DiCecco: In-House Birds Options For Free-Agent Losses
With the start of Monday’s NFL free-agent legal tampering period, the Philadelphia Eagles might be compelled to take a more cost-conscious view of the offseason as potential departures could force the team to rely heavier on younger talent to navigate a turbulent transition, especially on defense.
Seven defensive starters are primed to become free agents, including both safeties and both inside linebackers.
The team could look markedly different at defensive back in 2023 given the expiring contracts of James Bradberry, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and Marcus Epps.
Out of necessity, three backend players – two second-year pros, and one third – might be called upon to provide depth and fill the void.
S Reed Blankenship
One silver lining to potentially losing both C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps is the Eagles seemingly have a capable replacement at one spot in Blankenship. While no one is suggesting that Blankenship, a former undrafted rookie, would offer the same playmaking upside and versatility as Gardner-Johnson, they also can’t be too skeptical of the second-year pro, who performed well enough down the stretch to suggest he’s equipped to handle a more prominent role.
After logging just two defensive snaps through the first 10 weeks, Blankenship finished the season with 291. The Middle Tennessee State product accrued 34 tackles, an interception and two passes defended in 10 games (4 starts).
In the Divisional Round playoff against the Giants, Blankenship played 92 percent of the defensive snaps – in addition to 50 percent on special teams. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound Blankenship is a tone-setting third-level enforcer who compensates for what he lacks in athleticism with tenacity, toughness and intelligence.
The back end would undoubtedly sacrifice range and fluidity with Blankenship starting, but Blankenship could ably fill the void if paired next to an athletic, multi-faceted ballhawk.
CB Zech McPhearson
With uncertainty surrounding James Bradberry’s future – and potentially Darius Slay’s – the Eagles could soon find themselves vulnerable at cornerback – again. Sure, the upcoming NFL Draft offers a multitude of enticing options. But in the event that something unforeseen should happen – a Jalen Carter first-round tumble, for example – the Eagles could defer to their long-standing philosophy of fortifying the trenches, ignoring conventional wisdom. Even if the team does draft a cornerback with a premium pick, the team can’t be certain the player would be mentally or physically prepared to start Week 1, as prospects progress at varying rates. If Eagles general manager Howie Roseman elects to sign a veteran late in the off-season for the third consecutive year as a stopgap solution, he’ll be adding competition for in-house candidates to compete against.
Consider me among those who envisioned more impact from Zech McPhearson – at least from a defensive standpoint – when he joined the Eagles as a fourth-round pick two years ago. As someone who pegged him as a pre-draft sleeper prospect, I was sold on McPhearson’s astuteness, competitiveness, short-area quickness, and play-strength. While the 24-year-old has yet to exhibit those traits on defense, he has shown them on special teams, where McPhearson has quickly carved out a niche as one of the game’s top gunners.
McPhearson has logged just 278 defensive snaps through two seasons – including 99 in 2022 – so it’s not like he’s showcased much film to inspire confidence as someone who can hold down the fort as a 17-game starter. His aggressiveness can sometimes work against him and his technique needs refinement to ensure sustained success, but given the team’s financial position, low-cost depth like McPhearson might be relied for an uptick in snaps. And after two seasons of establishing himself as a special teams stalwart, the former fourth-round pick deserves an opportunity to seize a larger role.
CB Josh Jobe
A coveted undrafted 2022 free agent signing, Jobe became a mainstay on Michael Clay’s special teams unit as a rookie, logging 220 snaps in the regular season (11 games) and 59 in the postseason as a gunner opposite McPhearson. The former Alabama DB also made a cameo on defense, accruing just 12 snaps. Potential departures could alter the cornerback infrastructure, which would conceivably promote Jobe to a complementary component on defense.
Adding to his appeal, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Jobe is another cost-efficient option who boasts a diverse skill set, which suggests he could cross-train in a potentially undermanned secondary at some point to enhance his value. Jobe plays an extremely physical brand of football – a common thread among the three players listed – and leverages his length in contesting the catch-point. After essentially operating in anonymity as a rookie, Jobe figures to get his chance this summer to make a name for himself.
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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