The Inquirer/Daily News beat reporters are previewing the Eagles' offseason. Free agency will begin on March 14, and the draft will be April 26-28.
Derek Barnett, Fletcher Cox, Winston Craig, Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham, Tim Jernigan, Chris Long, Steven Means, Elijah Qualls, Aziz Shittu, Destiny Vaeao.
The Eagles devoted more salary-cap space ($36.7 million) to their defensive line than at any other position in 2017 – even the offensive line ($34.6 million). It's difficult to argue with the investment. Jim Schwartz' aggressive 4-3 defensive scheme is predicated upon the front four's getting pressure on the quarterback, and for the most part, the Eagles line delivered on that premise. Schwartz isn't a big fan of situational statistics, but he doesn't downplay the importance of sacks in his system. The Eagles increased their number of sacks from 33 in 2016 to 38 last season, and their average per pass attempt from 6.15 to 6.32 percent, although they ranked only 22nd in the NFL in the latter category.
Sacks tell only part of the story. There were games when the pass coverage wasn't doing enough to force quarterbacks off their first and second reads. If there was a unit responsible for the Eagles' high ranking in passing yards allowed per attempt (seventh) and in forced turnovers (third), it was the line. Is there room for improvement and upgrades? Absolutely. The Super Bowl exposed some of the issues with the group, at least in terms of the rush. But when the Eagles needed a stop late in the fourth quarter, they got it when Brandon Graham strip-sacked quarterback Tom Brady with an inside rush.
Fletcher Cox drew double-team blocking that isolated Graham against just the guard. The Patriots kept the all-pro defensive tackle in check for most of the game, opting to take their chances in one-on-ones vs. the other rushers. It shouldn't have taken 40-plus drops for the Eagles to cash in, but Brady will do that to the best of lines. Still, New England's plan emphasized how it can be easier to contain inside rushers than elite edge guys. There's no denying that Cox is one of the two or three best defensive tackles in the league. He was an immovable beast in December and January. But there's a school of thought among some NFL front offices that you don't expend top dollar on inside linemen.
It's hard to fault Cox for some of the inefficiencies on the outside, the primary one being Vinny Curry. He had a strong season against the run – his first as a starter – but his three sacks weren't enough for someone who was among the highest paid at his position. The Eagles will have a hard time keeping Curry at his 2018 cap number. Overall, they are projected to have nearly $51 million invested in the defensive line in 2018 – the third highest in the league, behind the Jaguars and Dolphins. Something's got to give, and it is likely that Curry will be sent packing or take a pay cut. It'll be a tough decision, but one made easier with Derek Barnett ready to take a starting spot. The Eagles' top draft choice had a promising first season (five sacks) backing up Curry on the right and should only improve in Year 2.
Graham has a year left on his contract, but both sides would like to work out an extension. There have been preliminary discussions. Graham wants to be paid like an elite end. He briefly left offseason workouts last May in the hopes of procuring a new deal, and the Eagles did alter his contract to include more incentive-based increases. He hit a few in 2017 when he set a career high with 9 1/2 sacks. But he's slated to earn only $7 million in 2018 – currently the 27th-highest salary among NFL ends. He's clearly better than that. But the question for the Eagles is do you pay Graham for what he has accomplished or for how he will perform as he enters his 30s? They don't exactly have a lot of money to spend, but an extension with a signing bonus could lower his cap figure for 2018.
Tim Jernigan signed a four-year, $48 million extension in November, but his cap number for 2018 is only $5 million. He has $25.48 million guaranteed. Jernigan, acquired in an April trade, performed well in Schwartz's system. He had 2 1/2 sacks and averaged 2 1/2 tackles through his first 10 games. But he had zero sacks and averaged only 1.9 tackles per game over his final eight games, including the playoffs. Jernigan was supposed to thrive as a rusher opposite Cox, but Beau Allen and Graham saw as many snaps inside on pass downs. The Eagles love the 25-year-old's potential, though.
Of the bottom-roster linemen, Steven Means could have a more prominent role if one or two of the ends ahead of him were to not return. Destiny Vaeao was active in the 11 regular-season games in which he was healthy, but as the fourth defensive tackle, he was the odd man out in two of three postseason games. He could play more in 2018 if Allen leaves via free agency, as can rookie Elijah Qualls.
Beau Allen, Bryan Braman, Vinny Curry, Chris Long.
Curry will cost $11 million against the cap in 2018. Only Cox ($17.9 million), tackle Lane Johnson ($12,484,375) and guard Brandon Brooks ($11,136,397) have higher numbers. The Eagles would save only $5 million if they were to trade or release Curry. Howie Roseman has done an excellent job with the cap, particularly after Chip Kelly left it in shambles during his one year in charge of personnel. But the Curry contract – five years, $46.25 million – is probably one he regrets. It will be tough to trade Curry at his number, and a $6 million cap hit with a release would be a tough pill to swallow, but faced with the prospect of his hitting the street at 30 and with only nine sacks over his last 50 games, the guess here is that Curry would agree to a restructure if given the option.
Allen and the Eagles were working on an extension last offseason, but he suffered a pectoral injury in April and those talks were shelved. The fourth-year defensive tackle was back by the season opener and had another productive season as the third interior lineman. But he's slated to hit the market, and while he might not break the bank, the Eagles could be priced out of competition.
Chris Long's future could be tied to Curry. The Eagles have him under contract for one more year with a $2.35 million cap number. He was a bargain at $1.85 million in 2017. Long notched five sacks and four forced fumbles playing behind Graham on the left. He made several game-changing plays, particularly against the Rams in December (a late strip-sack) and the Vikings in the NFC championship game (a forced interception). He's a positive presence in the locker room. But he's 32 and the Eagles might be looking for younger, cheaper options.
The Eagles aren't expected to be big spenders in free agency, so big-market names such as DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Star Lotulelei, and Sheldon Richardson will likely be left for other teams to bid on. Defensive end Alex Okafor could be a next-tier option, but he's coming off an Achilles tendon tear in November. Jerry Attaochu hasn't lived up to the potential the Chargers saw when they drafted him, but perhaps he could blossom with a change of scenery.
At defensive tackle, the Raiders' Denico Autry, the Rams' Tyrunn Walker or the Giants' Jay Bromley could be signed for depth.
Could the Eagles expend a first-round pick on a defensive lineman for the second year in a row? Sure, why not? If there's a highly ranked end or tackle still on the board when they select, there's no reason not to pull the trigger. The Eagles shouldn't be looking to fill immediate needs through the draft, and you can never have enough talent up front.
At end, Bradley Chubb (6-foot-4, 275 pounds) of N.C. State and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (6-1, 240) of Oklahoma are likely to go in the first half of the first round, but Marcus Davenport (6-7, 255) of UT-San Antonio could be an intriguing option in the latter part of the round. He shined at the Senior Bowl.