The Defensive Line
This is the fundamental foundation of the Philadelphia Eagles’ identity. It is the core of the team building philosophy. They have invested significant money in superstar veteran Fletcher Cox, running mate Javon Hargrave and young budding talent edge Josh Sweat.
The Eagles pride themselves on rotational fortitude within their defensive line. They invested a third-round pick in 2020 on Milton Williams, an interior lineman from Louisiana Tech. Despite drafting him on Day Two, he played 41% of snaps and showed real flashes of solid play. Hassan Ridgeway did the same in his opportunities, creating a four-man solid rotation at defensive tackle.
The Eagles invested significant money and draft capital in the trenches, and it was a large part of their overachievement in 2021.
The Eagles are very deep at defensive tackle entering the 2022 NFL offseason. The interior is anchored by superstar veteran Fletcher Cox. The six-time Pro-Bowler had a down year last season, but he was still a handful for opposing offensive lines. He started alongside Javon Hargrave, who raced out to a six-sack start in the team’s first five games last season. Look for the two veterans to be back collapsing pockets and stuffing the run in 2022.
Furthermore, the depth of this group is seriously impressive. Third-round draft selection Milton Williams was solid in his rookie season. Despite only appearing on 41% of defensive snaps, the Louisiana Tech product showed the prototypical skillset that the Eagles love out of their defensive tackles. A fierce pass rusher that seemed to effortlessly stuff the run, Williams had two sacks and six tackles for loss, as well as 11 quarterback pressures. Look for his production to improve with more snaps in season two.
Hassan Ridgeway also showed terrific glimpses of pass rushing and run stopping brilliance. He appeared in just 33% of the Eagles’ defensive snaps but had two sacks and eight pressures of his own, on route to becoming a solid rotational piece.
If the Eagles decide to become more youthful across their defensive line, they may trade fan-favorite Fletcher Cox. If they do that, look for consideration of big Georgia lineman Jordan Davis as a replacement. Best believe those Eagles will try and immediately fill the hole in the middle.
Josh Sweat showed flashes of Pro-Bowl talent in his fourth season and was rewarded with a sizeable extension. He signed a three-year, $40 million extension and had a career high 7.5 sacks in 2021. He added seven tackles for loss and 25 pressures to solidify himself as the starter on one edge moving forward, despite only playing 62% of defensive snaps in 2021.
Derek Barnett figures to be a free agent casualty this season. He saw eight penalties in 2021, including three roughing calls and one unnecessary roughness. While he has shown glimpses of productive play in his five seasons with the Eagles, he will likely be out the door this offseason.
With 2020 Pro-Bowl selection Brandon Graham turning 34 this year, the Eagles must invest draft capital this offseason to ensure this group remains a prominent strength. Ryan Kerrigan figures to play less snaps as he ages further, used as a relief pass rusher primarily.
Look for the Eagles to have edge rushers Jermaine Johnson II and David Ojabo well within their sights in the middle of the first round on draft night. The infusion of youth could ingratiate the defensive line and turn up the motor of the team’s most important unit.
While the draft is the most obvious place to select an edge rusher, the Eagles could also attempt to pry Emmanuel Ogbah from the Miami Dolphins in free agency. The 28-year-old had 39 pressures and 9.0 sacks in just 67% of defensive snaps in 2021. He also had nine tackles for loss and would be a great compliment to Josh Sweat on the opposing edge. The Dolphins may want to pursue younger talent across their defense and decide that Ogbah is too expensive to keep.
There is no more evident hole in the defence as this linebacking corps.
The bright spot of this group was most certainly T.J. Edwards who made a significant leap in year three. The Wisconsin product had 130 tackles, including five for loss and one sack. He had five passes defended and one interception in coverage. He figures to be the only incumbent in 2022.
Conversely, Alex Singleton, despite leading the team with 137 tackles, may lose snaps to a premium draft pick this season. The 28-yea- old saw 74 targets and allowed an awful 111.4 passer rating on these targets. He also allowed 382 yards after the catch to receivers. For a team that so often sits seven in coverage, Singleton is not an ideal scheme fit to remain a starter. Look for the Eagles to keep him as an inexpensive run fit defender in the rotation, but to upgrade the starting corps.
