Jim Schwartz values versatility above almost all else in life. I don’t know his wife Kathy, but if I had to guess, she probably runs a Fortune 500 company, can repair a car transmission, is a better dancer than Cheryl Burke, runs marathons, can dunk a basketball and cooks up a mean bowl of chili.
The Eagles defensive coordinator has made no secret of the fact that he favors versatile defensive backs who can line up anywhere on the back end. And this year, he hopes to take advantage of the same kind of versatility with his defensive tackles.
He’s had defensive ends like Michael Bennett and Brandon Graham who have slid inside to tackle in nickel sub-packages in the past. But this year, he’s planning to use “heavy” alignments usually featuring tackles Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, and Javon Hargrave.
“We’re not going to say we’re going to definitely do it right now,” Schwartz said a couple of weeks ago. “But we’re going to look at different ways to have three defensive tackles on the field at certain times.
“We’ve done it with three defensive ends in the past. And if you go back in my history, there were times in Detroit [he was the Lions’ head coach from 2009-13] that we played three defensive tackles at the same time. It just gives you flexibility. Gives you more insurance in case of injury if you have guys that can flip different positions.”
Cox was a five-technique end in Bill Davis’ 3-4 scheme when Chip Kelly was the Eagles’ head coach. He had the second-highest sack total of his career (9 ½) in 2015 for Davis and was a second-team All-Pro selection in 2014 and 2015.
But Cox is one of the most dominant three-technique defenders in the league and Schwartz isn’t all that eager to move him outside. The more likely candidate would be the 6-5, 290-pound Jackson. Jackson also was a five-technique end earlier in his career with Denver.
“Malik has played some defensive end in the past,” Schwartz said. “He’s a really skilled pass rusher. He’s got great use of hands. He’s a really smart player. And he’s got great length.‘'
The Eagles have invested a lot of money in the defensive tackle position. Cox is entering the fourth year of a six-year, $102.6 million contract extension he signed in June 2016. He has a $23.8 million cap number this year and $22.5 million next year.
Jackson signed a three-year, $30 million free-agent deal with the Eagles last year, then suffered a season-ending foot injury in the first game. The Eagles signed former Pittsburgh Steeler Hargrave to a three-year, $39 million free-agent deal in March.
Jackson’s 2020 cap number is only $4.7 million and Hargrave’s is $3.4 million. Next year, however, Jackson’s jumps to $13.6 million and Hargrave’s to $15.2 million.
“Howie’s philosophy here always has been you can never have enough defensive linemen,” Schwartz said, referring to general manager Roseman. “It’s one of the positions that you truly rotate players through.
“People don’t understand how taxing it is to lean against 300-pounders, and not just one, but two of them, and run to the ball. To play with the kind of effort and the kind of tempo we expect, we’re going to have to rotate guys through. It’s just the way we’re built. To have more good players is a really good situation for us.”
Cox has faced constant double- and even triple-teams the last several years. Jackson’s arrival last year was supposed to change that to a certain degree. But he ended up playing just 32 snaps before he got hurt.
Cox played 799 snaps last season despite coming off a serious toe injury. Except when Graham slid inside, he seldom had anybody lining up next to him who forced enemy offensive linemen to play him honest.
The list of Cox’s DT neighbors last season: Timmy Jernigan (280 snaps), Hassan Ridgeway (252), Akeem Spence (203), Anthony Rush (152), Bruce Hector (53), Albert Huggins (44), and Jackson (32).
Cox, who had 10 ½ sacks and was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2018, had just 3 1/2 sacks last year. His total quarterback pressures plummeted from 95 to 56. Pro Football Focus, which gave him the second-highest defensive grade among the league’s tackles in 2018 (92.5), dropped him to eighth last year (84.5).
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cox, Jackson, and Hargrave weren’t able to get in any on-field work together during the spring.
“When Timmy was here, it took a while for us to get on the same page,” Cox said. “You just don’t learn those things overnight. Because I was coming off my injury last summer, I didn’t have a training camp with Malik. So we only have really half a game under our belt together.
“It’s going to take some time [to mesh]. The main thing for Javon is just to go out and play fast. Learn the defense, which he’s doing a really good job of. The biggest thing for all of us is going to be getting the repetitions with each other. I think it’s going to take a lot of repetitions before we’re all on the same page. But it’s going to be fun playing with them. I think we’re going to do some really good things.”
The Eagles finished tied for 13th in sacks last season with 43. They’ve finished in the top 10 in sacks just once in Schwartz’s four seasons as the team’s defensive lieutenant [tied for eighth in 2018 with 44].
But with Cox, Jackson, and Hargrave, they potentially could have one of the league’s top interior pass rushes this season. And with Graham and Derek Barnett coming off the edges, well, on paper at least, this unit could be a handful for opposing quarterbacks.
“I’m excited to have all those guys,” said Matt Burke, who has replaced Phillip Daniels as the team’s defensive line coach after spending last year as a defensive special assistant.