Hitting The Sack?
Birds Sleepy In Free Agency, But Spicing Up Pass Rush
Ten years ago, if the NFL had undergone an offseason like this one, with more than a dozen superstars combining for nearly 40 Pro Bowl appearances swapping locations every other day, the Eagles would’ve been front and center for it all.
It wasn’t in their nature to be an audience to the three-ring circus.
At times, they were the three-ring circus.
But the Eagles so far can politely be described as underwhelming in their effort to upgrade last year’s roster that produced nine wins, many of those triumphs coming against some of the NFL’s worst and most Covid-stricken teams.
In some ways, Thursday’s re-signing of underperforming defensive end Derek Barnett, known more for reckless penalties than for fulfilling his promise as the 14th overall pick in 2017, served as a microcosm for Howie Roseman’s milquetoast March.
Barnett, who produced a career-low two sacks last year despite pocketing $10 million, joined safety Anthony Harris, wide receiver Greg Ward, running back Boston Scott, offensive guard Nate Herbig, and special teamer Andre Chachere as free agents returning from last season’s club, as opposed to only two outside additions – pass rusher Haason Reddick and slot receiver Zach Pascal.
The team also weirdly divorced from mainstay defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, cutting him to avoid shelling out an enormous bonus, only to re-sign the six-time Pro Bowler to a one-year, $14 million deal after he finished with just 3.5 sacks.
The Barnett return, a surprise to some, added another touchpoint for those ranting about the Eagles’ run-it-back approach.
Why keep re-signing regressing players from a team that failed to beat a single opponent in 2021 that finished with a winning record?
If you can separate the Barnett signing from the rest of the team’s modest offseason – which, by the way, is far from over – you might squint to see the forest to the trees.
The Eagles, who historically build from inside-out and frequently invest in the trenches, were razor thin at defensive end headed into March.
When the new league year opened about two weeks ago, the only Eagles defensive ends under contract that weren’t signed to futures deals were Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat and second-year pro Tarron Jackson.
Graham, who turns 34 this month, is coming off surgery to repair a torn Achilles from Week 2. Jackson, a sixth-rounder last year, didn’t play much and isn’t a lock to make the team.
The Eagles were likely to sign a veteran defensive end on a short-term, cost-efficient deal even if they had landed free-agent safety Marcus Williams and/or free-agent wide receiver Allen Robinson, both of whom they had targeted.
The fact that Barnett’s contract terms weren’t leaked upon signing indicates that the sixth-year pro’s market was predictably bare and that he took a major paycut from 2021. He probably signed a contract structured as a one-year deal with a small amount of guaranteed money spread out over two seasons.
Barnett signed the kind of deal typical for backup, rotational defensive ends – which will be his role in 2022 barring a boatload of injuries at his position.
The Eagles already have Reddick to pair with Sweat as edge rushers when they’re figuring out their top pass-rush groups and combinations.
Reddick, signed as a strong-side linebacker, will play on the line of scrimmage and most definitely be used as an edge rusher – or else defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon won’t be employed by the Eagles in 2023.
It would also be a major sleeper if Roseman, the team’s executive vice president of football operations, doesn’t use at least one of his three first-round picks and four top-60 picks early picks to address the pass rush, either at defensive end, defensive tackle, stand-up outside linebacker or any combination of the three.
When viewed through that lens, the Eagles aren’t really “running it back” with the same pass rush that last year finished with just 29 sacks, second-fewest in the league.
Graham, a stalwart entering his 13th season, played just two weeks last season. Reddick brings an average of 12 sacks to the defense.
And if – when? – the Eagles grab a pro-ready pass rusher in the first or second round, they’ll add at least one more to the mix, pushing Barnett into a rotational role or into a position where his snaps are highly regulated if his decline or judgment lapses continue.
That would give the Eagles one of the league’s deepest pass-rush groups: Reddick, Sweat, Hargrave, Cox, Graham, second-year pro Milton Williams, and anyone drafted in the first two rounds.
Also, as former Eagles left tackle Tra Thomas showed us in his tape breakdown video, the team’s 2021 decline in sacks was largely due to predictable coverages on the back end, allowing quarterbacks to avoid the rush by deciphering the defense pre-snap:
The Eagles haven’t gone seven deep up front since 2017.
That year turned out pretty good for them.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest the 2022 Eagles are Super Bowl-worthy or even locked into a postseason return.
Deficiencies at linebacker, safety, cornerback opposite Darius Slay, and true No. 3 pass target still hover over the NovaCare Complex, not to mention the lingering question about Jalen Hurts’ upside.
But the Eagles have long believed that building in the trenches is the blueprint to success – from Buddy Ryan to Andy Reid and even long after Reid’s tenure ended in Philadelphia.
You can certainly question whether this year’s pass-rush rotation will be as impactful as past versions.
Cox and Barnett have declined. Graham is coming off a major injury. The Reddick-Sweat combo is good, but neither would be confused for Joey Bosa or T.J. Watt.
That’s why Roseman will surely capitalize on this year’s diverse, talented crop of pass rushers available for the NFL Draft, a group considered the strongest of any in this year’s class.
It’s almost inconceivable that he’d make multiple picks among the top 60 and not come away with at least one pass rusher.
Anther young, dynamic pass rusher or two added to the mix would give the Eagles confidence they’re headed down the right path toward regaining their identity as bullies in the trenches.
As for the rest of their defense?
Well, that’s a different story. Proceed with your ranting.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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