The sixth of 10 parts previewing the Eagles’ 90-man roster, as the team continues to conduct virtual offseason workouts.
Fletcher Cox leads a deep, talented group that will need to dominate for the Eagles’ defense to function the way it’s designed. Even by his own admission, Cox had a down year last season. His 3.5 sacks were the fewest he’s had since 2013, which was his second year in the NFL. His quarterback hits were lower than usual, too.
I wouldn’t sound the alarm on Cox, though. He spent last offseason rehabbing a foot injury suffered during the 2018 playoffs and missed all of training camp. It took him some time to look like himself again, but he had dominant moments by the end of the season and finished the year playing his best football.
Sack production is obviously important, but it’s not always the most indicative of play. Against Seattle in the playoffs, he routinely dominated Seahawks center Joey Hunt en route to two quarterback hits and a forced fumble.
Even more reason to believe Cox should return to All-Pro form is the improvement in running mates he’ll have this year. This will be the best defensive tackle group he’s ever played with. If he does return to form, he’s one of the most impactful players in the league.
Malik Jackson, the Eagles’ big free-agent signing of 2019, will return after missing all but one game last year with a Lisfranc injury that required surgery. Jackson has a proven track record as a productive pass rusher with positional versatility.
Because Cox missed training camp and Jackson went down right as Cox returned, the two haven’t had many snaps together either in practice or in live action. It will be interesting to see how the two can complement each other as interior rushers. If Jackson can be as effective as he was with the Jaguars, the Eagles’ defensive line can cover up a lot of woes.
Because of the injuries that devastated the position last year, the team has a crop of young developmental interior rushers who all showed flashesd of promise last season. Hasaan Ridgeway, Bruce Hector, Anthony Rush, and Albert Huggins are all on the roster for training camp, presumably competing for one or two spots. Before a high-ankle sprain ended his season, Ridgeway was playing well. He should be the front-runner for the fourth spot.
Although it’s a bit unclear where he’s headed, Timmy Jernigan is set to be the only defensive tackle to finish the season with the Eagles who won’t be in training camp. Jernigan started nine games for the Eagles last year but wasn’t as productive as he had been during the team’s Super Bowl run, mostly because of injuries.
Jernigan agreed to a one-year contract with the Houston Texans earlier this offseason but recently posted on social media that he guessed he’s “not going to Houston."
For the second offseason in a row, the Eagles’ biggest free-agency move was the signing of a defensive tackle. Javon Hargrave became the prize after the price for cornerback Byron Jones became prohibitive.
Hargrave was a two-gap nose tackle on early downs for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a more Eagles-esque one-gap rusher on passing downs. He was at his best in the latter role, which is why the Eagles had so much interest. According to Pro Football Focus, Hargrave got pressure on 14.2% of his rushes last season, which ranked third in the NFL behind just Aaron Donald and Chris Jones.
Adding Hargrave and bringing Jackson into the fold should make interior defensive line the team’s best position. The group will have at least one potential All-Pro player and two who could be quality starters capable of leveraging the space Cox and the double-teams he draws will open up.
If the trio of Cox, Hargrave, and Jackson clicks, they’ll be able to compensate for the thinner linebacker and defensive back groups.