Why is Tim Jernigan so valuable to the Eagles?

Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan feels like he has found a home in Philadelphia after signing his extension.

Tim Jernigan walked into the locker room on Monday with a mouth full of gold teeth shining for all to see. It wasn’t a smile from the four-year, $48-million contract extension he signed days earlier. It was laughter caused by teasing teammates.

Those teammates counted the millions – was it 48? Twenty-six guaranteed? They offered a bank for a deposit. They called him “BMT” for “Big Money Tim.” They wondered what he’ll do with the signing bonus.

“That’s been all day, man!” Jernigan said.

Jernigan caught the attention of teammates and Eagles fans when he signed his contract extension, earning the new deal after only nine games this season without statistics that rank among the top defensive tackles in the NFL. The Eagles are confident that a player who has only 1.5 sacks and has played only 52 percent of the defensive snaps this season is worth that type of contract.

“His presence has been felt whenever he’s been out there,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.

That’s because Jernigan’s value cannot be measured by traditional numbers, and the Eagles view the 25-year-old they acquired from the Baltimore Ravens during the offseason as a building block at a position that remains an organizational priority. He fits next to Fletcher Cox, the team’s highest-paid player and the foundation of the defense. And he’s still acclimating to a scheme that they believe fits him.

“I think in this league, you’ve got to have two dominant defensive tackles, you’ve got to have two guys in the middle that can be disruptive,” Cox said. “And really, two guys that can play any down – not just first and second. Timmy can play all three downs. He can rush the quarterback, he can stop the run.”

More than statistics

Camera icon Clem Murray
Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan celebrates his tackle for a loss on Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Johnson in the 3rd quarter in the game at Lincoln Financial Field October 8, 2017. Eagles won 34-7. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Even though Jernigan is considered a three-down defensive tackle, that’s not how he’s always used for the rotation-happy Eagles. Jernigan has often come off the field on third-and-long because the Eagles like to bounce their defensive ends inside, taking away some sack opportunities. Jernigan noticed this happening but wouldn’t complain about his role while the Eagles were winning. He made it his mission to be the “best first- and second-down player in the NFL.”

And if you try to define Jernigan’s production only by sacks, that gold-toothed smile would quickly vanish.

“There’s so much more that goes into it,” Jernigan said. “The guys in the middle, they do all the dirty work. They’re the guys that free up the linebackers, that disrupt plays, that can help the defensive ends get sacks. If you’re not solid in the middle of your defense, you probably don’t have a good defense.”

His pressure has been evident even on rushes without sacks. Jernigan has been credited with five hurries and he has quarterback hits in six of nine games this season. When asked about Jernigan’s statistics, Cox pointed to those hits as evidence that Jernigan is disruptive.

Jernigan’s presence has also affected the way Schwartz calls games. The Eagles are blitzing more this season, but the core defense still relies on pressuring the quarterback with four players. Schwartz is confident Jernigan can win one-on-ones, so he can trust his four-man pass rush. That was a big reason why Schwartz was so bullish on Jernigan entering the season, predicting that Jernigan would “be a big addition for us” akin to adding a first-round pick.

Jernigan has also been a big part of the Eagles’ top-ranked rush defense. He is tied for the team lead with eight tackles for a loss. But again, it’s more than the statistics. Linebacker Nigel Bradham said the way Jernigan plays on the inside “sets up everything for everybody” because of Jernigan’s ability to penetrate.

“Sometimes you don’t’ see the stats, but it’s there,” Cox said. “Timmy is a great player.”

Organizational emphasis

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox celebrates his touchdown fumble recovery with teammate defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan against Washington Redskins on Sept. 10.

With Jernigan’s contract finalized, no team has more invested in the interior defensive line than the Eagles, with two of the 11 highest-paid interior defensive linemen in the NFL. Although the total value of NFL contracts can be misleading because they’re not fully guaranteed, nearly $90 million of the $151 million in Cox’s and Jernigan’s contracts is guaranteed. Jernigan’s contract places him in a tier of players with the Bears’ Akiem Hicks and the Steelers’ Stephon Tuitt.

