Eagles: Why Gannon’s defense could be a surprise unit in 2021

Through a few weeks of Eagles training camp, it’s been clear that Jonathan Gannon’s defense is already a few steps ahead of Nick Sirianni’s offense. That’s not overly surprising, given the offense is working with a first-time starter under center and a first-time play caller in Sirianni.

But Gannon is a first time coordinator, too. It typically takes at least a year for a new coordinator to truly install his new scheme and get his players to fit their roles. Reports out of camp indicate that Gannon has already gotten some great production out of his defense, and that they may be ahead of schedule.

While Gannon is new to this whole defensive coordinator thing, he’s not stepping into this role without solid personnel at his disposal. Howie Roseman — for all the slack he’s gotten over the past calendar year — deserves credit for building this defense this offseason. He’s improved every position and that’s not an exaggeration.

Roseman acquired veteran help all across his defense. And he signed these players for cheap.

  • Anthony Harris — 1-year, $4 million
  • Steven Nelson — 1-year, $2.95 million
  • Eric Wilson — 1-year, $2.75 million
  • Ryan Kerrigan — 1-year, $2.5 million

Each of these vets have had varying levels of success in the NFL. Harris led the league in interceptions two years ago, Kerrigan should still be a solid rotational pass rusher at 33 years old. Wilson is coming off a career year, and Nelson is one of the better man coverage corners in the entire NFL.

The defense already had a handful of veteran standouts, along with some budding stars in the fold prior to these signings, too. Guys like Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Rodney McLeod, and Darius Slay have all spent time playing in different defensive schemes over their careers. Learning a new system is nothing new to them, so this transition shouldn’t be that drastic.

Then we have some of the younger Eagles defenders who are set to make an impact this year. Josh Sweat and Derek Barnett should be a force rotating in at defensive end. Avonte Maddox, now shifted into his natural position in the nickel, should have a much more productive year than in seasons prior. And players like K’Von Wallace, Davion Taylor, Zech McPhearson, and Milton Williams are all primed to contribute in some capacity this year.

The mantra of this new coaching staff has been pretty clear this offseason — put your personnel in favorable positions that will see them reach their full potential. Gannon’s new-look defense will likely have elements of Mike Zimmer’s cover-2 scheme, along with cover-3 match concepts that were used by Mike Eberflus in Indianapolis. Both of these schemes fit the Eagles defensive personnel.

Harris and McLeod should do well as deep safeties, which will allow both Nelson and Slay to take more risks at corner and potentially cause more turnovers.

The new scheme will also see a bit more blitzing from the linebackers, a foreign concept to former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Again, this should work well with what the Birds have at backer. Alex Singleton had a 75.6 pass rushing grade last season, per Pro Football Focus.

It’s easy to overlook this defense heading into 2021. Some of the aging veterans haven’t performed at a Pro Bowl level over the past 2-3 seasons, and while the young players have potential, it’s yet to be realized on the field. But with Gannon at the helm, and his new system putting these players in favorable positions, this defense as a whole could be a revitalized bunch in 2021.

This defense could be a top-10 unit this year. They have the players, and more importantly the coaching, to reach that height.

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