Of all the new coordinators on the Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has gotten the most buzz from the fan base.
He comes from the Mike Zimmer tree of defensive coaches, spending three seasons under Zimmer in Minnesota as the assistant secondary coach, before joining the Colts to become their cornerbacks coach. In Indianapolis, Gannon’s defensive coordinator, Matt Eberflus, ran a very similar system to Zimmer’s — a cover 2 base scheme or cover 2 man with a pair of safeties playing over the top.
This style of defense will be very different from that of Jim Schwartz, who relied heavily on one safety sets and placing his corners on islands on the outside with not much help over the top. There will be a lot of carry over from Schwartz’s defense to Gannon’s personnel wise. But with key additions like Anthony Harris, Eric Wilson, and Ryan Kerrigan, the transition from Schwartz’s system to Gannon’s shouldn’t be too rough.
Gannon has a solid crop of veterans and young potential to work with as he prepares for his first year as the Birds defensive coordinator. Let’s take a look at three keys to success for Gannon’s defense in 2021.
Eric Wilson proves he wasn’t just a one-year wonder last season
During the free agency period, Howie Roseman was able to snatch up 26-year-old linebacker Eric Wilson on a one-year deal. He had a breakout campaign in 2020 with the Minnesota Vikings, accumulating 122 combined tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and 3 interceptions in 15 starts. His extended playing time was due in large part to an injured Anthony Barr, and with Barr set to be back this upcoming season, Minnesota saw no need to bring back Wilson once his contract was up.
Wilson will have every opportunity to prove he’s a legit three-down linebacker in the NFL this season playing in Philly. He should be familiar with this type of defense after playing in a similar version of it during his four-year career in Minnesota. Eagles new linebackers coach, Nick Rallis, is also a disciple of Zimmer and played a hand in Wilson’s development as the assistant linebackers coach with the Vikings.
The biggest question mark surrounding Wilson is his ability to effectively stop to run and play physically around the line of scrimmage. We know he has a nose for the football and great pass coverage ability, finishing last season with a PFF pass rush grade of 67.9 and a coverage grade of 65.5.
On the flip side, he finished 2020 with a run defense grade of 38.3 per PFF, among the worst run defense grades in the league for a linebacker. Wilson missed a total of 17 tackles and posted a missed tackle percentage of 12.2 percent.
The Eagles have other linebackers on the roster who can fill in on running situations, like T.J. Edwards. But ideally, Wilson steps up his game and never comes off the field. If he shores up his tackling and continues to be a menace when blitzing or in pass coverage, Wilson could potentially earn himself a long-term contract with the team next offseason.
Anthony Harris and Rodney McLeod play up to their abilities
I wrote pretty extensively on how this safety duo can impact Gannon’s defense earlier this week, so if you’d like to read some more fleshed out thoughts on it, click here.
In short, both Harris and McLeod are very good pass coverage safeties and perfect fits in Gannon’s cover 2, cover 2 man defense. With how pedestrian the Eagles cornerback room is at the moment, Gannon will need to rely heavily on these two to pick up the slack in pass defense.
Harris is coming off somewhat of a down year in Minnesota, failing to record a single interception after totaling nine in the previous two years combined. McLeod is still recovering from a torn ACL, but he’s told reporters that he believes he’ll be ready for the start of the season.
If Harris and McLeod play up to their abilities and really mesh into Gannon’ defense, they could prove to be the most valuable assets on this Eagles defense by season’s end.
The team figures out the No. 2 CB position
Whether they sign someone or if Avonte Maddox/Zech McPhearson step up to fill the void, something has to be done about the Eagles No. 2 cornerback spot. I’ve been banging the drum for the team to add someone all offseason and they just haven’t — at least nobody notable who can come in and immediately start.
Now that we’re past the June 1 deadline and the Eagles have a bit more cap to work with (approx. $6 million, with potentially $8.5 million more if/when Zach Ertz is gone), maybe Roseman will go out and acquire a guy like Steven Nelson, but it’s still to be determined.
While the safety duo of Harris and McLeod should help mitigate some of the shortcomings from the No. 2 corner spot, it’s not like they can physically play both positions here. We don’t need a lockdown guy and even a consistently good corner on that side of the field, just someone who’s average to above average in coverage and isn’t a complete black hole.
Maybe that guy is Maddox or McPhearson, but I’d like to think that Roseman recognizes just how glaring this hole is and does something about it before training camp starts.
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