Linebacker, Edge Rusher Still Offer Question Marks
(Editor’s Note: This is the eighth story in an InsideTheBirds.com series recapping the 2020 Eagles offseason. The series will focus on the team’s transactions since the end of the 2019 season, including free agency, the NFL Draft and trades. In Part 8, Geoff Mosher and Andrew DiCecco give their choices for biggest hole on defense to fill.)
What’s the biggest remaining void on defense?
Geoff’s pick: Three-down linebacker
First, this was by far the hardest category to narrow down to just one answer. On defense, the Eagles still have several holes. While they’ve added a Pro Bowl corner in Darius Slay, the Eagles still lack length at the position, with Avonte Maddox and Nickell Robey-Coleman each under 6 feet tall. Imagine if Slay were to get injured?
On the defensive line, the Eagles still don’t have a proven third edge rusher behind Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett. Andrew will get more into that.
At safety, the Eagles still have some question marks after Rodney McLeod and assumed starter Will Parks along with how they plan to replace the various responsibilities fulfilled by Malcolm Jenkins.
This was also difficult to write because the one, obvious, most glaring need on the Eagles’ defense isn’t likely to be filled unless Howie Roseman pulls off a deal that nobody sees coming. For now, it appears the Eagles will head into 2020 without a legit three-down linebacker.
T.J. Edwards figures to be a run-down linebacker, playing first and second downs. Nate Gerry is poised to start alongside Edwards and play the nickel, making him an obvious choice for three-down linebacker, but that’s basically by default. Gerry has good coverage qualities but doesn’t play the run at a level better than adequate. Duke Riley has an opportunity to be the third linebacker in “base” formations, but the Eagles are rarely in three-linebacker formations anymore.
(The Eagles currently lack a standout, three-down linebacker in the mold of DeMeco Ryans, right, or Jordan Hicks.)
Riley, Jatavis Brown, Alex Singleton and rookies Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley combine with Gerry and Edwards to comprise what’s arguably the least-talented group of linebackers in the NFL. There’s not a blue-chip prospect in that group.
Will the Eagles upgrade the position? Without a doubt, Roseman will look to bring in a veteran who can help. Mark Barron makes some sense. Alec Ogletree has experience. Najee Goode could always come back. Nigel Bradham is still unsigned, but the sense I’m getting is that the Eagles have moved on from him for good. None of those options inspire much confidence.
Maybe Roseman can find a three-down linebacker on the trade market who can come in and stabilize the position. He’s done it before, trading for Ernie Sims (2010) and DeMeco Ryans (2012). Sims didn’t work out, but Ryans surely did.
Either way, the absence of a three-down linebacker is the most glaring hole on this otherwise improved defense.
Andrew’s pick: No. 3 defensive end
The logical choice for biggest remaining hole of the defense would be safety, due to the recent departure of Malcolm Jenkins. The veteran defensive back served as one of the centerpieces of the Eagles’ defense for six seasons and represented the city of Philadelphia admirably, both on and off the field.
While Jenkins’ absence undoubtedly creates a void that will be hard to sufficiently fill in a condensed offseason, the Eagles have three viable candidates in contention for the role in Jalen Mills, Will Parks, and K’Von Wallace.
That said, the biggest uncertainty is the No. 3 defensive end spot, an integral role in Jim Schwartz’ defense, occupied in recent years by Chris Long and Vinny Curry.
(Vinny Curry finished 2019 as one of the Eagles’ most productive pass rushers but remains a free agent, leaving Josh Sweat as the top candidate for No. 3 defensive end.)
During the Eagles’ Super Bowl run in 2017, Chris Long amassed 496 defensive snaps as the Eagles’ third defensive end, accounting for 48 percent of the total defense. He notched 5.0 sacks and proved to be a key component down the stretch.
Injuries ravaged the defensive end position the following season, however, causing Long to occupy nearly 59 percent of the snaps. Despite his increased usage, the veteran edge rusher turned in his best season in five years with 6.5 sacks.
Last season, Vinny Curry returned to the Eagles less than a year after agreeing to terms on a three-year, $23 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Coming off a dismal year in Tampa in which he tallied just 2.5 sacks in 12 games, Curry recorded 393 snaps on the season as Philadelphia’s third defensive end in the rotation. Accounting for nearly 39 percent of the Eagles’ total, Curry produced his best season since 2014, racking up 27 tackles and 5.0 sacks.
In fact, aside from Brandon Graham, the 31-year-old was the team’s most productive pass rusher while offering the versatility to provide pressure from the interior and off the edge.
With Curry still unsigned, third-year pro Josh Sweat likely enters training camp as the favorite to earn the role. Sweat, who played nearly 35 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019, totaled 4.0 sacks. The Florida State product possesses intriguing physical traits — including an 84-inch wingspan — and remained healthy for all 16 games despite a lengthy injury history.
Beyond Sweat, the depth chart is comprised of Genard Avery — an undersized situational edge rusher that the team is invested in – and the unproven Shareef Miller and Joe Ostman. Daeshon Hall is coming off a torn ACL and is likely to begin the season on the physically unable to perform list.
Similar to the running back situation that Geoff outlined Tuesday, the Eagles have names at a crucial position, albeit unproven ones.
– Geoff Mosher (@GeoffMosherNFL) is a longtime Philadelphia Eagles and NFL reporter and co-host of Inside the Birds. Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com. He also writes for Pro Football Network.
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