This is the sixth of 10 parts, previewing Eagles training camp by position grouping.
A look at defensive ends:
The Eagles expect to bring nine defensive ends to training camp in late July, if the pandemic allows camp to open then. Of that number, only undrafted rookie Matt Leo, the Australian ex-plumber with the roster exemption, will arrive with no expectation that he can perform at the NFL level this year.
Who’s back: Seven defensive ends return, which is a lot. But who among them is capable of putting together a difference-making, Pro Bowl-level performance? We all know the importance of pass-rush pressure to Jim Schwartz’s defensive scheme. Brandon Graham is a heart-and-soul leader, a 143-game veteran who puts everything he has into every snap. He’s also 32 years old, and his team-leading total of 8.5 sacks last season was no more than solid.
Going into 2019, the hope was for 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett to author a breakthrough season, for Barnett to take the reins from Graham as the most productive edge rusher. That didn’t happen. Coming off a 2018 season in which he played only six games before going on injured reserve with a shoulder problem, Barnett appeared in 14 games in 2019, missed a couple and was hobbled in others by an ankle injury. Like Graham, Barnett was solid, but not at all spectacular. He forced a couple of fumbles and notched 6.5 sacks. Pro Football Focus credited him with 26 hurries. All this came with Barnett on the field for 69% of the team’s defensive snaps, by far the high for his three-year career. He’d managed five sacks as a rookie, playing only 41% of the snaps. The Eagles need him to be more of a difference-maker.
After starters Graham and Barnett, the rest of the rotation contains question marks. Josh Sweat, a fourth-round pick in 2018, took a step forward, from 7% of the defensive snaps as a rookie to 34, and from no sacks to four, and Sweat might earn a bigger role this year. Hard to say if his ceiling is more than as a rotational sub. Shareef Miller, last year’s fourth-round pick from George Washington High and Penn State, didn’t play a defensive snap. The D-end group was pretty healthy -- it was the defensive tackles, mostly, who kept getting hurt -- but Miller’s inability to win any kind of role whatsoever was low-key alarming.
Genard Avery was a trade-deadline acquisition from Cleveland, at the cost of a fourth-round draft pick, which is a notable investment. He got just 33 defensive snaps in eight Eagles games, registering half a sack. At 6-foot, 250 pounds, it’s hard to see Avery as more than a special-teamer and pass-rush specialist.
Daeshon Hall has flashes where you see the guy Carolina drafted in the third round in 2017, but those flashes are infrequent. It might be hard for Hall to make the team this time around. Joe Ostman is everybody’s favorite training camp hustler; he spent his rookie season on the practice squad and last year on IR after a training-camp ACL tear. The coaches like him, we’ll see if he can make some headway at long last.
Who’s gone: Unless you count defensive line coach Phillip Daniels, replaced by Matt Burke, the only loss is Vinny Curry, who remains an unsigned free agent after returning to the Eagles last season on a one-year deal. Curry, the team’s biggest edge rusher at 6-3, 279 pounds, was productive, notching five sacks, five tackles for a loss and a dozen quarterback hits, while playing 38% of the defensive snaps. But management wants to develop its younger players, and Curry turns 32 in June. If he’s still unsigned well into camp and Schwartz isn’t happy with those players’ development, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Curry return.
Who’s new: The Eagles think they might have gotten a seventh-round steal in Casey Toohill, who ran a 4.62 40. He weighs just 250 pounds, at 6-foot-4, and given the disruption of the NFL offseason, it’s hard to know if Toohill can contribute anything as a rookie. Definitely an athlete who ought to have a future on special teams, if nothing else.
Then there is Matt Leo, signed under the auspices of the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program. That means Leo doesn’t take up a spot on the 90-member roster, and can remain exempt in the regular season if he stays on the practice squad. Leo is 28, came to football late after growing up in Australia, where he was learning to be a plumber and found that confined spaces are a problem when you are 6-7, 275. He played at a junior college in Arizona, then spent two years at Iowa State, playing in every game, almost always coming off the bench. Given his late start, he might still be developing as a player. His size and the roster exemption make him worth checking out.