Fletcher Cox had 10½ sacks and 95 total quarterback pressures last season, which was the second most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
That’s the good news. The bad news is the rest of the Eagles’ interior linemen combined for just 31 pressures, including only 3½ sacks.
Now, those numbers don’t include the sacks and pressures produced by defensive ends Michael Bennett and Brandon Graham, whom Jim Schwartz frequently slid inside on passing downs. But for a lot of reasons, that’s not something you really want to do on a regular basis.
It’s why the Eagles decided to wave bye-bye to disappointing Tim Jernigan and his back problems last week, and sign 6-5, 290-pound Malik Jackson on Monday to a three-year, $30 million deal.
In this era of spread offenses and quick passing games, getting pressure up the middle on the quarterback has become an absolute necessity. Jackson has proven he can do that.
“Over the years, I’ve talked to almost every top quarterback in the NFL and have asked them all the same question," Oakland Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. “What bothers you the most? Almost every one of them says the same thing: immediate pressure up the middle.
“If you have a couple of good edge-rushers, [the quarterback] can step up inside the pocket if it’s sound up front. But if you’re getting push [up the middle], especially against some of those guys that don’t move well, that’s difficult.
“It disturbs sight lines. It forces you to readjust your feet. We’re at the point now where people are throwing the ball so much that you have to find a way to affect it regardless. Which places more emphasis on the inside guys."
Over the last couple of years, the Eagles have struggled against quarterbacks who get the ball out quickly. In 12 of their 16 regular-season games last year, opposing quarterbacks averaged 2.46 seconds or less from snap to release, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I think there’s so much of a premium on the quick passing game in the league right now that even some of these traditional two-gap, hold-the-point teams have got to find somebody that can get penetration inside, because offenses are finding ways to somewhat neutralize what you’re doing off the edge," said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “The ball is just out. You can’t get home."
Cox, a two-time All-Pro, is one of the most dominant interior linemen in the league. But like the Rams’ Donald, he almost always is double- and even triple-teamed.
Donald had the benefit of lining up next to five-time Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh. Cox’s interior playmates most of last season were 34-year-old Haloti Ngata and practice-squadders Bruce Hector and Treyvon Hester.
Cox almost always draws double-teams, which should create winnable one-on-one matchups for the other defensive tackle. That’s why the Eagles traded for Jernigan two years ago. They thought he’d be able to take advantage of those one-on-ones.
But Jernigan had played his entire career, both at Florida State and then, at his first NFL stop with the Baltimore Ravens, in a two-gap scheme, and had more trouble than expected adjusting to Schwartz’s one-gap, wide-nine alignment. Then, after the 2017 season, he injured his back.
He played just 45 snaps in three regular-season games last year and 58 more in their two playoff tilts. Last week, the team didn’t exercise the option on his contract and let him become a free agent.
Jackson had eight sacks two years ago. He had only 3½ last year, but had 51 total quarterback pressures and was ranked fifth in pass-rush productivity by Pro Football Focus among interior linemen behind Donald, the Chiefs’ Chris Jones, Cox, and the Bengals’ Geno Atkins.
“Think back to the Seattle-New England Super Bowl a few years ago," said NFL Network analyst Charles Davis. “Seattle had Brady under control, then [Cliff Avril] gets hurt and it changes the inside pass-rush. Brady suddenly is able to step forward, and we know how that turned out.
“Look at the Eagles’ Super Bowl win two years ago. One of the biggest plays of the games comes when Brandon Graham lines up inside and knocks the ball away from Brady. That quick passing game, you’ve got to get there fast. If you can do that, you’ve got a good chance of winning."
The Eagles, particularly Schwartz, who likes to call his front four the “engine" of his defense, understands that.
Next month’s draft has the deepest defensive line crop in more than a decade, including as many as five tackles who could go in the first round – Quinnen Williams of Alabama, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence of Clemson, Ed Oliver of Houston, and Jerry Tillery of Notre Dame.
The Eagles, who have the 25th overall pick in the first round and two second-round picks, almost certainly will take a defensive lineman with one of those three selections.
Even with the addition of Jackson, who recently turned 29, they still very well could take a tackle early.
“You need that push in the interior part of your pocket," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said last week at the scouting combine. “Offensively, we always protect inside out. Because that’s where defenses want to get pressure. Through the interior part of your pocket."
The Eagles have a 2019 mine-field of a schedule that features games against Brady and Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, and the kind of inside pressure they hope Cox and Jackson are going to be able to provide will come in handy.
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