the first half of 2021.
Graham will face the daunting challenge of returning from a ruptured Achilles at age 34. He played at a high level as an edge rusher in his most recent extended action, earning his first career Pro Bowl nod in 2020.
The Eagles surprisingly retained defensive end (DE) Derek Barnett this offseason. The former first-round pick has yet to break out in five NFL seasons, but duplicating his total of five sacks during his rookie season in 2017 is a realistic expectation for him in a rotational role in 2022. He could provide an x-factor by playing with an edge if he’s able to maintain discipline, something he struggled with during the worst season of his career in 2021.
Verdict: 2017 versions of Cox, Graham, Barnett
Javon Hargrave vs. Tim Jernigan
The 2017 Eagles finished first in the NFL in run defense because of their ability to re-establish the line of scrimmage with a push from the interior and prevent rushers from ever getting into space to make plays.
The addition of DT Tim Jernigan provided the line with a formidable partner for Cox and created matchup nightmares for opposing offenses. The Eagles continually forced teams to abandon the run with complementary football and perfectly executed game plans during their nine-game winning streak from late September into early December.
Javon Hargrave dealt with injuries in 2020, his first year in Philadelphia after signing a handsome deal in free agency. He broke out in a big way to begin the 2021 season with six sacks in the first five games. His strength as a pass rusher maxed out early, but he still played at a high enough level to earn his first career Pro Bowl selection.
The presence of Jernigan had such a cumulative effect on opponents’ game plans that it’s tough to give Hargrave the edge. However, if the “Grave Digger” can regain his outstanding form from early in 2021 as a pass rusher and a run defender, he could very well have a better standout performance than Jernigan.
Verdict: Slight edge to Jernigan
Josh Sweat vs. Chris Long
Josh Sweat finished the 2021 season with a career-best 7.5 sacks. His three-year, $40 million contract extension last year removed the comfort zone of low pressure for a former fourth-round pick. He showed that he could play an effective role in 60-70% of snaps per game, and the organization hopes that progress can continue.
Chris Long became one of the best free-agent signings Howie Roseman ever made. His veteran presence as a former champion contributed immensely to the overwhelming force of the defensive front in 2017. His five sacks don’t do his season justice because of his knack for turning point plays.
Against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14, his strip-sack of Jared Goff put the Eagles in position to kick a go-ahead field goal and survive a whirlwind of emotions from a devastating injury to Carson Wentz. His subtle swipe of Case Keenum’s arm in the NFC Championship Game led to one of the most important plays in franchise history when Patrick Robinson intercepted the resulting errant pass and returned it for a touchdown.
A less-seasoned Eagles team will need players like Sweat to exceed their expectations like Long did in 2017 if they hope to recreate the unit’s force. Roseman might’ve found another gem in Sweat, who has the potential to become a heart and soul player for the franchise.
Jordan Davis vs. Beau Allen
The Eagles found an effective rotational player in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft in Beau Allen. His peak came in 2017 when he contributed to the unit’s incredible rhythm as a run-stuffer who could clog the middle in specialized packages.
Jordan Davis comes to Philadelphia with outstanding size and power. The 6-foot-6, 340-pound mammoth will likely begin the 2022 season in a role comparable to Allen’s in 2017. However, he has a considerably higher ceiling for success than Allen ever did. He can and should earn more playing time as the 2022 season progresses.
Milton Williams vs. Destiny Vaeao
Seven Eagles actually dominated the snap counts in what Belichick called a front eight or nine. Destiny Vaeao, however, did contribute more than you might remember once he earned the right to dress consistently on game days beginning in Week 7.
Milton Williams, like Davis, however, simply has a higher ceiling. He showed flashes of excellence last season, and the 2021 third-round pick could take a major step forward in his second year.
Tarron Jackson vs. Vinny Curry
New Jersey native Vinny Curry quietly started every regular-season game and all three playoff games for the 2017 Eagles. He only recorded three sacks with comparable snap counts to Long. His contributions will likely outweigh those of Tarron Jackson, who isn’t currently high on the depth chart and would likely only see opportunities if injuries affect the unit.
The Eagles also currently have Matt Leo, Marvin Wilson, Renell Wren, Marlon Tuipulotu, and Noah Elliss as active defensive linemen on their roster.
Recreating the Force of 2017
Perhaps the biggest wild card in measuring the two defenses against one another is free-agent addition Haason Reddick. Gannon will likely use a hybrid of a 3-4 scheme and a traditional 4-3 scheme and create opportunities for Reddick to rush the passer in ways that no linebackers on the 2017 Eagles could. The differing packages could also allow for varying roles for players who have previously been identified as DEs or DTs.
The 2022 Eagles might not have the strength of a starting interior like Cox and Jernigan provided in 2017, but reserves Jordan Davis and Milton Williams provide better depth than the Super Bowl LII champs had. The pass rush will be the true key to the unit’s success and one of the biggest factors in the upcoming Eagles season.
Can a defense that finished 31st in the NFL in sacks last year rebound to live up to the expectations of an expensive payroll and disrupt opposing quarterbacks the way they’re supposed to? Steps forward from Sweat and maintained strong performances from Hargrave and Graham will certainly be crucial, and Reddick could breathe life into a previously passive defense.
The strength of the unit scrutinized so heavily by the front office will decide how effectively the Eagles can regain their defensive identity in 2022.
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