The Eagles added only one defensive player among their five picks in the recent NFL Draft, and with five picks last year they brought in just two for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
There is no doubt the league has become more offensive-minded over the last decade, but opponents need to be stopped, too.
The Eagles defense last season was ranked 23rd overall, a number dragged down by a pass defense that was ranked 30th that was just two spots away from dead-last. Granted, the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots’ defense was ranked 21st overall and 22nd against the pass, but Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are good enough and experienced to overcome most warts.
When the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, their defense was ranked fourth in the league. Dropping 19 spots in a year is significant.
Have the Eagles done enough this offseason to get back to being a top 10 defense?
Here’s a review that does not include any of the still-unofficial players signed as undrafted free agents:
Having Chris Long (pictured above) back would certainly help. If Long decides not to return – and he and the team agreed to push back his roster bonus until the start of training camp in July – the Eagles would need to find a way to account for not only the 6.5 sacks he provided but the nine provided by Michael Bennett, who was traded to New England this offseason.
The Eagles have addressed this area in each of the past three drafts, adding Derek Barnett in the first round in 2017 then selecting Josh Sweat in the fourth round last year and Shareef Miller in this year’s fifth round. Barnett was the team’s best defensive lineman last year before shoulder surgery ended his season halfway through, and Sweat also finished the season unable to play due to injury.
This offseason, their big get was re-signing Brandon Graham then, later, bringing back Vinny Curry.
“I think the first order of business was to bring back (Graham),” said executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman. “What BG brings to us on and off the field was such a huge move for our football team.”
Two to watch: Daeshon Hall and Joe Ostman. A former third-round pick by Carolina in the 2017 draft, the 6-5, 265-pound Hall was added to the team’s roster in Week 15. Ostman, who is 6-3, 255, was praised this offseason for his great work on the practice squad. Another year in the system could pay dividends, and the same could be said for Sweat.
“Daeshon Hall is a guy we got last year who was a third-round pick and he's really taken a step in the offseason here, just with his body,” said Roseman. “Josh Sweat, we knew that him having a full offseason and coming back was something that he really needed to continue to develop. Joe Ostman is a guy that, again, when you look at the transition he's made with his body just in the offseason, I know a lot of the coaching staff is excited to see him in his second year.”
Despite being a potentially historic draft at this position, the Eagles neglected to partake in the talent parade. Instead, hours before the draft began, they brought back Timmy Jernigan, who was injured most of last year, and traded away a seventh-round pick in this past draft to acquire Hassan Ridgeway from the Colts. They also made a big move in signing Malik Jackson to a three-year deal in free agency, despite Jackson’s decline on production last year in Jacksonville.
Fletcher Cox is expected to be at full strength by the time training camp arrives after offseason foot surgery, but the big fella would certainly benefit from a slight reduction in playing time, though he produced a career-high 10.5 sacks last year paying 80 percent of the snaps.
Bruce Hector and Treyvon Hester could be ready for an increased role after a year in the system.
“Obviously we're really excited about Malik and you see his leadership and what he's going to add to the team with Fletch and Treyvon taking a step up and hopefully Bruce, but just bringing Timmy back, and what Timmy means to our team and he looks good. Hopefully we'll have a really good healthy year out of Timmy, and then adding Hassan and then we have a couple of guys hopefully after the draft that can add to that depth.”
One to watch: Ridgeway. Injuries have plagued the 6-3, 305-pound former fourth-round draft pick and limited him to five games played last year. If he can remain healthy, and get into shape, he could become a factor as his 4.5 sacks and 10 QB hits in 34 career games attest. Those are two big ifs, however.
Landing free agent Zach Brown on May 3 was a huge piece to the puzzle at this spot. The 29-year old veteran is a physical force who can now take over at middle linebacker and allow Nigel Bradham to move back outside. Depth is a question mark, though, even after the Eagles signed Paul Worrilow and L.J. Fort during free agency.
Kamu Grugier-Hill made 10 starts last year but played just 32 percent of the defensive snaps and looks like he will be the top reserve. He also led the team in special teams tackles with 11. Nate Gerry played 13 percent of the defensive snaps and had four tackles on special teams.
B.J. Bello and Alex Singleton are two bottom of the roster players that could make an impact on special teams.
One to watch: Brown. Who else? He is a tackling machine with more tackles over the past three seasons than anyone except Seattle’s Bobby Wagner. Plus, te Eagles will enjoy him on their side. In four career games against them he made 34 tackles, with 10 for loss and had a forced fumble.
The Eagles’ only real move in the offseason was bringing back Ronald Darby on a one-year deal. Injuries have derailed Darby’s two seasons with the Eagles, after they acquired him in a trade for Jordan Matthews after the 2016 season. If he can stay healthy, he should be one of the starters on the outside. Same with Jalen Mills, whose 2018 season ended after eight games with a foot injury.
Nothing is guaranteed for either of these players when it comes to starting. Sidney Jones could make a push to start, but he also is coming off a hamstring injury that ended last year early.
Then there’s Avonte Maddox and Rasul Douglas, both of whom played well for extended periods while filling in for Mills and Darby. Cre’Von LeBlanc also showed he could become a full-time player either in the slot or outside.
So competition, which includes Mercy Maston and Jeremiah McKinnon, two players signed to futures/reserve contracts in January, will sort this position out.
One to watch: Josh Hawkins. The 5-10, 190-pound corner entered the league in 2016 and has played in 32 games, mostly with Green Bay. He split time last year between Tampa Bay and Carolina. He joined the Eagles last year and played 21 snaps due to injury in playoff loss to the Saints.
This is aging corps that got younger with the Eagles’ after-draft signings of Godwin Igwebuike (24) and Blake Countess (25). Whether or not they are the long-term answers to someday replace Malcolm Jenkins (31) and Rodney McLeod (28) remains to be seen.
One to watch: Andrew Sendejo. When Sendejo signed on March 18 he looked like a shoo-in to be the third safety. The 31-year-old has played in 95 career games with 58 starts. But the Eagles’ addition of Countess, who played well while with the Rams but was waived when he opted not to take a pay cut, could make Sendejo fight harder now just to earn a roster spot.