Heading into 2021, the Eagles defense figured to be the strength of the team. With offseason additions at every level of Jonathan Gannon’s unit, the first-year defensive coordinator seemed primed to lead a potential top-10 defensive group.
Well, it hasn’t panned out that way through four weeks.
We can link the Eagles defensive collapse back to the loss of Brandon Graham, it’s impossible to deny to impact BG brings to the field. From his pass rushing ability to his stout run stuffing prowess, without Graham, this defense is clearly not the same group.
Nevertheless, his loss is not the only issue with the Eagle defense. Many fans, including myself, expected the Eagles defensive line to be one of the deepest groups in the NFL this year. Losing Graham — while still a gut wrenching loss at the time — should not have sunk the ship entirely. With guys like Josh Sweat, Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Derek Barnett, and Ryan Kerrigan, it was easy to assume they’d be able to pick up the slack left behind by Graham.
But they obviously haven’t, and it doesn’t appear they’ll be able to with the current personnel in place.
Hargrave has been a bright spot, totaling five sacks through four games, the most of any Eagles interior lineman through four games since Jerome Brown in 1991. Sweat has also played well at times, but he hasn’t taken that leap into elite territory like many of us expected this year.
Barnett, yet to record a single sack. In his career, he’s tallied more penalties against him (20) than career sacks (19.5). Kerrigan has played 116 defensive snaps and has yet to record a single statistic.
The player many fans point to as the best defensive lineman on the roster, Fletcher Cox, hasn’t done anything worth noting through four games in 2021. He’s recorded just five tackles thus far. No sacks, no quarterback hits.
When the so called “strength” of the Eagles defense is playing so poorly, it would be foolish to expect any of the other position groups to pick up the slack.
The linebackers are bad. There’s really no other way to describe it. In Sunday’s loss to Kansas City, the Eagles backers didn’t record a single tackle for a loss or no gain. Clyde Edwards-Helaire averaged 3.6 yards before contact and over half of his production came after he was touched, per PFF. Part of that is on the defensive line for allowing KC to create holes to run through, but it also speaks to how bad the Eagles linebackers are at shedding blocks and making tackles. The two things every linebacker should at least be decent at in the NFL.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles backers who’ve gotten the most playing time, Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton, have overall grades of 30.1 and 39.0 on the year respectively. By that measure, Wilson ranks as the worst linebacker in the league out 79 qualifying backers and Singleton ranks out as the 68th-best LB.
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Then we have the secondary, who has done a nice job limiting big plays. But they don’t force incompletions on the short to intermediate throws and they can’t tackle, so offenses still rack up yardage through the air. On Sunday, KC only threw the ball 7.4 yards downfield on average, but 45% of their receiving production came after the catch.
A bend but don’t break approach is a fine strategy, but it’s not sustainable if the players in coverage can’t create incompletions or tackle ball carriers.
I don’t fault Gannon’s system as much as I do the personnel. The front office hasn’t drafted a Pro Bowl defensive player since 2011. 10 years of whiffing on defensive draft picks will not lead to on-field success, no matter how much money you pour into the group. Even then, Howie Roseman has missed on several defensive free agents throughout the years. Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson, and Chris Long are the only signings that ever panned out on that side of the ball.
Looking at the offseason additions this past offseason, none of them have had a major impact. Wilson’s been terrible, Anthony Harris is not the same coverage safety he once was, Kerrigan hasn’t recorded a single tackle, and Steven Nelson has had a minimal impact.
There’s no fixing this defensive group with the current players at Gannon’s disposal. That’s just the harsh truth about this unit. Next year’s draft needs to address this side of the ball in a big way. Otherwise, the Eagles defense will continue to get torched every week.