This should not come as a surprise because it’s an organizational philosophy to build along the offensive and defensive lines. The Eagles will usually be among the highest spenders in those areas under this administration. It would be more surprising if they’re investing the most in linebackers, not defensive tackles.

In Howie Roseman’s statement after the Eagles acquired Jernigan, the executive vice president for football operations said the Eagles “believe in building along the lines.” It’s a line Roseman often repeats. Roseman did not comment for this story, but it doesn’t take a deep dive to find the organization’s edict.

“We really feel like our lines are the strength of this football team,” Roseman said after taking defensive end Derek Barnett in the first round of the draft. “For all of us, when we sit down and discuss what we want to be, it’s that. That’s the start. So our actions have to reflect that.”

Plus, the Eagles should be motivated spenders. Quarterback Carson Wentz is on a fixed rookie contract at a bargain price, and that will change in a few years. So the Eagles have an opportunity now to lock up core players and absorb the cost before Wentz’s contract becomes burdensome. With a number of high-profile pending free agents – Bradham and Alshon Jeffery among them – Jernigan was the first to be retained.

“You don’t want to miss this moment,” former Eagles president Joe Banner said before the season. “Years 3, 4, and 5 with these young quarterbacks are a chance when you have a benefit of an A-caliber quarterback with an unprecedented opportunity to probably have $20 [million] or $30 million of extra cap room that you should have while you have an A quarterback, that you won’t have again for the rest of the career.”

Cox factor

After the Eagles acquired Jernigan in April in exchange for moving down 25 spots in the third round of the draft, the first player to call him was Cox.

“We keep you here, we have a chance to be really special,” Cox said.

When Eagles coach Doug Pederson discussed Jernigan’s contract extension, he noted how Cox and Jernigan “work well together hand in hand.” Don’t minimize Cox’s role in the decision to keep Jernigan. The Eagles view Cox as one of the NFL’s premier defensive players, but in order to maximize Cox, they need a player who can take advantage of the double-teams he draws and also alleviate some of the attention that goes to Cox. Jernigan can be that type of player.

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox .

“It keeps offenses honestly,” Cox said. “They can’t always slide to me.”

Defensive tackles don’t usually have the production of edge rushers, but Cox and Jernigan will be the key to the Eagles’ defense. How should their effect be measured?

“Take the two guys in the middle out, and you’d find out,” Jernigan said. “Take 91 out and 93 out … you’ll see the difference. It’s common sense.”

Ascending player

Jernigan would never be considered a late bloomer. He said he knew he’d play in the NFL “as soon I stepped on the field” as a 9-year-old. When he played with cousins and friends in Lake City, Fla., he said, he was always the best player. He was a high school all-American and five-star recruit who earned playing time as a true freshman at Florida State and won a national championship before the Ravens took him in the second round after his junior year. So it’s not necessarily an underdog story.

“He was one of those day one guys that you can see from the jump he was special,” said Bradham, a teammate at Florida State. “Got footwork, speed, off-the-ball skills. Things you can’t teach.”

Jernigan was not surprised by a big-money contract. It just happened sooner than he thought.

However, there’s still room for growth with the Eagles, who know him well because Jernigan was scouted out of college by player-personnel chief Joe Douglas, then with the Ravens. They’re not paying him for his nine games this season but rather what they think he can do in the system. They think he’s an ideal fit for Schwartz’s defensive scheme because of his quickness and penetrating ability. It’s considerably different than how he played for three years in Baltimore.

“In training camp, that learning curve was a little steep for him,” Schwartz said. “He had some rough spots, but he came out of it. … But as far as knowledge of the scheme and knowledge of the techniques, he had all that mastered. He’s been a good player and we’re really excited to have him in the future.”

Jernigan feels comfortable in Philadelphia, with defensive linemen whose jokes get him to show those gold teeth and in an organization that paid him before he even hit free agency. It’s a big contract, but he’s ready to prove he can earn it.

“I want to be here until I’m done,” Jernigan said. “I don’t want to go anywhere. When people just show that kind of trust in you and someone changes your life, you’d do anything for them.”