Philadelphia Eagles new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has a lot of buzz surrounding him as we creep closer to training camp.
Coming from the Mike Zimmer tree, Gannon will employ an attacking 4-3 style of defense, while emphasizing aggressive play on the backend. The team doesn’t have an absurd amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but they’ve quietly upgraded their linebacker and safety positions, while adding more depth to their already deep defensive line. Cornerback is still a question mark, but it’s the only glaring weakness on Gannon’s defense at this point.
With this new style of defense in Philly, we should see some breakout stars in 2021. Here are three bold predictions for Gannon’s defense this season.
Josh Sweat leads the team in sacks
A former fourth round pick out of Florida State, Josh Sweat has steadily improved his game in each of his three NFL seasons. He rarely saw the field as a rookie, but over the past two seasons, Sweat has totaled 10 sacks, 59 combined tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 22 quarterback hits, three pass deflections, and three forced fumbles.
Entering his fourth year at 24 years old, Sweat could be in for a huge season. He’s already a polished pass rusher, posting a 73.6 pass rushing grade per Pro Football Focus, he’ll just need to improve in his ability to stop the run, posting a 56.6 run defense grade on PFF.
Further development in that area will only increase his playing time. Last season, Sweat only played 38 percent of the defensive snaps. Despite the limited playing time, Sweat still ranked third on the team in sacks and tied for second in tackles for loss.
Sweat has all the physical tools to be a menace off the edge, and he’s already shown growth each year of his NFL career. Taking that next step could lead to a double-digit sack season for Sweat in 2021.
Avonte Maddox leads the team in interceptions (if he plays in the nickel)
Not sure if it gets much bolder than this. Predicting the worst rated corner from a year ago to bounce back and lead his team in interceptions the following season — I’m on an island with this one, I know. But hear me out.
There’s a few reasons to believe Maddox can become a solid nickel corner in the NFL, if Gannon decides to put him there. And by all accounts, that seems to be the direction they’re heading in.
Maddox’s best season came as a rookie, where he started nine games and totaled two interceptions, four pass defensed, one forced fumble, and 35 combined tackles. That year, he played all over the field in Jim Schwartz’s defense, seeing time at outside corner, nickel, and free safety. The constant shifting around was mostly due to the abundance of injuries the Eagles dealt with in their secondary that season, but Maddox proved that his versatility would be a valuable asset moving forward.
Unfortunately for Maddox, Schwartz never utilized that versatility again. Maddox played primarily on the outside over the past two seasons, and his production suffered. Standing at 5-foot-9, with average straight line speed, Maddox isn’t suited to be a starter on the outside. But with his quick twitch and ability to break on the ball, he should fit in nicely as a slot cornerback.
Gannon has a long history of developing corners in the NFL. From Xavier Rhodes to Kenny Moore, Gannon has done it with under the radar talent most of the time. Maddox could be the next project for Gannon to unlock.
Eagles finish in the top-half of the NFL in takeaways
Forcing turnovers was a huge area of concern under Jim Schwartz. In his first two years with the team (2016 and 2017), the Eagles finished in the top-10 in takeaways each of those seasons. In the three seasons since then, they haven’t finished in the top-half of the league in takeaways.
While Jim Schwartz never had premiere talent at the cornerback position, his scheme just didn’t seem to breed a lot of turnovers over the past three seasons, despite still getting a ton of pressure on the quarterback. On the other hand, Jonathan Gannon’s defense should be run a bit more aggressively and lead to more takeaways.
From 2018 to 2020, the time Gannon was with the Colts, Indianapolis never finished in the bottom-half of the league in creating turnovers. They reached their peak last year, ranking 6th in the NFL in takeaways.
With players like Anthony Harris, who totaled nine total interceptions from 2018 to 2019, and Darius Slay, who had 13 total interceptions in the three seasons prior to joining Philly, Gannon should be able to put these guys in positions to create turnovers. Not to mention newcomer Eric Wilson, who had three interceptions from the linebacker position last season.
Forcing turnovers will be one of the main focal points of Gannon’s defense in 2021. I’d be pretty surprised if they don’t at least finish in the top-half of the league this season.