Jim Schwartz is in his 23rd year as an NFL coach. So he’s used to dealing with change.
This spring is no different for the Eagles’ defensive coordinator than most of the previous 22. He had to wave bye-bye to two of his most productive pass rushers – defensive ends Michael Bennett (traded) and Chris Long (retired) this offseason – as well as one of the leaders of his unit, linebacker Jordan Hicks (signed with Arizona).
On the plus side, the Eagles signed defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Zach Brown, and brought back defensive end Vinny Curry.
“That’s business as usual for us," Schwartz said Tuesday, speaking to reporters for the first time since late last season. “There’s a challenge every year trying to replace certain production. We’ll miss those guys. They were an important part of what we did.
“But that’s just life in the NFL. Change is nothing new. You’re going to have some roster turnover and you have to deal with it."
Bennett and Long combined for 15½ of the Eagles’ 44 sacks last season and had 121 of the defense’s 337 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus data. But Long is 34 and Bennett is 33.
The Eagles are hopeful that the addition of Jackson and the return of Curry, who played for the Eagles from 2012-17 before signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, as well as the return to health of 2017 first-rounder Derek Barnett and Tim Jernigan, will make their pass rush even better this season.
Barnett played just six games last season before season-ending shoulder surgery. Jernigan played in only three games after spending most of the year rehabbing an offseason back injury.
“We’re excited about the new guys coming in," Schwartz said. “We’ve added some experienced players. It’s good to get Vinny back. It really looks like he hasn’t missed a beat from where he was when he last played a game for us two years ago.
“And then adding a guy like Malik inside, he’s a really good inside pass rusher. He’s a really good complement to Fletch [Fletcher Cox] inside. Plus, [Jernigan is] on the road to being more healthy. We haven’t really seen Timmy at his best since the Super Bowl."
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Hicks will be missed. He was one of Schwartz’s defensive leaders. But his inability to stay healthy limited what the Eagles were willing to offer him in free agency. He ended up signing a four-year, $34 million deal with the Cardinals that included $20 million in guarantees.
“Zach Brown has some flexibility," Schwartz said of the 29-year-old linebacker who will compete with Paul Worrilow, among others, for Hicks’ job. “He’s played a lot of football. We’re excited to get him."
But the success of Schwartz’s unit will depend, as it always does, on his front four and their ability to get pressure on the quarterback. They are the engine that makes the defense go.
The Eagles’ 44 sacks tied for eighth in the league last season, up from 38 sacks in 2017.
With Jernigan out most of the season, the Eagles usually used three ends and one tackle – Cox, who had a career-high 10½ sacks – on passing downs, sliding Bennett or Brandon Graham inside.
But with the addition of Jackson, who is one of the league’s better interior rushers and had eight sacks with Jacksonville two years ago before falling into disfavor last season, the Eagles are more likely to keep two tackles on the field on passing downs in 2019.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it develops as we go forward in training camp and the preseason and early in the [regular] season as far as who our best combination of [pass-rush] guys will be," he said. “Last season, we used three defensive ends in most of our rush packages.
“When I was in Buffalo [in 2014], we had [defensive tackles] Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Marcell was a double-digit sacker. We didn’t take those two guys off the field. We rushed two defensive tackles and two defensive ends. Same thing when I was in Detroit with [Ndamukong] Suh and [Nick] Fairley.
“How it will work [this year], I don’t really know right now. But it is beneficial to have another guy inside who can be an impact pass rusher. I think Malik is that guy."
Ironically, the most important sack of Graham’s career, and perhaps the most important one in franchise history, came when he lined up at tackle on a second-and-2 at the New England 33-yard line late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LII and stripped the ball from the Patriots’ Tom Brady to help secure the Eagles’ 41-33, parade-triggering win.
“When all is said and done and I’m in a rocking chair somewhere and I think of Brandon Graham, I’m still going to think of the forced fumble in the Super Bowl," Schwartz said. “And that was from the defensive tackle position. So he has the capability to make plays in there."
Graham got that strip despite playing on a badly sprained ankle that required surgery last spring. It was at least midseason last year before the ankle started to feel good. While his four sacks were his fewest since 2013, he still managed to finish second to Cox in total quarterback pressures.
“I really appreciate being able to have an offseason," said Graham, who signed a new three-year deal with the Eagles in March. “I wasn’t as explosive [last year] as I am now. I was still rehabbing and had to play catch-up. Now, being able to get off and do what I do and keep building on that, I’m really looking forward to this season."
Getting Barnett back also is going to be big. He had five sacks as a rookie and had 2½ more in the Eagles’ first four games last year before the shoulder injury.