Offseason Review: Best New Defender Is …?
(Editor’s Note: This is the second 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 2, Geoff Mosher and Andrew DiCecco pick the best offseason acquisition on defense.)
Who was the Eagles’ best acquisition on defense?
Geoff’s pick: Darius Slay
No question Howie Roseman made it his mission this offseason to provide Jim Schwartz with younger, faster and more dynamic talent on defense. Roseman remade the secondary while also adding at defensive line and linebacker. There isn’t a position on each of the three levels that Roseman didn’t reshape.
Schwartz surely appreciates the infusion of youth and speed, but talent is the operative word here. Since becoming the Eagles’ defensive coordinator in 2016, Schwartz has been given moderate or adequate talent at the cornerback position.
Leodis McKelvin, a former first-round pick, was past his prime when Roseman signed him in 2016 at 31 years old. Ronald Darby brought the talent label with him when Roseman dealt for the former Bills corner in 2017, but Darby played just 29 games in his three seasons, constantly beset by injuries and never played to his capability in Schwartz’s scheme.
Jalen Mills has enjoyed some decent stretches but his speed deficiency really hurt the defense in critical moments. Patrick Robinson, without question, is the most productive corner in an Eagles uniform since the start of 2016, but the team let him walk in free agency after his one brilliant season manning the slot.
Slay has all the skills Schwartz covets in an outside corner, which is probably why the Lions picked him in the second round of the 2012 draft when Schwartz was the team’s head coach. Slay can play up on receivers, can trail top wideouts, can play physical at scrimmage and make plays on the ball downfield. He’s made each of the last three Pro Bowls and 13 of his 19 career INTs have come in the past three seasons. Slay just turned 29 this year, so he should still have at least two qualities seasons remaining.
For the first time since his arrival in Philly, Schwartz has a corner who can shadow the opponent’s best receiver, which allows the deep safety to roll toward the side of the opposite corner for more protection.
Schwartz might even feel comfortable pulling the trigger on a few more blitzes this year without worrying about the potential of burn. For that reason alone, Slay was worth the third- and fifth-round picks that Roseman sent to the Lions in exchange, along with the new contract.
Andrew’s pick: Javon Hargrave
In the first edition of our offseason series, Geoff and I unanimously named Jalen Reagor as the Eagles’ top offensive offseason addition. While the former TCU standout is certainly poised for success in his first season, the options on the offensive side were admittedly limited.
The team made some sorely needed wholesale changes on the defensive side of the ball, however, adding an intriguing blend of youth and veterans to a unit in dire need of playmakers not named Fletcher Cox or Brandon Graham. Although there were several prominent defensive additions that warranted consideration — I’m exceptionally high on the Nickell Robey-Coleman signing, by the way – bringing in Javon Hargrave to fortify the trenches is a move that will aid the defense in several ways.
(The Eagles paid big bucks to former Steelers defensive linemen Javon Hargrave in free agency to find a complementary pass rusher inside next to Fletcher Cox.)
In recent years, injuries along the interior of the defensive line essentially forced defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to coach with one hand tied behind his back. Whether it’s been Destiny Vaeao, Bruce Hector, T.Y. McGill, or Albert Huggins who’ve been summoned to play opposite Cox, none emerged into a long-term option.
The lack of another steady interior presence often resulted in Cox taking on increased snaps and double teams, thus causing the All-Pro to battle fatigue in critical points down the stretch. Hargrave, coming off career highs in tackles and tackles for loss in 2019, will team with Cox and veteran Malik Jackson to give the Eagles perhaps the strongest interior trio in football.
Hargrave, among the top players on the free-agent market, plays with tremendous power, leverage, and burst, so his diverse skill set should allow him to thrive as a one-gap penetrator in Schwartz’ defense. Quarterbacks are most often affected by pressure up the middle, as it takes them off their mark and inhibits their ability to step up in the pocket, so the Eagles’ newest addition should also alleviate some pressure from the oft-maligned secondary.
Anytime you bring in an ascending player who can impact all three levels of the defense, the move should be considered a home run.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com. He also writes for Pro Football Network. Geoff Mosher (@GeoffMosherNFL) is a longtime Philadelphia Eagles and NFL reporter and co-host of Inside the Birds.
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