Eagles can blame defensive draft busts, poor player development on Jim Schwartz | Marcus Hayes
A sound defensive mind, he's also a dapper dresser, quick with pop-culture references, and a man of the world. Young players just seem to be his blind spot.
The 2021 NFL draft is scheduled to take place in Cleveland from April 29-May 1. The Eagles should tell Jim Schwartz it happens a week later.
Hired in 2016 to, effectively, be Doug Pederson’s co-head coach, Schwartz has coordinated the defense with unusual autonomy. That freedom includes reviewing the scouting department’s reports on potential draft picks. The Eagles have not drafted a player without Schwartz’s approval. Howie Roseman has not used a pick on a player Schwartz didn’t promise to develop. In this area, Schwartz has failed.
From 2016 to 2019, the Eagles drafted 12 defensive players. Five remain. Incredibly, only three meet the level of play the Eagles had hoped they’d reach, and that’s because expectations were so low.
The buck stops … where?
Yes, at the day’s end, Roseman is responsible for every pick made. Yes, Roseman’s chief lieutenants, Andy Weidl and Joe Douglas, bear responsibility, too. (Douglas is now the Jets’ GM.) But Schwartz was part of the process,. He might be the biggest part of the problem, as evidenced last weekend.
The Birds dumped Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas on Saturday, a pair of cornerbacks taken in the second and third rounds of the 2017 draft. They also released Shareef Miller, a defensive end drafted out of Penn State in the fourth round just last year.
The Panthers snagged Douglas and Miller off waivers; not surprising, since former national scout Patrick Stewart left the Eagles in May to become Carolina’s player personnel director.
Miller is a second-year player, productive in college and North Philly tough. He might have stuck if the Eagles had roster space.
Douglas, however, is a slow, unathletic cornerback, and he always projected better as a safety, but Schwartz would never try him there. Perhaps Panthers coach Matt Rhule will see what Schwartz could not.
Much has been made of Jones’ injury issues. He redshirted with the Eagles almost all of 2017 after tearing an Achilles tendon in predraft workouts, and hamstring injuries hobbled him right up to his release. However, in the few games for which Jones was healthy, he either didn’t play or he played poorly.
What remains under Schwartz’s watch is, as a whole, underwhelming.
You could consider cornerback Avonte Maddox a success story: a 5-foot-9, 185-pound dynamo taken in the fourth round in 2018, ideally used in the slot but, out of necessity, now slated to be the starter on the outside. He has made nine starts and has played in more than 50% of the defensive snaps, and would have played more if he hadn’t suffered a neck injury last year. But Maddox played a lot the last two seasons not because of his outsized talent, but rather because the other corners were hurt, or bad, or both.
Similarly, Nate Gerry was a college safety and special-teamer who has developed into a passable linebacker after the Eagles drafted him in the fifth round in 2017. But just passable. Gerry ranked 53rd in total defensive play among linebackers who took at least 300 snaps in 2019, according to profootballfocus.com. Those numbers are buoyed by his above-average ability to pressure the passer and cover tight ends and running backs. But special? No.
Defensive end Josh Sweat, taken in the fourth round in 2018, has four sacks in two seasons. The Eagles have turned failed cornerback Jalen Mills into a safety, for the moment. Mills was a seventh-round selection in 2016.
And, of course, there is Derek Barnett, the 2017 first-round pick with a penchant for penalties; his nine infractions tied for second in the league among defensive ends. He ranked just 93rd in total defense among edge rushers who played at least 200 snaps, according to profootballfocus.com. He landed that high due to his 6 1/2 sacks, raising his total to 14 in three seasons — just one more than he had in his final season at Tennessee, where he broke Reggie White’s school record with 32 sacks in just three seasons.
Let this be the final time the names Derek Barnett and Reggie White are spoken in the same sentence.
If drafting and development are true weaknesses, it should be noted that Schwartz also has plenty of strengths.
He identifies competent veterans and helps them flourish: players like ends Chris Long and Michael Bennett, linebacker Nigel Bradham, and defensive backs Ronald Darby and Rodney McLeod. He also has designed his four Eagles defenses to amplify the strengths of his core players: tackle Fletcher Cox, end Brandon Graham, and departed safety Malcolm Jenkins.
In a league full of dull, colorless personalities, Schwartz is a dapper, quick-witted man of the world.
Young players just seem to be his blind spot.