What Now? Early offseason look at the Eagles’ defense
Earlier I took stock of the Philadephia Eagles‘ offense this season. You can check that out here:
Now I’m looking at the Defense.
At the beginning of the season, I looked at the Defense, and I thought they lacked talent. After the season, I still feel the same way. Of course, injuries played a part. Newly acquired free agent defensive tackle Malik Jackson went down in week two. Starting cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby were both lost for chunks of the season. Fletcher Cox started the season slow, recovering from offseason surgery.
But even if everyone is healthy, I still think that this Defense lined up being at a physical disadvantage every week.
The physical disadvantage couldn’t be more obvious at the Cornerback position. A player like Jalen Mills makes you love him for his tenacity, swagger, and work ethic, but in reality, he simply doesn’t have the speed or quickness to with receivers in the NFL. Sure there are ways to protect Mills with Safety help and a good pass rush, but any offensive coordinator with half a brain is going to devise a play to get Mills on an island, then bombs away.
Change in culture needed
On the other side is Ronald Darby, who has no problems running with anybody. The problem with Darby is that his poor eye discipline and lack of ball skills negate his exceptional speed as receivers will simply win with a better-timed jump or a well placed double move. Darby is much better suited in an aggressive man press scheme that will allow him to be more physical. Unfortunately, that’s just not what the Eagles do under their current defensive coordinator. [As of this writing the Eagles are currently evaluating the DC position, with the possibility of Jim Schwartz moving on]
Lack of depth
The backup Corners didn’t fare any better when forced into significant playing time early in the year. Rasul Douglas falls into the same category as Jalen Mills, he’s tough a good tackler and has excellent ball skills. He just can’t run. Sidney Jones is a different story entirely. Sidney’s story is one of inconsistency and injury. Ever since his Achilles injury before the draft, he has been in and out of the lineup. When he’s not nursing a hamstring injury, he’s being targeted by opposing offenses.
Where’s the SWAG?
This season, he looked as if he had no confidence whatsoever. The coaching staff seemed to think so too because they benched him as soon as humanly possible. During the Eagles playoff run, Sidney stepped in and made some clutch plays, flashing a small glimmer of what he could be. Ultimately, Sidney Jones will be fighting an uphill battle for his place on the team next season. Second-year player Avonte Maddox held down the slot defender role for much of the season and was serviceable. The thing with Avonte is, where is he best suited?
Injuries Injuries Injuries
Maddox played tight man-coverage on the outside in college. His rookie year, he was thrown into the Safety position and didn’t look terrible either. Maddox is a talented player but also still a player with more questions than answers. Cre’Von Leblanc came off of injured reserve at the end of the season to provide some much-needed depth. Injuries forced the Eagles to reshuffle the cornerback position once again, and Leblanc found himself in the nickel/slot defender position.
Leblanc provided a level of toughness and aggressiveness that wasn’t there before. His effort level was always high, even when the results were undesirable at times. The Eagles signed Leblanc up for another year, so he’s got a shot to nail down a consistent role on this team.
Usually, a good pass rush can cover for the deficiencies of a secondary. Not the case for the Eagles this season. The once fearsome Eagles pass rush was slowed down by injuries and age. Injuries hit early on when the Eagles lost prized free-agent acquisition, Malik Jackson, in week 2. Jackson was supposed to be the force in the middle that made it impossible to double team star DT Fletcher Cox. Without Jackson, teams were free to double Cox as much as they wanted to.
The good the bad and…
After the midway point of the season, Fletcher Cox once again emerged as the game wrecker Eagles fans are used to seeing. 2019 draft trade acquisition Hasan Ridgeway filled in admirably for Malik Jackson until he too was lost for the season with an injury. Fletcher Cox was left playing next to developmental practice squad call up Anthony Rush and Defensive End Vinny Curry for various stints each week. Speaking of defensive ends, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett both were solid and unspectacular at the same time.
The duo was strong against the run, and the effort was always there, but the pass rush was often non-existent when the team needed it most. Second-year player Josh Sweat showed some development as he played himself into the pass rush rotation, but he certainly still has a long way to go. As mentioned before, Vinny Curry enjoyed most of his success as an interior pass rusher.
The defensive end position could use some new blood and a pass rusher talented enough to draw attention away from Fletcher Cox, but it seems unlikely. The Eagles have invested a ton of money into the current defensive line, and moving those types of contracts is difficult. The hope here is that improvement comes from players returning healthy and young players taking the next step forward.
Possible draft need?
The Linebacker position is where the lack of talent really shows. But that’s by design because the Eagles don’t value the LB position. The Eagles have thrown together a bunch of mid to late round picks and tried to field a LB core. The most accomplished of the bunch is Nigel Bradham, who is a solid player but declining and not guaranteed to return. Then there is Nathan Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill; the two Safeties the Eagles chose to convert to LB.
Gerry is a coaching staff favorite, assignment sound, and woefully undersized, and KGH was showing promise until he was snake-bitten by injuries. The jury is still out on both players. Rookie TJ Edwards showed good instincts against the run but also showed his athletic limitations. For this position to improve, someone from the organization has to actually care about it. Until that happens, the line of journeymen will continue.
Father time is undefeated
The Safety position is a picture of neglect from General Manager Howie Roseman. There is Malcolm Jenkins, who is a phenomenal player and an even better human being. The problem with Malcolm is that father time is undefeated, and he is a player in decline. Gone are the days where he would rotate from Safety to Slot CB to LB. His ability limits him to mostly LB functions nowadays. At the other Safety position, there is Rodney McCleod in his first season back after an ACL injury.
Rodney lacks the range to be an effective deep Safety and is also an unrestricted free agent. After those two, there is literally no other player of note. There is no young player waiting in the wings. There is no developmental guy waiting for his chance. The word that comes to mind when thinking about the Eagles Safety position is…barren.
Philly State of Emergency
Overall I believe this Defense needs talent everywhere. The Eagles are one of the slowest teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball, and that must change if they want to get back to the championship contenders they were.