Sean Desai provides an update on the current state of the Eagles’ defense

CHICAGO, IL – AUGUST 21: Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai looks on during a preseason game between the Chicago Bears and the Buffalo Bills on August 21, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

There is an uncomfortable narrative surrounding the rebuilt Philadelphia Eagles’ defense under defensive coordinator Sean Desai. The elite talent is there, oozing out of nearly every orifice on the depth chart, but learning and adapting to a new system is hard work. What slowly burns in September won’t be the same as what rises from the ashes in December.

Heck, left tackle Jordan Mailata put it on record that the defense was still trying to figure out their DNA. His comments weren’t supposed to serve as any kind of knock on the unit. That’s just the way things go when a team has to replace two coordinators following a Super Bowl run. Sean Desai is slowly laying down his blueprint, but it takes time, and training camp is the perfect incubator.

“From my end, obviously you build on the experiences that you’ve had, you try to build the defense,” Desai told reporters on August 20. “You have to not recreate — I guess ‘recreate’ is the word — or redefine, reestablish your identity as a defense every year. I’ve learned that from some of the great coaches I’ve worked for.”

Sean Desai Updates Positional Battles at Training Camp

The Eagles don’t have a ton of position battles raging at camp, but safety and linebacker are the two major ones. The summer started with Nakobe Dean and Nicholas Morrow taking the brunt of the first-team reps, with Christian Elliss rotating in alongside Dean. The latter has one spot locked up by a mile. Dean recovered from a bone-headed unsportsmanlike penalty against Baltimore by forcing a fumble with a text-book punch out a few plays later. 

The other? Well, the new contender in the clubhouse is free-agent signing Zach Cunningham who started in last week’s preseason game. Cunningham (7 tackles, 1 for loss vs. Cleveland) has quickly emerged as the new favorite, especially after Myles Jack announced his retirement.

“The next step for him is go get the picks, and not the takeaways,” Sean Desai said of Cunningham. “We keep growing in that process. That’s for all those guys. All those guys are getting their hands on balls in different spots because they’re doing what’s asked of them within the defense and focusing on their techniques.”

Competition at Safety: Sydney Brown Shining

Pencil in Reed Blankenship as one of the starting safeties. The second-year player didn’t even suit up in the second preseason game. Rookie Sydney Brown has been getting more and more first-team reps as camp drags on, especially with Terrell Edmunds struggling in coverage. Brown seems primed to be the Week 1 starter following a string of eye-opening practices, plus a monstrous game against Baltimore. K’Von Wallace remains in the mix at safety, too.

When asked about the safety position, Sean Desai mentioned shuffling guys in and out based on matchups. He didn’t sound intent on naming two starters and sticking with them for four quarters.

“I think the biggest thing for us is we’re always going to be open-minded to try to find the best matchups for our guys,” Sean Desai said. “We’re kind of always preaching that, and always preaching the versatility and adaptability of our scheme and players to their traits. That accounts for how we roll those guys.”

Backup Nickel Cornerback Up for Grabs

LOUISVILLE, KY – NOVEMBER 06: Clemson Tigers cornerback Mario Goodrich (31) lines up for a play during the college football game between the Clemson Tigers and the Louisville Cardinals on November 6, 2021, at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire)

The backup nickel job behind Avonte Maddox is up for grabs following a season-ending Achilles injury to Zech McPhearson. It kind of was already with McPhearson seeing a lot of outside looks in the preseason. Josiah Scott and Mario Goodrich got the majority of snaps (or, at least, the most memorable ones) in the slot against Cleveland. Goodrich looks like he has the inside track based on performance, but Sean Desai wouldn’t name names.

“I think when things happen, there’s opportunities that come out of that. These other guys need to step up and take ownership of those roles,” Sean Desai said. “We’ve been doing a good job in that same position group to keep rolling guys and getting different guys different looks and matchups there to help us evaluate and get that experience. I think that will continue to go that way.”

Praise for Early DROY Candidate Jalen Carter

Eagles jalen carter
Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) waves to the crowd before the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game between Georgia and TCU, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, projected as one of the top players in next month’s NFL draft, has been charged with reckless driving and racing in conjunction with the crash that killed offensive lineman Devin Willock and a recruiting staff member.(AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

It doesn’t take a genius to see that Jalen Carter is destined to be a star in the NFL. He arm-clubbed his way into the backfield on his very first snap the other night and nearly recorded a sack. It was a powerful rep that drews oohs and ahhs from everyone in the broadcast booth and watching at home. The rookie first-rounder looks very comfortable in his new digs.

“I just think he keeps growing and taking steady, incremental steps to keep growing and developing as a player and as a person,” Sean Desai said. “Coach [Tracy] Rocker is doing a tremendous job developing that way. We’re continuing to stay on him with the details. He knows that he’s got to keep refining those. I think he’s taking ownership of that and he’s growing.”

Ditto for fellow first-rounder Nolan Smith who looked unstoppable in the second preseason game versus Cleveland. He is like a shot of Red Bull coming off the edge.

“He’s developing. He’s really trying to work on his craft,” Sean Desai said of Smith. “Coach [Jeremiah] Washburn is doing a tremendous job of focusing him in on the things he needs to focus on. He plays with a relentless mindset and relentless attitude.”

Don’t look now but Carter and Smith are drawing early hype for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Depending on how many snaps they see — and it stands to be a considerable amount — watch out.

Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire