Reload Or Rebuild?
Stay Or Go: Tough Decisions Ahead For Birds Back End Defense
Free agency kicks off March 15, and the Eagles will be faced with difficult decisions over the next few weeks concerning a number of pending free agents.
Often difficult to forecast, rosters are largely fluid year-to-year and susceptible to change. Veteran mainstays are jettisoned, new players enter the fold, and the draft essentially acts as a table-setter.
In an attempt to outline the roster in its current state, we examined the linebacker, cornerback, and safety positions in our fourth stay-or-go exercise.
A core special teams performer, Bradley’s third season prematurely ended due to injury. The 25-year-old embraces his role as a third-phase linchpin and has evolved into a leader. His roster spot will likely be in limbo this summer, as the team is sure to add to the room in the coming months, but Bradley feels like a safe bet to snag one of the final spots. Ruling: Stay
A third-round pick last season, the 22-year-old Dean is poised to be a viable replacement for pending free agent Kyzir White. The former Georgia standout played sparingly on defense as a rookie (34 snaps) but served as a special teams mainstay for coordinator Michael Clay. Dean will need to improve his play-strength during the off-season in order to withstand the rigors of a 17-game season, but the second-year linebacker projects as a long-term building block. Ruling: Stay
A tremendous story of development, the undrafted Edwards defied long odds since arriving in Philadelphia in 2019, climbing the ranks to become the team’s top linebacker. Tasked with the responsibility of wearing the green dot on his helmet – meaning he maintains constant contact with the coaching staff throughout games – Edwards accumulated 159 tackles (10 for loss), two sacks, and five quarterback hits while accounting for 94 percent of the defensive snaps – all career highs. Recognized mainly as an imposingly physical downhill thumper, Edwards made noticeable strides in coverage, though teams still found success when peppering his area of the field. Still, Edwards is sure to command a sizable payday on the open market. And while the Eagles will likely make a concerted effort to retain a homegrown talent and burgeoning leader, Edwards might have priced himself out of their budget. This one could go either way, but ultimately, I think Edwards remains in-house. Ruling: Stay
A practice-squad mainstay elevated to the active roster ahead of the team’s Week 13 tilt against the Titans, Elliss proved to be the missing link in fortifying a leaky third phase coverage unit. The second-year linebacker provided grit, tenacity, and an eagerness to Clay’s maligned bunch. He even saw a handful of defensive snaps in decisive wins. Given the expected depth concerns at the position, and his special teams acumen, Elliss figures to get a long look in camp. Ruling: Stay
A sixth-round pick last spring, Johnson played the sixth-most special teams snaps last season, registering eight tackles in 16 games. Interestingly, Johnson was listed as an inactive throughout the team’s playoff run, a curious move considering how crucial of a role he assumed on special teams throughout the regular season. If he can’t find his footing on special teams as a back-of-the-roster player, where does he fit? Ruling: Go
Johnson, 25, finished with the fourth-most special teams snaps (315) and quietly contributed 213 snaps on defense as the team’s fourth linebacker. A seventh-round pick two seasons ago, the 6-foot-2, 248-pound Johnson has carved out a defined role in two phases, carries a cost-effective salary, and is a player the team likes. Barring something unforeseen, Johnson’s role should remain the same in ’23. Ruling: Stay
Taylor, 24, spent the entire 2022 season on the Eagles’ practice squad after failing to make the team out of camp. Viewed as a long-term project when selected in the third-round three years ago, Taylor has yet to have the game slow down for him. He’s also been hampered by a slew of injuries throughout his Eagles career. Still, Taylor’s raw ability and athleticism is apparent, and perhaps there is another team out there that can afford to invest time in channeling it. He’ll be back for another go of it, but it feels like both the team and Taylor would mutually benefit by parting ways sooner than later. Ruling: Go
A bargain free agent signing in retrospect, White managed to parlay a productive training camp and preseason into a fast start to the regular season. The 26-year-old thrived as a sideline-to-sideline coverage specialist, and his athleticism afforded Jonathan Gannon the luxury of optionality, and it would hardly break the bank to retain his services. However, the Eagles have Dean waiting in the wings, and while the former Georgia standout offers positional versatility, Dean is probably best equipped to inherit White’s role. Ruling: Go.
A second-team All-Pro, Bradberry – it can be argued – performed more consistently than his more widely celebrated teammate, Darius Slay. Unceremoniously discarded by the New York Giants last May, Bradberry bet on himself, signing a 1-year deal with the Eagles for this exact moment. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound perimeter defender stoically aced his weekly assignments, racking up three interceptions – and one in the postseason – while finishing third in the league in passes defended (17). JB’s 2022 campaign likely priced himself out of the Eagles’ budget, and he’s likely to have a multitude of suitors for what figures to be a lucrative payday. While this will surely be a tough pill to swallow for the Eagles – who in this scenario say goodbye to one of the most intelligent, savviest cornerbacks in the game – they desperately need to get younger at the position. Bradberry’s departure merely nudges them in that direction. Ruling: Go
An undrafted free-agent signing last spring, Goodrich spent the entire 2022 season honing his skills on the Eagles’ practice squad. After a year on the scout team, going against the likes of A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith and developing under renowned defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson’s tutelage, Goodrich will be one to keep an eye on in camp. Depending on the team’s off-season moves, however, there night not be room. Ruling: Go
The other highly coveted – and well-compensated — undrafted defensive back to land in Philadelphia seemingly moments after the 2022 NFL Draft drew to a close, Jobe parlayed his opportunity into a spot on the team’s 53-man roster. The Alabama product, who oozes physicality and could potentially showcase his positional versatility this summer, quickly grew into his role as a gunner opposite Zech McPhearson, logging 220 snaps in the regular season (11 games) and 59 in the postseason. And while Jobe only registered 12 defensive snaps last season, his brief sample size was enough to prove he belongs. Cost-effective depth players like Jobe will be counted on to take a leap forward in an off-season where every investment must be calculated. Ruling: Stay
When healthy, Maddox is among the top nickel corners in the game. The fifth-year pro has established himself as a scrappy, instinctive, and versatile back-end defender, hardly averse to sticking his nose in to make tough tackles. His one drawback, however, has been his health, as Maddox has yet to complete a full season, most recently limited to just nine games in 2022. The 26-year-old isn’t set to hit free agency until 2025, so he should continue to be a prominent fixture. The team just might want to have a viable contingency plan in place in the event the injury bug resurfaces. Ruling: Stay
Instinctive, smart, and gritty, McPhearson has quickly evolved into one of the league’s top gunners on punt coverage and a leader on Clay’s unit. The formidable cornerback tandem of Slay and Bradberry accounted for 91 and 97 percent of the defensive snaps, respectively, essentially rendering McPhearson, the primary backup outside corner, a non-entity in his second season. The Texas Tech product logged just 99 snaps at cornerback. Should Bradberry move on, his departure would theoretically position McPhearson to compete for the starting spot opposite Slay. But he’ll more than likely reprise his role as a depth player and special teams maven next season. Not a role that often shows up in the box score, but a pivotal one nonetheless. Ruling: Stay
Notorious for prominently factoring into the team’s most egregious regular season play, Scott, 23, endured a turbulent third season – although it also included picking off Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in prime time. Appearing in 16 games (4 starts), the 5-foot-10, 175-pound cornerback accounted for 35 percent of the defensive snaps, primarily filling in for an injured Maddox. While he played in the team’s 38-7 Divisional round win over the Giants, Scott was listed as a gameday inactive for the NFC Championship game and Super Bowl LVII. Given Scott’s youth – he’ll be 24 in April – positional versatility, and price tag, it’s safe to assume the Michigan State product will get a long look this summer. Ruling: Stay
Slay is firmly entrenched as CB1, though at 32 this feels like an off-season reminiscent of 2002, when the Eagles invested in successors for Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, keeping them on ice as they waited in the wings. Still, named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl – and an NFLPA first-team All-Pro – Slay has exhibited no sign of decline. In addition to his weekly coverage assignments, Slay will also serve as a mentor for the draftee, presumably selected to play opposite him in ’23. Ruling: Stay
Despite commanding the most modest figure in terms of guaranteed money as an undrafted free agent, Blankenship parlayed a fruitful training camp into becoming one of four undrafted free agents to make the 53-man roster. Though mostly relegated to special teams early on, Blankenship developed into a reliable back-end piece down the stretch, producing 34 tackles, an interception, and two passes defended across 10 games (four starts). While he sacrifices some fluidity and range in coverage, Blankenship emerged as a third-level enforcer, adept in run support while also exhibiting signs of growth in pass defense in the latter half of the season, so much that the team might be able to confidently move forward with Blankenship as a cost-effective starter in ’23. Tremendous story of development under defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson. Ruling: Stay
A special teams standout, Chachere bounced between the Eagles’ active roster and practice squad last season. Appearing in seven games, Chachere accumulated 141 special teams snaps (31 percent), where he efficiently served as a gunner opposite McPhearson, in addition to logging 10 defensive snaps. The 26-year-old has worn a myriad of hats for the Eagles the past two seasons, and I maintain he should have made the initial 53 out of camp last August. He’ll have another shot, however, but will surely be challenged by a host of young talent. Ruling: Go
What Epps lacks in natural athleticism, he more than makes up for in toughness, tenacity, intelligence, and determination. Awarded to the Eagles via waivers in 2019 to little fanfare, the 27-year-old gradually carved out a more prominent role on defense. His knack for establishing trust with two defensive coordinators speaks to Epps’ preparation diligence, consistency, and football IQ. The unsung hero for a star-studded secondary, Epps contributed 94 tackles and six passes defended, while leading the defense in snaps (1,096) – or 99.1 percent. A pillar of stability and bedrock of Dennard Wilson’s secondary, Epps is likely to cash-in this free agency, likely commanding more than the Eagles are willing or able to match. Ruling: Go
A versatile, brash, vocal leader – who just so happened to be the NFL’s co-leader in interceptions in 2022 – Gardner-Johnson flourished in his first season as a full-time safety. Acquired for a song at the dawn of the regular season, Gardner-Johnson swiftly and convincingly filled the void that had essentially become a revolving door at the position following the departure of Malcolm Jenkins. The 25-year-old not only proved his worth as a difference-maker, but also demonstrated his value at the nickel cornerback spot in the absence of Maddox. As free agency looms, and the mass of suitors prepare to open their proverbial checkbooks, the Eagles will presumably prioritize retaining Gardner-Johnson, who projects as one of a handful of cornerstone pieces for the future. Ruling: Stay
Wallace made gradual strides as a defender – relative to expectations — and he’s probably fine as a fourth safety/core special teamer, but look for the Eagles to attempt to upgrade from their former fourth-round pick. I write “attempt” because with just six drafts picks and an assumed objective to retain as many of their own free agents as possible, it’s unreasonable to think they’ll upgrade every perceived inadequacy. Wallace finished third on the team in special teams snaps (323), accounting for just over 71 percent of the total, so he has a clearly-defined role and is playing on a rookie deal, but he’ll be pushed in camp. Ruling: Stay
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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