Eagles: 3 defensive question marks heading into 2021 season

There are a lot of unknowns on the 2021 iteration of the Philadelphia Eagles.

For starters, there’s a completely new coaching staff in place. Nick Sirianni was a relatively under the radar offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts due to the fact that Frank Reich was the one calling the plays. Jonathan Gannon is well known for his work as a secondary coach, but he has no experience coordinating a defensive unit.

The list goes on.

The question marks are laced throughout the roster as well. Is Jalen Hurts capable of being a franchise quarterback? Is this aging offensive line able to stay healthy for an entire season? The defensive side of the ball has even more questions surrounding it. Let’s take a look at the three most prominent question marks facing the Eagles defense heading into the 2021 season.

Who will be the CB2 in Week 1?

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? And the answer may very well be someone who’s not even on the roster yet (just sign Steven Nelson pls).

Darius Slay is a very capable veteran at the cornerback position. While some fans will say he underperformed in 2020, he did relatively well in coverage, despite only recording one interception on the year.

But, aside from Slay the team really doesn’t have anybody worthy of starting on the outside. Avonte Maddox is a natural nickel corner — he should start there this season. Then you have fourth round pick Zech McPhearson, who has some nice upside, but throwing him to the wolves in Week 1 shouldn’t be Plan A.

The most logical plan of action would be to sign one of the remaining veteran free agent corners. I already mentioned Steven Nelson, but there are a handful of others who could come to Philly and start right away. Gareon Conley and Bashaud Breeland immediately come to mind.

Hopefully, we have a clearer picture on who starts opposite of Slay in the coming weeks.

Can Alex Singleton be a long-term answer at linebacker?

One of the lone bright spots from the Eagles defense in 2020, linebacker Alex Singleton enters 2021 as one of the primary starters in Jonathan Gannon’s defense. With the signing of Eric Wilson — one of the better coverage linebackers in the league from last season — a few months ago, the Eagles seem somewhat set at the linebacker position for the time being.

That can all fall apart if Singleton was just a flash in the pan last year, though.

The potential is certainly there for Singleton, and now that he’s in a new defensive system that will play a bit more to his strengths, he should excel.

Singleton displayed some solid pass rushing ability last season as a blitzer. On 36 blitzes, Singleton managed to record two sacks, five quarterback knockdowns, and one quarterback hurry. Per Pro Football Focus, Singleton had a 75.6 pass rushing grade, 15th among all linebackers last season. And those were on not-so-creative blitzes out of the Jim Schwartz playbook. Gannon will likely utilize a more blitz-heavy approach with his linebackers this season. That doesn’t mean he’ll send an extra pass rusher on every snap, but it should be at a higher rate than what we saw from Schwartz’s unit, and a bit more creative, too.

Singleton will need to develop a bit more in coverage before we can say he’ll be a solid three-down starter in this league for years to come, but with Wilson now in the fold, it should help mitigate some of Singleton’s deficiencies in that area for the time being.

How will the Eagles safeties hold up?

On paper, the safety duo of Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris is stellar. They’ve both had solid careers, but they’re both going to be over the age of 30 in 2021 and they’re both coming off down years.

McLeod is coming off a torn ACL, and while many have speculated that he may not be ready for Week 1, he recently broke his silence on his rehab and declared he’d be ready for the start of the season.

That’s exactly what you want to hear out of one of your captains. But will it translate to on-field success? Well, only time will tell.

Anthony Harris was the best signing the Eagles made this offseason. He’s two years removed from leading the NFL in interceptions, recording six in 2019. Last year, he didn’t record a single INT, but he did have a career high in tackles with 104. The Mike Zimmer defense that Harris is coming from should be similar to the system Gannon installs here in Philly — Gannon learned under Zimmer for a large portion of his NFL coaching career.

If both of these guys can stay healthy and their age doesn’t catch up to them that quickly, the Eagles should have a solid set of safeties on the backend of their defense in 2021. It’s just impossible to know at this point if either will hold up.

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