Not Your Father’s Eagles Defense
LB Valuation Changing For Birds?
There was a time when Howie Roseman’s offseason foreshadowing about improving the Eagles’ pass rush was much easier to decipher.
Need more pass rush? Sign or draft a defensive lineman, or two.
But the Eagles under defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon aren’t playing the traditional 4-3 scheme they’ve employed for nearly all of Roseman’s tenure as general manager, save for a few seasons under former coach Chip Kelly.
Even the 3-4 scheme Kelly integrated briefly during his time presiding over the team isn’t Gannon’s cup of tea.
In Gannon’s first year, the Eagles played multiple fronts, including a 5-2 base and 5-1 nickel that brought a linebacker onto the line of scrimmage as an extra defender, a tactic that redefined the Eagles strong-side linebacker role in a way not seen since Buddy Ryan’s heyday.
But the league is changing, and the Eagles are adapting.
The new norm is multiple fronts, interchangeable schemes and play-call disguise driven by post-snap movement on the back end.
The Bengals rode that bandwagon – along with Joe Burrow’s sizzling right arm – to the Super Bowl.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Roseman said the Eagles are probably “renting” Gannon, who interviewed for three head-coaching vacancies this offseason, but are still looking for pieces who fit the new direction.
“I think when we look at it, the way that we’re playing defense and the way that he wants to play defense and our coaches want to, it’s something that’s sustainable,” he said. “It’s not like we’re drafting guys for specific roles that won’t adjust if in the future we had to do something different.”
With philosophical change also comes change in personnel and valuation.
The Eagles recorded the NFL’s second-fewest sacks in 2021, staggeringly low for a defense that in 2021 ranked among the league’s best, even given Brandon Graham’s season-ending Achilles tear in Week 2.
Lack of elite pass rushers wasn’t the only problem, not if you understand the relationship between coverage and pass rush.
But the Eagles desperately need an infusion of young, dynamic pass rushers.
Under-performer defensive end Derek Barnett, a 2017 first-round pick, is slated to hit free agency and veteran defensive tackle Fletcher Cox’s continued decline resulted in a 3.5-sack season and the end of Pro Bowl streak at six.
In the past, a dearth of sacks signaled Roseman’s pursuit of defensive linemen.
Under the new scheme, strong-side linebacker could be viewed under the same lens, which is noteworthy given the team’s history of devaluing linebackers compared to linemen and cornerbacks.
Genard Avery, a solid athlete who lacks ideal size at 5-foot-10 and has just 7.5 career sacks in four seasons, moved from defensive end to linebacker last offseason to prepare for the scheme adjustment. He typically came off the field in sub packages as Gannon went to a traditional 4-2 nickel looks.
Gannon rarely sent extra-man pressure. At times, he made veiled comments about his reluctance to blitz given his personnel.
But the addition of a lengthy, versatile edge rusher at the strong-side linebacker spot would give his defense an edge presence who can impact the game on all three downs and serve multiple purposes, an extra line defender for first and second down and pass rusher in nickel and sub packages.
Young, standup rushers who can play in multiple fronts, such as Tennessee’s Harold Landry or Carolina’s Haason Reddick, can now be viewed as potential fits for the Eagles, worthy of more attention – and money – than the franchise has typically afforded at their position.
Landry, a 2018 second-round pick, picked up 31 sacks in four seasons with the Titans and comes off his first Pro Bowl after racking up 12.5 sacks in his fourth year. Before 2021, his highest was nine sacks and he had two seasons of 5.5 or fewer, the sort of inconsistency often seen in young edge rushers who become available in free agency.
[UPDATE: The Titans and Landry reportedly reached an extension Tuesday night worth – sit down – a boatload of money].
Titans signed OLB Harold Landry to a 5-year, $87.5 million deal that includes $52.5M guaranteed, per source.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 9, 2022
Reddick, a chase-and-pursuit type pass rusher, has 23.5 sacks over his past two seasons with the Cardinals and Panthers, respectively. The Temple product and 13th overall pick from 2017 is relentless off the edges but is also viewed as a one-trick pony who doesn’t contribute enough in coverage or run defense to warrant lucrative, long-term investment.
Other outside linebackers in the mold of Landry and Reddick will be available when free agency begins with Monday’s legal tampering window opening. April’s NFL Draft will offer another stockpile of versatile linebackers equipped for Gannon’s scheme, maybe even some who can flourish on and off the ball.
A linebacker prospect who can rush the passer and excel in coverage could perhaps rewrite the history of a franchise that hasn’t selected an off-the-ball linebacker in the first round since 1979, especially with Roseman sitting on three first-round picks.
The story of Eagles linebacker valuation in this new era of amorphous, adaptable defensive fronts is yet to be told, but should offer more clarity in the coming days and weeks.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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