The Eagles’ defensive line meetings are much quieter than they were only months ago.
Michael Bennett is no longer there to sermonize. Chris Long, often Bennett’s provocateur, is gone. And coach Chris Wilson, who had allowed Bennett his “Farrakhan Five” minutes to pontificate at the end of various meetings, left in January when the team didn’t renew his contract.
In their place is a younger group, particularly at defensive end, with less to say and more to prove. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry, the latter of whom returned to the Eagles this offseason after a one-year hiatus, are the over-30 veterans. But Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, and Shareef Miller are all only 22 years old.
While they won’t be asked to replace Bennett and Long, both 34, as vocal leaders and disputants -- not that any one of them has that kind of personality -- the three young ends will be expected to help compensate for what the Eagles lost in production.
Barnett, as a starter and former top draft pick, surely knows that he will be projected to fill those needs. And Miller, as a rookie, likely knows that he won’t. But the unspoken desires of Eagles coaches, and recently promoted defensive end coach Phillip Daniels, could be lost on Sweat, a 2018 fourth-round pick. But the message, he said, has been received as he enters his second season:
It’s time to deliver.
“It’s implied,” Sweat said this past week. “I know. I don’t need nobody to tell me. But, yeah, it’s definitely implied. You just feel it in the atmosphere. But I’m ready to live up to it.”
A capable fourth edge rusher might seem like a luxury few teams can afford, but for the Eagles it is a near-necessity. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz prefers to rotate as many as eight linemen in a scheme that is predicated upon the aggressiveness of his front. And what happens, as it did last year, when there is any injury?
No 4. becomes No. 3, and No. 5 becomes No. 4.
Sweat became No. 4 when Barnett suffered an eventual season-ending torn rotator cuff, but he averaged only seven snaps over a nine-game span before he, too, was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury.
Sweat recorded only four tackles with no sacks, but Schwartz didn’t need as much depth because Bennett and Long were so effective as pass rushers. They combined for 16½ sacks, 51 quarterback hits,and 18 tackles for losses.
But Bennett was traded to the Patriots for little in return, even though his salary was a reasonable $7.2 million, and Long retired after he said the Eagles couldn’t guarantee him his previous role in 2019.
The Eagles retained Graham and brought back Curry to offset their departures. And they signed free agent Malik Jackson to pair alongside all pro Fletcher Cox at defensive tackle. But unless Barnett takes a significant jump, the Eagles -- at least on paper -- don’t look stronger on the edges.
“I think it’s business as usual for us,” Schwartz said two weeks ago when asked about replacing Bennett’s and Long’s production. “From our first year here, the next year we lost Connor Barwin and that was a big loss. A lot of leadership and a lot of pass production.
"And then after the Super Bowl, talked about losing a guy like Vinny. So change in the NFL is nothing new.”
But Barwin and Curry were released primarily because their production as pass rushers was deemed too meager to warrant their increase in salary. Barwin had five sacks, 10 hits, and six tackles for losses in 2016, while Curry had three sacks, 19 hits, and 10 tackles for losses in 2017.
Curry returns as the No. 3 rather than a starter, however. And if Sweat can respond to the implied expectation of snatching this opportunity, the Eagles could maintain their standing as having one of the best lines in the NFL and feel pretty good about their future.
“There’s no pressure, but at the same time, there is pressure,” Sweat said with a laugh.
Spring practices with little contact should be taken with a dose of skepticism, especially for linemen, but Sweat has stood out. He’s had about a handful of would-be sacks during the four open-to-reporters workouts.
“Nothing’s going unnoticed,” Sweat said. “The coaches see how hard I’m working.”
Miller is only weeks removed from the draft. Like Sweat, he was drafted in the fourth round. Defensive linemen, perhaps more than those at any other position, often need a year or more to develop into contributing NFL players.
“I like some of the additions we have had,” Schwartz said. “We have some younger players moving into some of those roles. Even a young draft pick like Shareef has done some good things for us over the last couple weeks.
“So it’ll probably be not a quick transition, but that’s our job over the course of OTAs and training camp, to get our production back where we need it.”
Sweat was very much the project when the Eagles selected him a year ago. Despite his 6-foot-5, 240-pound build in college, Florida State played him predominantly inside as a four-technique. The Eagles envisioned him as an edge rusher who could thrive in Schwartz’s wide-nine scheme, but he said he needed time to develop his moves.
He also had to muscle up and that meant adding weight. Sweat said he gained around 25 pounds this offseason alone and now weighs 265.
“We do supplements and stuff like that,” Sweat said. “Eat more. Making sure I worked out. Make sure I didn’t get my [9½ percent] body fat up, too. I actually didn’t even gain a pound of body fat.”
While coach Doug Pederson declined to give much information on Sweat’s foot injury when the Eagles shut him down on Dec. 11, Sweat said that it wasn’t a break.
“I forgot about all that,” Sweat said of the injury. “That was nothing serious.”
Sweat still wears a brace to protect the left knee that was severely injured during his senior year of high school. And he still runs with the slightest of hitches. But he said he knows that many are waiting for him to ascend.
He’s ready to prove it, if not in word, certainly by deed.