Eagles: 3 defensive players who need to take a step forward in 2021

With the exception of the cornerback position, the Eagles defense looks pretty solid heading into the first year with Jonathan Gannon running the show.

They’re returning every starter along their defensive line, they’ve added to their linebacker corps, and the addition of Anthony Harris on the backend should shore up the safety position. At the very least, the Eagles defense should rank in the top half of the league this season.

But if this defense is going to be an elite unit, some players are going need to step up big time in 2021. Here are three defensive players who need to take a big leap forward this season.

Javon Hargrave

The Eagles signed Hargrave to a three-year, $39 million deal last offseason with the hope that he’d be a force placed next to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. While he certainly had his moments, like his two sack performance against New Orleans, he was inconsistent throughout the year and missed time with injury.

In 11 starts, Hargrave accumulated 38 combined tackles, 4.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 8 quarterback hits. Those aren’t terrible numbers by any stretch, but if he steps up his game in 2021, the Eagles defensive line should be even more formidable than it was last season.

2020 was the first season Hargrave played in a four-man front, coming from Pittsburgh where he played in a 3-4 scheme. He should naturally develop as a more sound three-tech defensive tackle with more time at the position.

Hargrave’s 2021 season could play a big role in the future of Cox as well. There has been some speculation around Cox’s outlook with the team past 2021, and if Hargrave proves to be a Pro Bowl level talent in a four-man front this year, moving on from the aging former All-Pro could be in the cards.

While the hype around the Hargrave signing was palpable last season, he enters 2021 very under the radar. If he takes a leap forward in his second year as a 4-3 defensive tackle, Eagles fans will know his name well by season’s end.

Avonte Maddox

All eyes will be on Avonte Maddox this season. He’s coming off his worst season as a pro, posting a 37.8 grade on Pro Football Focus, the worst mark of any corner in the league. Although injuries did hamper his production a bit, he was clearly outmatched almost every time he was on the field last season.

He allowed a completion percentage of 67.3 percent and a passer rating of 108.3 when targeted, both of which were career-lows for Maddox. Entering a contract year, the pressure is undoubtedly on Maddox to perform. With Jonathan Gannon in town, someone with a long track record of developing cornerbacks, perhaps Maddox will finally live up to the hype he had following his rookie season.

While it hasn’t been confirmed yet, Maddox will likely move to the nickel this season. His skill set and build is that of a prototypical nickel in today’s NFL, so the transition makes a ton of sense.

As the depth chart currently stands, Darius Slay will be the No.1 corner, with Maddox in the nickel, and who the hell knows at CB2. It’s not looking great for the cornerback position right now, but Maddox playing superbly from the slot would go a long way. The success of the Eagles defense hinges on their secondary.

Maddox has the opportunity to be a pivotal factor in how good Philly’s defense will be. We’ll find out what Maddox is truly made of in 2021.

Derek Barnett

Like Maddox, Derek Barnett is also entering a contract year with the Eagles. The team picked up his fifth year option, indicating they have faith in Barnett’s ability. He just needs to play a full season at a high level and he’ll likely get a nice payday from the front office next offseason.

In 10 starts last season, Barnett contributed 5.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 21 pressures to the Eagles pass rush. Not bad, but not up to the level of a former first round pick. Barnett has yet to realize his full potential as a pass rusher in the NFL, and this could very well be his final chance to prove himself in Philly.

If he becomes the pass rusher everyone expected him to be coming out of Tennessee, the Eagles will have one of the best defensive end rotations in the NFL. Brandon Graham is already solidified, and the combination of Josh Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan should form a great pair of situational pass rushers. The level of dominance this group can inflict on opposing offensive lines really hinges on how well Barnett plays in 2021.

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