Some players make quicker college-to-pro transitions than others.
Jaguars edge-rusher Josh Allen had 10 ½ sacks this season as a rookie. The 49ers’ Nick Bosa had nine. The Raiders’ Josh Jacobs finished eighth in rushing with 1,150 yards in his first NFL season. The Eagles’ Miles Sanders racked up 1,327 yards from scrimmage and averaged 5.8 yards per touch.
Two years ago, the Eagles selected defensive end Josh Sweat in the fourth round of the draft. He played just 68 snaps in nine games as a rookie. He finished with no sacks and one quarterback hit.
Last year, after adding needed muscle to his frame and refining his pass-rush technique, Sweat was much more productive. He played 355 snaps and finished with four sacks, 10 hits and 27 total quarterback pressures.
As general manager Howie Roseman and his top scouts head to next week’s NFL scouting combine to look at the top 330-plus draft prospects, they will factor in the people they already have drafted the last couple of years and the improvement they expect — or don’t expect — from them.
That includes players such as Sweat and a fellow 2018 draft pick, offensive tackle Jordan Mailata, and two of their 2019 picks: second-round wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and fourth-round defensive end Shareef Miller.
Arcega-Whiteside had just 10 catches as a rookie. And Miller’s rookie season with the Eagles essentially was a redshirt year. The former Penn State edge-rusher was active for just two games and didn’t take a defensive snap in either one.
While wide receiver and cornerback clearly are at the tippy-top of the Eagles’ offseason priority list, defensive line isn’t very far behind.
Even with Sweat’s improvement, the Eagles’ pass rush was inconsistent last season. They had 43 sacks, one fewer than they had the year before. But 10 of those came in one game against the Jets.
Their 422 total quarterback pressures were their fewest since 2016, which was Jim Schwartz’s first year as defensive coordinator. They had one or no sacks in seven games, which equaled the most since 2007.
Head coach Doug Pederson fired his defensive line coach for the second straight year — this time, Phillip Daniels — and promoted Matt Burke, who spent last year as a defensive special assistant.
The absence of defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who missed all but 20 snaps last season because of a Lisfranc foot injury, certainly contributed to the Eagles’ inconsistency in pressuring quarterbacks. Fletcher Cox, who figured to benefit greatly from having Jackson lining up next to him, had just 3 ½ sacks, his fewest since 2013, and 56 total quarterback pressures, 39 fewer than he had in 2018, when he was a first-team All-Pro selection.
But there are a lot of questions with this unit. Defensive tackles Tim Jernigan and Hassan Ridgeway and versatile Vinny Curry, who can play inside or outside and was one of the Eagles’ most productive pass-rushers during the Eagles’ late-season resurrection, all are unrestricted free agents. Curry will turn 32 in June.
While Cox isn’t going, his cap number is about to skyrocket from $11.9 million to $22.8 million in 2020, which means the Eagles need to restructure his deal.
Brandon Graham, who, like Curry, can play inside or outside, had another solid year, but will turn 32 in April and is a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
Derek Barnett had his best season, recording 6 ½ sacks and a team-high 14 quarterback hits in 14 games. And Sweat took a significant step forward in his development.
The Eagles almost certainly will look for an interior lineman with pass-rush skills in the draft, and they need a fourth edge-rusher who can give them some production. Whether that fourth edge-rusher ends up being somebody who’s already on the roster remains to be seen.
The Eagles acquired Genard Avery from the Browns before the trade deadline last season for a fourth-round pick. But he was used mostly on special teams and had almost no impact as a pass-rusher. He played just 33 defensive snaps in eight games and had a half-sack and two total pressures.
Which brings us to Miller.
Given Graham’s age and the fact that his cap number will jump from $6.3 million next season to $17.9 million in 2021, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Eagles draft another edge-rusher this year or even sign one in free agency. But they also are hoping to get a lot more from Miller in Year 2. Right now, he’s got nowhere to go but up.
“It’s going to be different next year for me,’’ Miller vowed in January after the Eagles’ playoff loss to Seattle. “I want to be on the field contributing on defense and special teams.
"I’ve got a lot of work to do. I can’t just talk about it. I can say I’m going to do a lot of things, but I’ve got to do them.''
Some people in the Eagles organization had reservations about drafting Miller, a hometown kid from the Frankford section of the city. Not because they didn’t think he could play, but because of the pressure and distractions that can come with playing in your hometown.
Miller and his mother, Tekeya Cook, both acknowledged the same thing last year after the Eagles drafted him. His mother called it “a gift and a curse'' that the Eagles drafted Miller and warned many of her son’s old neighborhood pals to keep their distance. "I told one of his friends, ‘Don’t make me kill you. Stay away from my son,' '' Cook told The Inquirer last year.
“People were always wanting to know what’s up, why you’re not playing,’’ Miller said. “Early on, I felt I had to explain myself. I had a lot of people saying this and that. I had a lot of people doubting me and things like that.
“That’s cool. I just want the people that were talking like that to keep the same energy next year. I’m just going to go out there and put my head down and grind like I always do.’’
Miller was a dominant player at Penn State. The 6-4, 254-pounder had 14 ½ sacks and 31 ½ tackles for losses in 40 games with the Nittany Lions. He thought he’d be the same dominant player with the Eagles. But he learned the same lesson so many rookies learn: We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.
Miller admitted that was tough to deal with early on.
“In the beginning, I was kind of disappointed, ‘’ he said. “But as the season went on, I accepted my role and tried to continue to get better, continue to help the team any way I could.’’
He tried to learn as much as he could from the Eagles’ All-Pro right tackle, Lane Johnson, against whom he went up every day in practice. "I was getting a lot of advice from him,'' he said. "Jason Peters, too. That helped me get better.''
He also leaned on some of the team’s other D-lineman, including Graham and Curry and Barnett, for support and advice.
“Having big brothers like those guys to lean on helped me get through the year,’’ Miller said.
Graham, one of the defense’s leaders, sat down with Miller after the season and had a frank conversation with him.
“I told him this offseason is going to be critical,’’ Graham said last month. “He’s got to make sure he takes a step or two forward instead of a step or two backward or staying the same.
“He knows what he has to do. I told him to be sure he gets as strong as he can and give maximum effort all the time. Because you need to have your motor going. You need to have something different. Because everybody can say they’re going to be a pass-rusher. But what’s different about you? You’ll know that by how hard you work.’’