The Eagles’ defense learned the hard way that veteran additions aren’t always the answer. While Jackson’s season was cut short due to injury, Brown and Sendejo were released in eye-opening fashion.
This offseason, the Eagles (hopefully) will learn from last year’s mistakes and do a better job of equipping the defensive depth chart with talented players who fit their culture, both in free agency and the draft.
With several notable incumbent defensive players set to hit the open market in free agency, the unit could look very different in 2020, as the Eagles attempt to fill the holes on their roster.
Here are our 2020 projections for the Eagles’ defensive depth chart …
DEFENSIVE END: Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, Joe Ostman/Shareef Miller/Genard Avery, Day 2 rookie
Graham and Barnett will be the starters at the defensive end position next year. The Eagles will probably pick up Barnett’s fifth-year option in May, despite his multiple injury issues over the past two years. Graham is locked up for the next two years on the contract he signed last offseason.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Do the Eagles want to keep Vinny Curry? The veteran defensive end had a bit of a career renaissance in the second half of the season and finished third on the team with five sacks. He will turn 32 in June but he’s only been a full-time starter for one season of his career, so he’s lightly used for his age. That said, Josh Sweat produced at a fairly similar level this past season and he looks like a player who could develop into a key asset for the pass-rushing rotation next year.
The fourth spot, if Curry doesn’t return, will probably feature a battle between Ostman, Miller and Avery. The Eagles have invested fourth-round picks in both Miller and Avery. The latter was acquired in a trade with the Browns for a 2021 fourth-round pick.
The Eagles also need to take another bite of the apple on Day 2 of the draft to put pressure on Avery, Ostman, Miller and Daeshon Hall.
While the Eagles should consider investing in a veteran defensive end in free agency, the current group doesn’t feature a ton of upgrades. Players like Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney and Arik Armstead are likely to be franchise-tagged by their current squads.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, Day 2 rookie, Hassan Ridgeway, Anthony Rush
The Eagles went into 2019 thinking that the duo of Cox and Jackson could tear up the NFC East. Instead, Jackson tore up ligaments in his foot in Week 1 and was done for the season. Yikes!
That said, Jackson should be fully recovered from his Lisfranc injury by OTAs, and the duo can then reunite to become a dynamic tandem. Still, the defensive tackle rotation is at its best when it has 4-5 moving parts. The Eagles value the defensive line and should invest a second- or third-round pick on a new interior pass rusher, preferably a three-technique.
Re-signing Ridgeway, an impending free agent, seems like a no-brainer for both sides. A one-year deal would allow Ridgeway to bounce back from his season-ending foot injury and provide the line with further depth. The Eagles seem to really like Rush a lot, as he stood out as a run-defender during a notable amount of snaps in the second half of the season.
Timmy Jernigan, who has been with the Eagles for three seasons, is likely to walk in free agency. He’s expensive and dealt with two notable injuries over the past two years.
LINEBACKER: Nathan Gerry (WILL), T.J. Edwards (MIKE), A.J. Klein (SAM, free agent), Duke Riley, Alex Singleton
The Eagles need to get younger on defense and the linebacker position will probably be the root of the youth movement.
The Eagles aren’t likely to pick up Nigel Bradham’s contract option. Edwards, a former undrafted rookie, will probably land the middle linebacker job, barring any unforeseen change of heart with the value of the position. Edwards played the run very well in his rookie season, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does with a larger workload. It’s also worth noting Edwards led the team in special teams tackles this past season.
The team likes Gerry’s intelligence and speed. The coaches probably feel good about him as a starter on the outside next year.
Klein is better than the Eagles’ typical cheap veteran signing at linebacker. He has been a three-year starter for the New Orleans Saints at SAM linebacker and played well. He will be the veteran replacement for Bradham at the linebacker position.
Riley and Singleton will compete for sub-package playing time, but will mostly be used on special teams. As stated in our free agency projection, Kamu Grugier-Hill is likely to look for work elsewhere after a strange, injury-riddled season.
CORNERBACK: Byron Jones (free agent), Jalen Mills, Avonte Maddox, Sidney Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Craig James
If the Eagles want to spend money on the defense this year, Jones should be their top target.
The Dallas Cowboys cornerback fits Jim Schwartz’s desire for a hard-nosed cornerback who can tackle. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound cornerback would fill the Eagles’ biggest need on defense, as he has good size and speed at the position.
While the Eagles’ history of success (or lack thereof) with NFC East leftovers is concerning, Jones would be receiving a big deal after walking away from Dallas due to the Cowboys’ ill-advised use of salary cap space.
Even with the addition of a top cornerback in free agency or the draft, the Eagles will probably re-sign Mills. The former seventh-round pick is seemingly adored by the coaching staff and the front office. Coming off an injury-plagued campaign, the Eagles may be able to re-sign Mills for quality No. 2 cornerback money. With Zack Rosenblatt already using the Eagles’ first-round pick on a talented wide receiver, the team sets the foundation at cornerback with two long-term deals.
With Jones and Mills starting on the outside, the cornerback group is crowded. The Eagles will probably let Ronald Darby walk after three injury-filled campaigns. The team should also look to trade one of its 2017 Day 2 picks.
Sidney Jones told reporters that he wanted to return to the organization on Monday. Rasul Douglas seems to be the one guy that the coaching staff and the front office can’t seem to agree on wholeheartedly, as he started in Week 17 but was then benched for the playoffs. He seems like a logical trade chip. A fifth-round pick would probably get the deal done.
Maddox had an up-and-down second season but still showed enough promise to stick around. LeBlanc was fantastic during the final two games of the campaign, and he will battle Maddox for the starting nickel job in camp. James seems to be a keeper on special teams as well. Though, the third-year player will need to compete for a job in camp.
SAFETY: Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Day 2 rookie, Marcus Epps/Rudy Ford
Jenkins should receive a short-term extension at some point, while McLeod may need to settle for a short-term deal as well after an up-and-down campaign. All that said, the Eagles need to target a young safety to eventually replace Jenkins or McLeod in the years to come.
Epps and Ford will be battling for the fourth spot in training camp.
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