In terms of a full-time starter, the Eagles figure to address this in the draft with one of their three first-round picks. Apparently allergic to drafting linebackers early, Eagles fans are clamoring to improve the second level of the defense. The two leading candidates are Utah prospect Devin Lloyd and Alabama field general Nakobe Dean. Both offer terrific athleticism and instincts and are much needed star power to inject into this oft-neglected group.
Genard Avery and Davion Taylor will likely add depth and play in limited snaps. Both showed flashes last season and figure to be a part of a deep front seven rotation. Taylor had two forced fumbles in just nine games, while Avery had four TFLs and a sack. Look for them both to be in the rotation to play to their strengths. They will sit firmly behind Edwards, a draft pick and Singleton, however.
Darius Slay had a terrific year in 2021. “Big Play Slay” had three defensive touchdowns, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries on the way to his fourth Pro-Bowl. He also smothered opposing lead receivers, allowing only a 58.8% completion rating and 74.4 passer rating. He allowed only 185 yards after the catch and galvanized himself as the Week One CB1 and an elite cornerback.
Steven Nelson was the opposite. His first season as an Eagle was a disaster, allowing a 108.4 passer rating and five touchdowns. He will likely not return as the Eagles look to improve the secondary in the draft and free agency.
Avonte Maddox has cemented himself as the team’s slot corner. He only allowed an 87.2 passer rating and was rewarded with a three-year, $22.5 million extension. Maddox needs to improve as a tackler, however, as he allowed 235 yards after catch versus just 177 through the air.
The Youth Movement
Zech McPherson looked quite solid when thrust into the lineup on multiple occasions. He was targeted 17 times during the regular season and only allowed nine completions and a passer rating of 69.7 in his rookie campaign. While a small sample size, the 2021 fourth-rounder’s role may be open to expanding depending on his development in year two.
Don’t be surprised if the Eagles use one of their first-round picks to replace Steven Nelson on the outside. Ahmad Gardner figures to be snatched up if he makes it down to Philadelphia’s first pick, but Derek Stingley Jr, Andrew Booth Jr and Trent McDuffie all warrant consideration for the Eagles’ secondary if he is off the board.
Alternatively, look for the Eagles to be among the plethora of teams that throw the bag at premier cornerback J.C. Jackson. In his fourth season, the New England superstar had eight interceptions and allowed only a 46.8 passer rating. Despite being targeted 106 times, he allowed only a 49.1% completion rate. If the Eagles can outbid their competitors, this could give them one of the best cornerback combinations in the NFL.
Safety is an area that does need some work on the back end considering the possible ramifications of the free agency period. Anthony Harris and Rodney McLoud are amongst the 15 free agents for the Eagles this offseason. Both had solid seasons but at least one figures to be a cap casualty in 2022.
Safety play was fairly consistent last season. In an ideal world, both Harris and McLeod would be back in Philly green. Conversely, they are both over 30 and will receive offers from teams looking for veteran leadership on the back end of a young defense. Harris allowed on a 68.7 passer rating last season, while getting an interception and three passes defended. McLeod was almost as stingy, allowing only a 69.8 passer rating and allowing only 74 yards after catch all season.
Backup safety Marcus Epps was solid in run support this season and excelled as a sure-handed tackler. He only allowed 62 yards after catch on 22 completions. Unfortunately for Epps, he also allowed an abysmal 117.3 passer rating when targeted. This limited him to only playing 48% of defensive snaps and realistically telegraphs formations to lean in run support. He figures to be back as an inexpensive depth piece.
To continue the youth infusion movement in each area, look for the Eagles to take Georgia safety Lewis Cine or Penn State prospect Jaquan Brisker if either slip to the second round, where the Eagles have pick 51. The infusion of youth can make up for the likely departure of one of their incumbent starters.
Areas of Focus
The Eagles now figure to build the defense as a strength in 2022, as well as much needed help in the receiving corps. While it is clear that there is room for improvement at every level, look for the three first-round picks to be centered around getting a premier wide receiver, a legitimate stud linebacker and best player available out of cornerback, edge rusher or offensive guard.
The Eagles seem to have many holes on paper, but realistically have many ways to fill them. Ideally, the Eagles are able to pick up J.C. Jackson and Emmanuel Ogbah in free agency and draft a receiver, cornerback and linebacker in the first round.
Although this may not be viable, look for an aggressive summer from management this season. The Eagles surprised us all by making the playoffs in the 2021-22 season. To build on that, they must plug holes in the roster that exposed them against good teams.
What move do you want to see the Eagles make?