’21 Training Camp Pre: Most Significant Free Agent Addition?
[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories from Andrew DiCecco and Geoff Mosher previewing the Philadelphia Eagles as they head into training camp on July 27. The first preview story answers the question: Who was the team’s most significant free-agent addition.]
The Eagles signed several free agents this offseason, filling holes at backup quarterback, running back, and at all three levels of the defense along with special teams.
Which signing will have the biggest impact?
Andrew DiCecco: Eric Wilson, linebacker
Since his introduction nearly six months ago, Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni has remained adamant regarding the benefits of healthy competition. A competitive atmosphere typically mitigates complacency, encouraging coaches and players alike to approach each day with resolve and an open mind, while striving for excellence in their respective crafts.
However, at least one initial conundrum on the team’s depth chart appears to be configured before the start of camp – the starting linebacker group.
Before the Eagles inked ex-Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson to a one-year deal during the second wave of free agency, the proverbial cupboard remained bare in terms of viable starting options to pair with 2020 breakout Alex Singleton.
Sure, T.J. Edwards – a third-year pro with 28 games and 16 starts under his belt – could conceivably play his way into the conversation. But while it appears Edwards has youth and experience working in his favor, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker is a slow-footed downhill thumper with marginal range, best utilized situationally. If tasked with an increased role, Edwards would inevitably become a detriment.
Perhaps the uber-athletic, albeit immensely raw Davion Taylor uses a rookie campaign marred with growing pains as a springboard towards an increased role in 2021. While the former third-round pick boasts a skill set that should eventually translate to the league’s defensive landscape – predicated on smaller, quicker second-level players with coverage upside – he’ll likely need to cut his teeth in sub-packages before making the exponential jump to starter.
Second-year pro Shaun Bradley and rookie JaCoby Stevens could very well be battling for one spot if the team opts to go heavy elsewhere, so it’s hard to envision either player factoring into the equation.
On the flip side, Wilson represents a stabilizing presence at one of the team’s most vulnerable positions.
Wilson, who signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2017, enjoyed a productive four-year run in Minneapolis. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker produced his most prolific season as a pro in 2020, amassing a career-high in starts (15), tackles (122), tackles for loss (8.0), fumble recoveries (2), and defensive snaps (1,034). He also collected the first three interceptions of his career.
After three seasons of eventually establishing himself as a prominent role player with the Vikings, Wilson finally managed to breakthrough in his fourth season and appeared to be an integral part of the team’s future plans.
However, the Vikings would restructure Anthony Barr’s contract and sign fellow linebacker Nick Vigil away from the Cincinnati Bengals, which left Wilson on the outside looking in.
Minimal positional value, coupled with just one standout season, were the likely deterrents keeping Wilson on the market into the second wave of free agency, but the 26-year-old has the traits to be a plug-and-play option in Philadelphia.
While Wilson leaves much to be desired in terms of measurables, the Cincinnati alum provides a unique set of skills that lends itself favorably to the modern-day NFL. Boasting fluid lateral movement, and the innate athleticism and range to defend short-to-intermediate routes, Wilson’s skill set best complements the tenacious, seek-and-destroy mentality of Singleton.
Nobody’s suggesting Wilson will suddenly evolve into a multi-faceted All Pro in Philadelphia, but for a linebacker room previously centered around guys like Nate Gerry and Zach Brown, Wilson represents an upgrade at a perpetual position of need.
Geoff Mosher: Ryan Kerrigan, pass rusher
One of the most unusual off-seasons in recent Philadelphia Eagles history, not surprisingly, has led to an unusual process of thinking when it comes to determining the team’s best free-agent addition.
Any of the two newly inked starters, safety Anthony Harris and linebacker Eric Wilson, both former Vikings brought to Philadelphia to help new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon implement a scheme that’s expected to resemble the Mike Zimmer look, could be considered the most significant upgrade.
Harris has familiarity playing the combination of two-deep coverages and Cover 3 looks that Gannon became familiar with during his years as an assistant on Zimmer’s staff. Wilson’s versatility and understanding of the scheme automatically pencils him as the team’s most reliable and ready starter among a stable of linebackers that otherwise lacks much to discuss.
But the reality is that Harris and Wilson were both backups in Minnesota who began their careers as undrafted free agents and didn’t see the field until injuries to starters warranted their services. Both are of the solid, steady variety who had opportunities to test the market when the new league year began and could only secure one-year deals for a cash-strapped team that had little to offer in guaranteed money and security.
The market already told you that Harris and Wilson were dime-a-dozen type defenders who were not in heavy demand.
And maybe the same can be said about their other big-ticket signing, Ryan Kerrigan, who also inked a 1-year deal for a lot less money than the former Washington star pass rusher had become accustomed to making.
Still, it’s hard to think about Kerrigan’s arrival in Philadelphia without recalling him as one of the biggest pains in the asses of Eagles offensive tackles for most of the past decade. Of his nearly 100 career sacks, 13.5 came against the Birds, with an additional 24 quarterback hits, six forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown in 19 career games.
Even if there wasn’t great demand for the Washington Football Team’s all-time leader in sacks this offseason, Kerrigan’s resume itself is reason enough to believe that even if his tank is 60 percent full, his impact on the team’s defense could be more significant than Wilson’s or Harris’. Kerrigan played just 38 percent of Washington’s defensive snaps last year, as the Football Team surged ahead with first-round edge rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat. Still, Kerrigan netted the same number of sacks — 5.5 — as he picked up in 2019, when he played closer to 60 percent of the snaps.
Fewer snaps, equal sacks. That was apparently enough evidence to convince the Eagles that, if used properly, Kerrigan can still bring the pain as a pass rusher in a new-look front that’s expected to look way different formationally than the traditional four-man rush that former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz adored so much.
Gannon’s scheme has room for a stand-up linebacker who can rush from the edges, a position Kerrigan has played before in Washington, a tool that Schwartz kept locked in the tool box.
The Eagles, who’ve thrived recently off pass-rush depth, weren’t especially deep headed into the offseason after parting ways with Malik Jackson and after Vinny Curry’s departure to the Jets. Curry had been a reliable spot-starter for times when Derek Barnett was sidelined from injury. Josh Sweat, a breakout role player last year who put up 6 sacks, has consistently profiled as a bench player because of knee injuries from high school and college that limit his snaps.
Kerrigan, who has 95.5 career sacks, could feasibly step in and start if Barnett or Brandon Graham is sidelined. At very least, he’s on the field for about 40-50 percent of the snaps and emerges into a major force on the pass-rush line, following the path taken by Chris Long, who flourished in a part-time pass rush role for the Eagles from 2017-2018, totaling 11.5 sacks as a situational edge rusher.
NFL games are traditionally won by quarterbacks or by defenses who repetitively hit quarterbacks. The latter is Kerrigan’s speciality. It’s what makes him a difference-maker compared to Wilson and Harris.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com and Geoff Mosher (@GeoffMosherNFL) is is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and Senior staff writer/editor for InsideTheBirds.com.
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