2020 Season Preview: Best Trio In Football?
This is the fourth story of a lengthy series from now until the start of training camp by Geoff Mosher and Andrew DiCecco previewing the Eagles' 2020 season. Each weekday, Mosher and DiCecco will give their viewpoint on a specific topic. Today's category:
Strongest Position, Defense
Andrew's Choice: Defensive tackle
Unless you’re especially intrigued by the Eagles’ overhaul at safety, it would be utter negligence to overlook the embarrassment of riches at defensive tackle when assessing the defense’s strength.
In recent years, injuries have mounted at defensive tackle and the Eagles haven’t had an adequate solution. As a result, Fletcher Cox logged 1,629 snaps over the past two seasons. Although the All-Pro defender performed at a relatively high level despite increased usage, the 29-year-old appeared gassed at various points during stretch runs.
In March, the Eagles mitigated the growing concern by inking former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a three-year, $39 million deal. Hargrave, 27, is coming off a career season in which he accumulated 60 tackles, four sacks, and a forced fumble. He accounted for nearly 63 percent of the defensive snaps.
Hargrave’s exceptional power, burst, and understanding of leverage should allow him to thrive as a one-gap penetrator under Jim Schwartz. The talented lineman is widely considered an ascending talent with enticing physical traits to build around. Perhaps most importantly, however, Hargrave has proven himself to be a reliable option throughout his four-year career, playing in 52 of 63 games.
Hargrave provides stability and gives the Eagles the most disruptive interior in football.
Last offseason, the team attempted to rectify the rotating door of interior linemen playing opposite of Fletcher Cox by signing Malik Jackson to a three-year, $30 million free-agent deal. Though coming off a pedestrian 3.5 sack 2018 campaign with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jackson’s knack for making plays behind the line of scrimmage against the run and collapsing the pocket was expected to complement Cox. However, Jackson’s much-awaited debut lasted just over three quarters, as a debilitating foot injury sidelined the interior mauler for the remainder of the season.
If Jackson can return to full-strength, his explosiveness, versatility, and pass-rush acumen will be crucial for a team in dire need of depth and consistency along the defensive line. Jackson also offers the flexibility to kick outside and rush off the edge, allowing Jim Schwartz to be creative in his deployment. He may never live up to his lucrative contract, but a healthy Jackson helps the defense move the needle.
Geoff's Choice: Defensive tackle
Let’s get this out of the way: The easiest answer for this category was: "Not linebacker." I actually gave some consideration to cornerback because two of the Eagles’ top three are considered among the best at their position. Darius Slay, the big offseason addition, is coming off three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons. Nickell Roby-Coleman is widely regarded as a top-five slot cornerback. Avonte Maddox, for now, has an opportunity to showcase his ability to play the outside. Maddox has already exceeded expectations of a fourth-round pick. But the talent in the middle of the Eagles’ defensive line isn’t just unmatched on the team; it’s quite possibly the best collection of interior line talent in the NFL. Some believe free-agent addition Javon Hargave will be an even better fit in Jim Schwartz’s one-gap defense than he was in Pittsburgh, where he worked his way from backup to starter. Former Green Bay Packers guard T.J. Lang recently re-watched a Steelers-Colts game from last year to observe the showdown between Steelers pass rusher Cam Heyward and Colts offensive guard Quintin Nelson, two of the best at their positions. While watching, Lang also made this observation:
Hargrave pairs with perennial Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox, who was given the fifth-highest rating for a defensive lineman by Madden NFL 21 – for those who put stock in those sorts of rankings – and with Malik Jackson to give the Eagles three blue-chip talents in the middle of the defense.
For the past few years, Schwartz has created a “NASCAR” package for obvious pass-rushing down that consisted of three defensive ends and one defensive tackle. The third defensive end would move inside, replacing a tackle not named Cox.
But with the trio of Cox, Jackson and Hargrave, Schwartz won’t have to modify his pass-rush line anymore – or he can create multiple pass-rush lines and alternate them to keep legs fresh and exploit certain matchups.
Fans who worry that the Eagles aren’t deep enough at defensive end aren’t recognizing the changing dynamic of the pass rush. There won’t be three defensive ends on the field at one time nearly as much as in the past unless there’s a rash of injuries at defensive tackle. By the way, the Eagles have some promising talent even after the top three. Hassan Ridgeway played well in seven games last year before going on Injured Reserve with an ankle injury. Anthony Rush stepped in at times as an undrafted rookie and showed some potential. Rookie free agent Raequan Williams is a Michigan State prospect the Eagles really like.
There’s really no arguing that defensive tackle is the outright champion of the Eagles’ defense position battle, which is why Andrew and I wouldn’t waste our time posing a faux debate about any other spot.
Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the Inside the Birds podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com. Andrew DiCecco (adicecconfl) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com.
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