Where PFF ranks every Eagles position heading into 2021: Defense
This offseason Pro Football Focus ranked all the position groups in the NFL and my last blog looked at their ratings of the Eagles offensive units, which were realistic but not very kind. Well, spoiler alert for this one, PFF does not think too highly of the Eagles’ defense or their moves to improve it either. However, we will start with the second top five unit awarded to the Eagles other than Dallas Goedert at tight end.
Defensive Line | PFF Rank: 5th
The cornerstone of the Eagles’ franchise for years now continues to step up even in the team’s darkest days. Their front four are masters of generating pressure without blitzing and were one of two teams with a pressure rate above 40% without the help of blitzes. Led by Pro-Bowlers Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, the defensive line has a thin yet explosive cast of pass rushers.
A pectoral injury somewhat marred Javon Hargrave’s first season with the Eagles, but he quietly returned to form down the stretch. In six games, from Weeks 10-15, the former Steeler accounted for four of his six sacks, four of his five TFLs, 17 of his 23 solo tackles, and 26 of his 38 combined tackles that season.
Edge rushers Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat enter the last year of their rookie contracts, and it’s looking like a “prove it” year for both to ink that next deal. I will never understand the pessimistic attitude some fans have against Derek Barnett. Sure he was the 14th overall selection, and expectations are high for a draft pick of that value. But Barnett’s career after four years is eerily similar to another “early disappointment” pick at 13th overall in 2010, Brandon Graham.
*stats not counting Graham’s 2011 season where he appeared in just three games after offseason surgery on his right knee
The Eagles’ other edge rusher set to be a free agent in 2020 has shown flashes of why the organization should keep him around. 2018 fourth-round pick, Josh Sweat, became a reliable run defender and excellent rotational pass rusher.
In 455 fewer snaps from 2019-2020, Sweat managed to match Derek Barnett’s TFL total (16) and had only two fewer sacks during that span. It’s a tough decision for any front office to make, and this season seems like the ultimate test to see who will get that bag. Or perhaps, both will if either decides to sign an extremely team-friendly deal.
The Eagles brought back DT Hassan Ridgeway, who can’t catch a break injury-wise. The 26-year old has played in only 14 games in two seasons for the Birds and hasn’t been healthy enough to find a rhythm in practice or with his role.
The 2021 third-round selection of DT Milton Williams was one of my defensive sleepers for the Eagles, and I am ecstatic we landed him. He’s undoubtedly a developmental piece but will benefit by learning the ropes from guys like Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Javon Hargrave.
And one last treasonous signing to report as 32-year-old Ryan Kerrigan joined the light side on a one-year deal. The former Eagles’ killer adds another formidable veteran pass rusher to an already elite unit.
Eagles D-Lineman Ranked in PFF Top 32:
- #6 DT Fletcher Cox
- #14 DE Brandon Graham
- #20 DT Javon Hargrave
Linebacker Unit | PFF Rank: 29th
Honestly, I expected this to be a lot worse, but then again, I guess 29th out of 32 is pretty damn bad. This unit was laughable in coverage last season. Quarterbacks targeting the Eagles’ linebackers had a 113.9 passer rating and threw to open targets 66.1% of the time. On top of that, opponents gained nearly 20% of their total passing yards when targeting only three players: Nate Gerry, Duke Riley, and Alex Singleton.
Fortunately, two of those players are gone, but Alex Singleton remains in the mix to be a starter. Singleton’s struggles in pass coverage became highly publicized as he finished with the team’s third-worst coverage grade amongst qualified players.
In April, the Eagles signed 26-year old linebacker Eric Wilson, who carries ties to Jonathan Gannon in Minnesota after spending his first three seasons under Mike Zimmer’s defense. Wilson is the definition of an athletic, playmaking, coverage linebacker. He totaled a team-high 122 tackles for the Vikings in 2020 to go along with three interceptions and three pass breakups against two touchdowns allowed in 519 coverage snaps. While it’s not the flashiest signing, I think Wilson’s experience in the system should benefit him this season.
The other player who will benefit from Eric Wilson’s presence on the defense is TJ Edwards. The 6-foot-1, 242-pound linebacker proved he could play as an inside linebacker when given a chance. Since joining the Eagles in 2019, Edwards has a 9.7% missed tackle rate on his 100 combined tackles and only allowed 9.2 yards per receptions with one interception against one touchdown in coverage. TJ Edwards is one of my top players to keep an eye on for a potential breakout campaign for the Eagles in 2021.
Eagles Linebackers Ranked in PFF Top 32: None
Secondary | PFF Rank: 25
Darius Slay Jr. has been a lockdown cornerback for the majority of his career thus far. However, given the lack of talent surrounding him and the scheme he played in last season, Slay is primed to rebound back into that reliable, all windows closed ball hawking defensive back. Outside of Big Play Slay, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will fill in on the opposite side.
Fourth-year CB Avonte Maddox failed to secure the starting outside role last season while finishing with the lowest coverage grade on the team (37.1). At 5-foot-9 with 29.5-inch arms, Maddox lacked the physical qualities to be disruptive against most NFL receivers in one-on-one outside press situations but might become a dime package defensive back in Gannon’s Cover 2 scheme.
After Maddox, the most likely guy to get playing time would be this year’s fourth-round pick out of Texas Tech, Zech McPhearson. At 5-foot-11, 195-pounds, McPhearson didn’t profile as a lockdown cornerback, but his versatility to play outside and slot is invaluable. If he gets promoted to that starting outside cornerback spot, then it’s either out of desperation or from an impressive rookie camp. I still think the Eagles are in the mix to bring in another starting outside cornerback and see if Maddox or McPhearson can win the slot position.
At safety, the Eagles brought in another former Viking again with ties to Jonathan Gannon’s “Mike Zimmer-Esque” defense. Anthony Harris is coming off his worst professional season to date, grading at just 63.6 in coverage in 2020. That down year helped the Eagles to sign him to a cheap one-year, $5 million deal that could turn into his extension given his play. In the previous two seasons before 2020, Harris snagged ten interceptions and a 90.6 overall defensive grade.
Rodney McLeod comes back from a torn ACL at a reasonable cap hit ($5.2 million) but most likely will spend the first couple weeks on the PUP list. Second-year safety K’Von Wallace seems likely to fill McLeod’s role despite playing 18% of defensive snaps in 2020. However, the signing of Anthony Harris not only acts as a placeholder for whenever McLeod returns but as a backup plan if Wallace is not up to the challenge of becoming a full-time NFL starter.
It’s certainly thin back there with Marcus Epps still doing whatever he does and another free agent, Andrew Adams, signing a one-year deal after two seasons with the Giants and three with the Bucs. PFF may have been a bit generous with this ranking as the Eagles are as thin as DeVonta Smith’s legs in terms of secondary talent.
(Author’s Note: No shade to DeVonta Smith, I too am a skinny boy and we gotta stick together)
Eagles Defensive Backs Ranked in PFF Top 32:
- #13 S Anthony Harris
- #23 CB Darius Slay Jr.
Mandaotry Credit: Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.