Eagles: What is the biggest need facing Jonathan Gannon’s defense?

As the NFL season officially comes to a close, Eagles fans anxious await an offseason that promises to be exciting.

Three first-round picks to go along with 10 picks overall, approx. $30-$40 million in cap space, and a general manager who isn’t afraid to make splash moves to improve his team. It has all the makings of an interesting offseason for the Birds.

Looking at the roster as it stands now and the potential losses in free agency, it’s not hard to find the needs facing this team heading into the offseason. Without question, the defense needs an injection of playmakers at every level.

They’re set to lose three starters in their secondary (Steve Nelson, Rodney McLeod, and Anthony Harris), along with edge rusher Derek Barnett. There’s a chance that Howie Roseman decides to bring at least one of his secondary players back to keep some continuity on the backend, but there will still be holes to fill there.

Safety will be a bigger need than corner. Harris or McLeod may be back, but neither played at a high level last season and both are on the wrong side of 30. McLeod posted a PFF grade of 64.8, 43rd out of 92 qualifying safeties. Harris came in with a slightly worse grade, 62.0, ranking him 53rd at his position.

Darius Slay proved he still has some juice left in the tank this season, grading out as the fourth-best corner in football according to PFF. Avonte Maddox also performed at a relatively high level in 2021, posting a 71.0 grade, which ranked 21st among 116 corners.

So, does that make safety the biggest need for the Eagles defense this offseason? Not quite.

You could make a case for linebacker being the biggest need, but T.J. Edwards played so well in 2021 that he could cement a spot as the long-term solution at the position with another solid year in 2022. Davion Taylor also showed some promise throughout the year. Being a former third-round pick, he’ll be given the benefit of time to fully develop his game.

That brings us to the defensive line, a position group that doesn’t get as much scrutiny as it probably should.

Josh Sweat and Javon Hargrave had nice seasons, both recording 7.5 sacks respectively. But by no means were they dominant or even great. Everyone else along the line underperformed. Fletcher Cox did little to nothing throughout the year and will be 31 heading into next year. Derek Barnett started nearly every game this season and finished with just two sacks. Brandon Graham will be back and that obviously helps, but at 34 years old, he probably won’t be the same BG in 2022, especially when you consider how hard it is to bounce back from an Achilles tear.

If we had to narrow down the need along the defensive line to either defensive end or tackle, the nod would have to go to defensive end. Josh Sweat is the only promising player at the position and he still has a ways to go before he’s considered an elite pass rusher. At least you have suitable players along the interior with Hargrave, Cox, and Milton Williams, who figures to take a leap in year two.

Now, we have to conclude which position is the bigger need: Safety or defensive end.

In order to do that, it’s important to note how much value each position carries in regards to the defense’s performance as a whole. Using Pro Football Focus’ WAR (wins above replacement) methodology, defensive back is one of the most valuable positions in football, right behind quarterback and wide receiver. But, PFF’s WAR lowers lineman value significantly due to the fact they generate the most penalties of any position.

The eye test will tell us that defensive line is the more valuable position here. Very rarely will you find a secondary that plays so well it can mitigate the deficiencies found on the pass rushing front. Super Bowl LVI was a prime example of that, in particular the final play from the Bengals.

That’s a touchdown if the Rams defensive line doesn’t disrupt Joe Burrow.

Despite having elite play at corner and above average play at safety in 2021, the Eagles struggled to contain the best quarterbacks in the league. That’s due in large part to the defensive line’s inability to generate consistent pressure with the front four.

With all that being said, defensive end should be the top priority for Howie Roseman this offseason. Safety is still an obvious need and shouldn’t be ignored, but they won’t move the needle much by putting the majority of their assets into the position.

Fixing the pass rush will instantly bolster the rest of the defense. Not only will creating pressure with four mitigate any holes found in the secondary, it will allow Edwards and Taylor to roam more freely at linebacker and make plays.

During Roseman’s tenure, the defensive line has never truly been a need for this team. He’s done a great job supplementing talent through the draft and free agency. His team building philosophy is rooted in the trenches. And now that it’s an apparent need, we should expect Roseman to do everything in his power to fix the issue.

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