While the Eagles defensive front is aging, the unit still figures to be the strength of the defense in 2021 — as it has been for the past five or so years.
The team has great depth at each position along the defensive line. They lack that one bonified stud, but guys like Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are still very good, even if they are out of their primes.
Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Eagles front-four as they prepare to enter the 2021 season.
The Eagles defensive line has a nice mix of veteran and young talent at each position.
Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave will be the starters along the interior, with rookie third round pick Milton Williams likely being the first defensive tackle off the bench in their rotation.
Williams brings a nice repertoire of pass rushing moves to the table. He’s a bit undersized, weighing under 280 pounds. He’s your prototypical tweener — someone who can be a pass rushing force on the inside and kick to the edge on the goal line or short yardage situations to shore up the run defense.
Hassan Ridgeway and T.Y. McGill are also nice depth pieces at defensive tackle and have proven to be serviceable when called upon.
On the edge, the Eagles have even more depth to work with. Brandon Graham is coming off his first Pro Bowl season, and although he’ll be 33 years old heading into the 2021 campaign, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He’s missed just one game since 2015 and he’s averaged 7 sacks per season during that time. Graham is as consistent as they come at the defensive end positon.
On the opposite side, we have Derek Barnett. The former first round pick is entering a make or break year with the Eagles. The team picked up his fifth-year option this offseason with the hopes that his potential is finally met in 2021. Barnett has all the tools to be solid pass rusher on the outside, but injuries and inconsistent play has brought his stock down during his first four seasons.
It’s hard to believe, but Barnett is still only 25 years old. He still has time to prove he’s a consistent starting defensive end in this league, but this could very well be his final opportunity to do so as a Philadelphia Eagle.
If Barnett fails to live up to his potential, Josh Sweat is someone who could possibly take his starting spot. Sweat had a nice breakout season in 2020 — one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreadful season. Sweat played 38 percent of the defensive snaps and recorded 6 sacks, 38 combined tackles, 9 tackles for loss, and 12 quarterback hits. He’s a great situational pass rusher who has all the tools to become a starter in the NFL. At just 24 years old, Sweat should continue to develop this season and beyond.
That amount of depth alone is great for any defensive line, but in classic Howie Roseman fashion, he brought in a veteran pass rusher to beef up his defensive line rotation even more. Ryan Kerrigan was a menace on the edge for Washington over the past decade, and he always seemed to have his best games against the Eagles. As a situational pass rusher, Kerrigan should be able to get after the quarterback at a high clip.
Behind all those projected contributors, the Eagles have a handful of young players that they hope to develop. Most notably, Marlon Tuipulotu and Patrick Johnson bring nice upside at the bottom of the defensive line depth chart. Barring a catastrophe, these two rookies shouldn’t see the field much in 2021. But they each have the tools to develop into solid situational players, if not starters, down the line.
From top to bottom, this Eagles defensive line is strong. It’s hard to pinpoint any clear weaknesses with this group, but there are a few concerns worth discussing as we enter the year.
While the depth along this line is arguably the best in the league, the defensive front in Philly lacks an All-Pro caliber player. Cox has been that guy throughout his career, but entering his 10th season and coming off an up-and-down 2020 campaign, it’s hard to imagine him absolutely dominating interior lineman anymore.
Yes, he still racked up 6.5 sacks last year and made his sixth straight Pro Bowl, but it’s clear that he’s not the dominant force he once was.
Brandon Graham is coming off one of his best years of his career, but he’s never been a dominant pass rusher. He’s still one of the better all-around defensive ends in the league, though, and that’s valuable in itself.
If this defensive line is truly going to be elite in 2021, Barnett or Sweat will have to take that next step and become bonified pass rushing threats. They both have the talent to do so, and since they’re both entering contract years, this season is more or less a tryout to be the starting left end of the future in Philly.
Every elite defensive line in football has at least one young stud lineman that they can count on for 8-9+ sacks per season. The Eagles don’t have that, even though they have an abundance of good talent. Maybe Cox has a resurgence this year or Barnett/Sweat dominate on the edge and this point becomes irrelevant by season’s end — I hope that is the case. But as of right now, it’s still an unknown.
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