I feel like all I’ve been writing about lately is defense. I just want the Eagles to have a formidable defense again, can you blame me? It feels like a lifetime since we’ve seen dominant defense in Philly.
The Eagles have a handful of spots to fill on the defensive side of the ball heading into next season. Every position, from defensive back to defensive line, could use an extra body or two.
While the team won’t have the cap to make any splash signings once free agency begins on March 17, there are a handful of low-risk, high-reward players Howie Roseman and Co. could target from this year’s free agency pool.
Here are five defensive players that the Eagles should take a look at this offseason.
Safety, Malik Hooker
There’s going to be a lot of buzz surrounding Malik Hooker and the Eagles heading into free agency, for obvious reasons. Safety is a clear position of need for this team and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon was Hooker’s position coach for the past three years.
At just 24 years old and with a solid resume behind him, you’d think someone like Hooker would demand a high price tag. If it wasn’t for his injury history, that would likely be the case. Hooker hasn’t played a full 16 game season since entering the NFL in 2017. Worst of all, he’s coming off a torn Achilles in 2020.
Despite the injury history, signing someone like Hooker on a one-year deal makes a ton of sense for the Eagles. He won’t be much of a cap hit this year and the team will have the opportunity to re-sign him to a long-term deal after 2021 if he plays at a high level — which is pretty likely with Gannon as the defensive coordinator.
Rodney McLeod and Hooker would be a great one-two punch on the backend of Gannon’s cover 2 defense. Hooker would also bring some much needed ball hawking ability to this secondary, something this defense has sorely lacked for the past few years.
Linebacker, Eric Wilson
The former Minnesota Vikings linebacker is coming off his best year as a pro, recording 122 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 3 interceptions. At just 230 pounds, Eric Wilson is a bit undersized for the position, but his ability as a cover linebacker would be a nice trait to place alongside guys like Alex Singleton and T.J. Edwards.
Wilson has struggled with missed tackles, though. According to Pro Football Focus, he missed 20 last year. Not very good at all for a linebacker, but like I said, the reason the team would sign Wilson is due to his coverage ability.
He’s another low-risk, high-reward signing that Roseman should take a look at.
Corner, Ronald Darby
I know no one will like hearing this, but when put in a defensive system that fits his skill set, Ronald Darby is actually a serviceable corner. He struggled immensely playing under Jim Schwartz’s man coverage system, but during his one-year pitstop in Washington, Darby showcased the ability he has.
According to PFF, he was a top-30 corner last year out of 122 candidates at the position. On the year, Darby recorded 55 tackles, 16 pass defenses (fifth most in the league), and 1 fumble recovery, all while starting in every game.
The only problem with pursuing Darby this offseason is he’s going to want a long-term deal. After playing on a one-year “prove it” deal with Washington in 2020, and putting together a pretty nice year, it wouldn’t make sense for him to sign a similar deal with the team that let him walk just one offseason ago.
Signing Darby certainly comes with risk, but he wouldn’t be a terrible option to place opposite Darius Slay if the Eagles decide to fill that hole through free agency.
Corner, Chandon Sullivan
Another former Eagle, Chandon Sullivan has been a solid nickel corner for the Packers over the past two seasons. His first year with the Packers was much more commendable than his second, as he allowed just 35.5% of passes thrown his way to get completed in 2019. Quarterbacks posted just a 34.2 QB rating when targeting Sullivan that season as well.
2020 wasn’t as prosperous for the slot corner, but he was asked to play a bit more on the outside which didn’t play to his strengths. Whether the Eagles decide to target someone like Sullivan in free agency will depend on their evaluation of Avonte Maddox, who severely underperformed last season.
Like Sullivan, Maddox was forced to play on the outside for the majority of the year. Standing at just 5’9″, Maddox was often overmatched by bigger more physical receivers.
According to Pro Football Focus, in 509 defensive snaps lined up on the outside, Maddox posted a 37.1 coverage grade. His primary role should be in the slot, and the team would be wise to shift him back to his natural position.
But, if they want to go with a slightly bigger, more physical option in the slot next year, Sullivan is a guy to keep an eye on.
Corner, Xavier Rhodes
Xavier Rhodes is someone who is going to be linked to the Eagles throughout free agency this year. Mostly due to his connection with new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
Gannon was the Vikings assistant defensive backs coach during Rhodes’ best years, and once Gannon took the secondary coaching job in Indianapolis, Rhodes regressed immensely and had the worst year of his professional career in 2019. Rhodes ended up following Gannon to Indy following his 2019 campaign and he proved that he’s still a very serviceable corner when under Gannon’s tutelage.
In 2020, Rhodes allowed only 50% of the passes thrown his way to get completed, and quarterbacks posted a measly 79.2 passer rating when targeting him.
At 30 years old, Rhodes’ best years are behind him, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a solid starter in the Eagles new scheme. He’s a near perfect fit for what Gannon’s going to do defensively, and there obviously won’t be any kind of learning curve.
Given his age, Rhodes can probably be had for cheap. PFF predicts Rhodes will sign for three years at $24 million ($8 million per year). If the Eagles are able to squeeze at least two productive years out of Rhodes, this signing would be a win.
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