’21 Training Camp Pre: Terrific In Trenches?
[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories from Andrew DiCecco and Geoff Mosher previewing the Philadelphia Eagles as they head into training camp on July 27. This story answers the question: What is the team’s biggest positional strength?]
The Eagles only won four games last year, but there is optimism they can be much improved in 2021.
Which area of the team is their strongest?
Geoff Mosher: Defensive line
While it’s not difficult to identify the Eagles’ strongest positions headed into training camp – hint: if you’re being objective, there’s only two – the actual challenge is determining which of the team’s two building-block positions is the most superior.
An argument can be made that the Eagles’ offensive line, when healthy, has the chance to reclaim its status as top three in the league, with Pro Bowl or All Pro talent composing three-fifths of the entire starting group.
Given the sorry state of offensive line play around the league, the Eagles have been wiser than most in continuously bolstering the front five via draft, free agency and the undrafted prospect crop.
But the Eagles, long believers in building from inside-out on both sides of scrimmage, can also beat their chests about the defensive line they’ve built and delivered to new coordinator Jonathan Gannon, a group that flaunts an upper echelon defensive tackle in Fletcher Cox and one of the league’s best two-way defensive ends in Brandon Graham, who showed no signs of slowing down at 31.
The fairest statement to make is there’s more overall talent on the offensive line, but injuries and aging have changed the complexion of this unit often over the past few years, with an ultimate implosion last season leading to 15 different starting combinations.
Injuries to Jason Peters, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson paved the way for backups like Jack Driscoll, Nate Herbig, Matt Pryor and others to log more snaps than anyone had anticipated going into each season.
It’s also fair to say that the defensive line comes with fewer question marks and more consistency. While an imminent battle awaits this summer at left tackle – the line’s most important spot – fewer questions hover around about the D-line.
Sure, Derek Barnett has much to showcase in the final year of his rookie, five-year deal. But Barnett and Graham are the unquestioned starters, flanking Cox and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who the team is expecting to quickly enter the conversation as the NFL’s best interior defensive linemen.
Behind the starters are Josh Sweat, who broke out for six sacks last year in a situational role that he’s destined to fill again, and veteran Ryan Kerrigan, who has a chance to reach the 100-sack mark playing 40-to-60 percent of the defensive snaps this season.
Kerrigan’s presence armed the Eagles with a sixth proven pass rusher, enough for Gannon feel optimistic about his depth and potential combinations – and that doesn’t even factor in whatever production can be added by rookie, third-rounder Milton Williams, a superb athlete who compensates for modest arm size with tremendous burst and athleticism and projects to play both inside and outside.
Andrew DiCecco: Offensive line
Decimated by injuries last season, the Eagles’ offensive line was in a state of constant flux, surrendering a total of 65 sacks and deploying a staggering 14 different configurations.
In June, Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks suffered his second Achilles injury in two years. Two months later, polarizing former first-round pick Andre Dillard, expected to fill the immense void left by stalwart Jason Peters at left tackle, suffered a torn biceps merely weeks before the season-opener. He also was lost for the season.
For more perspective, right tackle Lane Johnson missed nine games – the same amount of games in which left guard Isaac Seumalo was active.
In their absence, Nate Herbig started 12 games (893 offensive snaps), Matt Pryor started 10 games (775 snaps), Jordan Mailata started 10 games (733 snaps), Jason Peters started 8 games (500 snaps), and Jack Driscoll started 4 games (300 snaps).
With the exception of Peters, the replacements combined for 14 games before being forged by fire.
Should health prevail this season, however, the Eagles could very well boast one of the better offensive line situations in the NFL.
Rock-steady Jason Kelce, a 16-game starter last season, will greatly benefit from the continuity beside him in Seumalo and Brooks, while Lane Johnson should return to Pro Bowl form. A right side wall comprised of Brooks and Johnson is as close to bulletproof as it gets.
Four of the five spots atop the depth chart appear to be etched in stone, but uncertainty remains at one of the most integral positions: left tackle.
With Dillard on the mend last season, the Eagles witnessed exponential growth from third-year pro Jordan Mailata, a former pro rugby player once considered little more than a shot-in-the-dark candidate with intriguing intangibles.
While Dillard demonstrated tentativeness, inadequate play strength, and a passive demeanor as a rookie, Mailata showcased his innate athletic traits and raw power in his 10-game sample size last season.
As a former first-round pick, Dillard will be given every opportunity to earn the role of blindside protector. The 25-year-old appears to have recalibrated himself after an adverse start to his career, and will evidently enter his third season a more mature player, both mentally and physically.
As much as the Eagles would love for Dillard to prove them right on their sizable investment, it’s tough not to be enamored by the immensely gifted Mailata. In fact, it’s arguable that he offers the highest upside. Nevertheless, the runner-up will ad to a suddenly proven group of reserves.
That said, my stance goes beyond the strength of the projected starters. Herbig, who finished second among all Eagles offensive players in snaps last season, showed tremendous growth over his 12 starts and provides depth at both center and guard. Driscoll, a second-year pro, can play right tackle and along the interior.
Le’Raven Clark, a veteran of 47 games, fills a need as a burly swing tackle and could prove to be a savvy signing. Landon Dickerson, a 2021 second-round pick, has the makings of an elite talent. The former Alabama mauler was likely selected with the thought of taking over for Kelce in 2022, but don’t be surprised if he usurps Seumalo at some point this season.
If the offensive line can maintain a clean bill of health in 2021, the unit could very well produce three Pro Bowl players. Should injuries perpetuate, however, the Eagles now have at their disposal a band of versatile, battle-tested reserves to call upon.
– 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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