The injury news could hardly have been worse.
As the Eagles begin their ramp-up to the regular season, 40% of their five-man defensive-line rotation — the unit around which the Birds are built — is injured. Not hurt: Injured. Free-agent tackle Javon Hargrave strained his chest muscle; multiple weeks. Derek Barnett, the fifth-year end, has a leg or foot injury; week-to-week. Last year, an ankle injury limited Barnett, who has been hurt a lot since the Eagles drafted him in the first round in 2017.
The Eagles cannot afford their absences.
This flawed and fractured team lost its best offensive player to an Achilles rupture and its team leader to free agency. It has only one sure path to the playoffs: a division title. Its best chance at winning the NFC East in this Season of COVID is by striking early, while the Cowboys, Giants, and the No Longer Racists in D.C. all adjust to new coaching staffs.
With right guard Brandon Brooks now one-legged, and with safety Malcolm Jenkins once again a Saint, the deepest and most talented unit becomes the defensive line. No unit has been given more assets in free agency or in the draft since Doug Pederson and co-head coach/coordinator Jim Schwartz arrived. That’s because Schwartz’s scheme depends on his linemen pillaging the line of scrimmage and destroying backfields.
This defensive line would have had a massive advantage the first two months of the season, when the Eagles play four of their six divisional games. Instead, a large portion of that defensive line will either be absent or diminished.
“I think he’s going to have an outstanding year this year,” Schwartz said Tuesday about Barnett, then added, “We’ll see where we get with those guys.”
The only position at which they could less afford this significant degree of absence is quarterback, and even that’s debatable. The Eagles fancy themselves a “quarterback factory,” according to general manager Howie Roseman, even though they haven’t had their No. 1 quarterback win a playoff game in 11 seasons. They have proven the position is replaceable — at least by the replacements they’ve rostered.
In reality, as talented as Carson Wentz might be (might be), the defensive line drives this Eagles train. Schwartz constructed his entire scheme around five-time Pro Bowl tackle Fletcher Cox, and oversaw the drafting of Barnett and the contract extension of Brandon Graham to bookend Cox, and the signing of tackle Malik Jackson last spring and Hargrave this spring to play on his hip.
The plan was to rotate this paid and pedigreed quintet in a sort of headless, position-less melange that would be impossible for opposing offensive minds to handle, especially in the case of the Giants. A similar plan existed last season, but it collapsed when Jackson injured his foot in the opener and was lost for the season.
It’s not as though the line is bereft of talent, or potential. Cox and Graham are elite, Jackson has been great in the past, and the club has invested draft picks and assets in the likes of tackle Hassan Ridgeway and ends Genard Avery and Shareef Miller, from Penn State. The cupboard might be emptier, but it isn’t quite bare, and opportunity has a way of making movie stars out of the likes of Joe “Doughnuts” Ostman.
But you don’t go out and sign 32-year-old end/tackle Vinny Curry last week if you think Hargrave and Barnett will be up to speed in three weeks.
Both Hargrave and Barnett are expected to return in 2020.
But Barnett and Hargrave won’t be their best selves in the season opener Sept. 13, when the Birds visit the Washington Football Team (please make them keep that awful name forever). They might not be fit to play in the game at all. Pec strains sap strength. Leg injuries erode both strength and conditioning.
So no, they won’t be their best selves in 25 days. If either hits the 100% mark, that probably won’t happen until mid-November.