Among all the question marks surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles as they prepare for the 2021 season, one thing’s for certain: this defensive line is legit.
This unit was the lone bright spot on an otherwise miserable 2020 season for the Eagles. Jim Schwartz’s bunch accumulated 49 sacks, third most in the league, and they did it while blitzing on just 22.2 percent of the defensive snaps. Per Pro Football Focus, the Eagles defensive line had a 38.4 percent pressure rate when they didn’t blitz, second-highest in the league.
The Eagles were also stout against the run last season, allowing 4.2 yards per carry, 10th-best in the NFL.
Outside of Malik Jackson, the Eagles are returning every contributor along their defensive line from last year. Brandon Graham is coming off his first Pro Bowl season, Josh Sweat proved that he can be a good situational pass rusher, and by guaranteeing Derek Barnett’s $10 million cap hit this season, the team clearly believes he has double-digit sack potential in him.
We can’t forget about the big boys along the interior either. Both Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave will be returning, along with Hassan Ridgeway, who the team re-signed this offseason.
If the front office wanted to focus on shoring up the secondary or any other position this offseason, nobody would’ve blamed them. In fact, I think that’s what most fans would have preferred. But, Howie Roseman decided to put some capital towards making his already great defensive line even better.
It started during the draft weekend. In the third round, the Eagles selected defensive tackle Milton Williams, one of the better pass rushing interior lineman in this year’s draft class. They then took another defensive tackle in the sixth round, Marlon Tuipulotu out of USC, who has the potential to be a three-down lineman in the near future.
Not only did Howie add bodies to the interior, he used his final few selections to address his edge rushing depth. With his second sixth round pick, Howie selected Taron Jackson out of Coastal Carolina, and in the seventh, he took a flier on Patrick Johnson out of Tulane. The Eagles have him listed as a linebacker, but he’ll likely fit in Jonathan Gannon’s scheme as a standup pass rusher.
To top things off, Howie then went out and acquired a vaunted Eagle-killer in Ryan Kerrigan, signing him to a one-year deal. At 32 years old, Kerrigan may not be the premiere pass rusher he once was, but he showed last year that he still has enough juice in the tank to have a profound impact. While starting just one game and playing 38 percent of the defensive snaps, Kerrigan still amassed 5.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 6 quarterback hits.
Between Kerrigan, Graham, Cox, Hargrave, Barnett, and Sweat, the lineman we expect to be the biggest contributors this season, they have 257.5 career sacks. Now I get it, some of these guys are obviously past their peak, but the Eagles have an exciting assortment of young potential to go along with the veteran talent.
And as we know, Gannon won’t deviate much from Schwartz’s philosophy of rotating his defensive lineman. “You have to rotate them,” Gannon said during his first press conference as the Eagles defensive coordinator. “You never want three or four guys to be at 65 snaps and then two or three guys at 10 snaps, and I really learned that from (Colts defensive coordinator Matt) Eberflus. He would say, ‘Get the horses fresh.’ He wanted them rotated. He wanted them fresh. And depending on certain situations, you’re going to have some certain guys in there because you’re utilizing their strengths. But whoever’s up on game day is going to play.”
In a time where we don’t really know much about how this Eagles team will look, it’s comforting to know that they’re defensive line will be in tact.
They should continue to dominate next season, even with some of their marquee players starting to get up there in age. Guys like Milton Williams, Josh Sweat, and Patrick Johnson will all likely have their opportunities to get after the pass rusher, and they all certainly have the ability to impact the game in that regard from day one.
Howie has always built his teams from the inside out, and for the most part it’s worked. I’m glad he didn’t deviate from that philosophy this offseason.