The fifth of eight parts previewing the Eagles’ roster before organized team activities begin on May 21.
Here are the schedule and links to previous installments:
May 7: Quarterback/specialist
May 8: Running back
May 9: Wide receiver/tight end
Yesterday: Offensive line
Today: Defensive line
Who’s back: At the start of the offseason, Brandon Graham seemed resigned to finally move on from the Eagles. It was his time to finally cash in as a free agent, and it was hard to imagine the team would match his market value. We’ll never how much Graham would have fetched had he hit the open market, but the Eagles didn’t want to get into a bidding war and signed the 31-year-old defensive end to a three-year, $40 million contract.
Graham notched only four sacks last season, but he missed most of the offseason as he recovered from ankle surgery and it was fairly clear that he needed time to work himself back into shape. The Eagles brought him back because he’s a three-down lineman and one of their unquestioned leaders. But is he prolific enough when you consider his pass-rushing numbers?
Someone will need to step up off the edge with 16 1/2 sacks’ worth of production gone (more on that later). The onus will fall significantly on Derek Barnett. Aside from Carson Wentz, there might not be an Eagles player with more on his shoulders in 2019. The third-year end had a promising start to his career, but he suffered a torn rotator cuff early last season and was shut down by midseason. It might be time for the former first-round draft pick to deliver.
The Eagles have several projects returning. Josh Sweat came with a fifth-round price tag last year, so he’ll continue to get an extended look. But he’s coming off a season-ending foot injury and there remain questions about his knee and whether it will be a chronic problem. Daeshon Hall and Joe Ostman could sneak onto the 53-man roster or the practice squad, but if the Eagles are relying on either next season, you know health has become an issue.
Having Fletcher Cox back inside will obviously help the ends. The All-Pro is the Eagles’ linchpin on the line, and he solidified his place as one of the best defensive tackles, if not the best, in the NFL last season. Cox had a career-high 10 1/2 sacks and led the team with 34 quarterback hits. He did all that with little assistance from his defensive-tackle counterpart.
Haloti Ngata was an ineffective free-agent signing, although the Eagles didn’t anticipate that he would end up starting. Tim Jernigan injured his back during the offseason — how he did so is still a mystery — and played only sparingly when he finally returned. The Eagles declined to pick up his option for 2019, but they brought him back on a one-year deal just before the start of the draft. Can he regain his 2017 form, or has he lost it?
Treyvon Hester and Bruce Hector showed glimpses of potential, particularly the former, but the Eagles lack proven depth in the interior.
Who’s new: Malik Jackson was the centerpiece addition to the defense this offseason. The defensive tackle was once the highest-paid player at his position, but he fell out of favor with the Jaguars and was released in March. The Eagles snatched him up with a three-year, $30 million deal and clearly believe that he will thrive in Jim Schwartz’s aggressive scheme. Jackson’s run defense has been dubious, but Jernigan should help compensate, and as long as Jackson gets consistent pass-rush pressure, the Eagles will be happy.
Vinny Curry was released by the Eagles last offseason in a way similar to Jackson — his contract had gotten too expensive — and he landed in Tampa. It wasn’t a particularly happy turn. Curry struggled early — he was completely shut down by Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson in Week 2, for instance — and was then bothered by a high ankle sprain. The Eagles didn’t expend much in bringing him back, one year for $2.25 million, but he could be a downgrade as the third edge rusher. Curry has only 11 1/2 sacks in his last 62 games. He’s a better run defender than given credit.
Rookie ends rarely have an impact in their first seasons — sometimes even first-rounders — but Shareef Miller could be given the opportunity to push Curry for that third spot. The Penn State product was drafted in the fourth round. The Eagles didn’t land a defensive tackle in a draft deep at the position, but they did send a third-day pick to the Colts for Hassan Ridgeway.
Who’s gone: The Graham and Jackson signings set in motion the trade of Michael Bennett to the Patriots — the Eagles were prepared to release him — and the uncertainty surrounding Chris Long’s return. The team had tired of Bennett’s act, but why deal for him in the first place when his temperament was hardly a secret, and why get rid of your most productive pass-rushing end with little compensation? The 33-year-old didn’t always play to scheme on run downs, and some of his production came as an inside rusher, but it will be difficult to replace his 9 1/2 sacks and 33 hits. Bill Belichick obviously still saw something worth salvaging.
With Jackson expected to get most of the third-down snaps inside alongside Cox, Graham will move predominantly outside. Long could read the writing on the wall and was told that his role on third downs wouldn’t be guaranteed. He’s under contract, but the veteran has made it no secret that he doesn’t want to return in a lesser role. Could Long change his mind? It’s possible. But it might take an injury for him to return to Philly. Ngata announced his retirement after he scaled Mount Kilimanjaro with Long.