Not since the Eagles won the Super Bowl has their defense offered so much promise.
In 2017, Timmy Jernigan joined Fletcher Cox at defensive tackle. Jordan Hicks was entering his third year at middle linebacker, with Nigel Bradham on his hip. Patrick Robinson and Ronald Darby landed as veteran cornerbacks, and Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod had formed a formidable safety partnership the year before. Finally, the Eagles gave coordinator Jim Schwartz right defensive end Derek Barnett, who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee, to bookend with Brandon Graham, and they combined for the biggest defensive play in Eagles history: Graham strip-sacked Tom Brady and Barnett recovered, securing a win in Super Bowl LII.
This defense projects similarly: strong up the middle, dynamic at the ends and edges, with unpredictable, intriguing, interchangeable parts. Also, in Jonathan Gannon, there is a fresh approach. Gannon announced in May that, despite having limited exposure to his new team in the offseason, he would throw the kitchen sink at them. They would either swim or, well, sink.
“I feel good about where we’re at,” Gannon said last week. “We’ve thrown a lot at them, and they have absorbed it all and executed at a very high level.”
OK. He seems honest, anyway.
Injury marred some of the template of the 2017 defense, and Gannon’s defense won’t be perfect, either, but there are plenty of reasons to believe it will be very good.
1. Cox and Co.
He’s 30, he has gone to six consecutive Pro Bowls, and he’ll be the second Eagles defensive lineman inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fletcher Cox is, simply, the best player of this Eagles era. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave seems abler this season to help him than last, but everything starts with Cox.
Nothing works without Cox, but Gannon still has to know what he’s doing. It appears he does.
He’s only 38, and he hasn’t been a coordinator at any level before, but he reportedly turned down four other offers to be defensive coordinator. While popularity doesn’t guarantee proficiency, all five NFL teams probably aren’t wrong. Gannon briefly worked for former Eagles DC Emmitt Thomas but cites Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, a defensive guru, as his greatest influence. Good mentors there.
3. Fumbles and INTs
Gannon emphasizes turnovers, a category in which the Eagles tied for 22nd in 2020, tied for 19th in 2019, and tied for 22nd in 2018.
Nothing excites Eagles fans like turnovers.
Zimmer’s defenses are known for their pre-snap deception, which should baffle opposing quarterbacks at least early in this season, considering there is no blueprint for Gannon’s defenses.
Gannon has said he won’t exactly play a 4-3 or 3-4, and he won’t constantly play zone coverage or man-to-man. Players will move around, whether they be linemen moving from outside to inside or linebacker; linebackers moving to the line to penetrate; and even cornerbacks slipping inside and out, like the Rams did with their No. 1 defense in 2020.
6. Steven Nelson
OK, we’re getting pretty granular here, but the signing of a seven-year veteran who plays above-average pass defense is a giant leap forward, if only because of the trickle-down effect. Nelson’s arrival puts less pressure on Darius Slay, the Eagles’ trade-and-sign bust from 2020. It also lets Avonte Maddox, who is still 5-foot-9(ish), stay inside at nickel, where he can thrive. All of which will matter immensely immediately, since, according to profootballfocus.com, the Eagles face the top three receiving corps within the first six games: the No. 3 Cowboys in Week 3, the No. 4 Chiefs in Week 4, and the No. 1 Buccaneers in Week 6. Of course, the Birds get the Cowboys’ Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup again in Week 18 — if it matters.
7. Ride the line
In July, Gannon issued his most significant sentences so far: “We believe that our D-line is a strength. We’re going to try to put them in a position to make a bunch of plays.”
Which, you’d hope, means that all sorts of players will be coming from all sorts of places. Ryan Kerrigan from the inside. Josh Sweat from the right and left. Cox from an edge, occasionally. Graham from an outside linebacker spot in a 3-4 alignment. Rookie sensation Milton Williams from everywhere, apparently. Also, I guess, Barnett.
8. Ryan Kerrigan
Chris Long had four sacks at the age of 31 in 2016, the season before he landed with the Eagles and helped them win a Super Bowl with his mentorship, leadership, professionalism, and, of course, five sacks.
Kerrigan had 5½ sacks at the age of 32 in 2021. He possesses the same sort of mentorship ability, leadership traits, and professionalism that Long had. He also has 95½ sacks, which is 25½ more than Long finished with. This acquisition brings practical talent as well as ancillary benefits galore.
9. Milton Williams
OK, he’s a rookie backup, but you can’t help but root for this kid after the reception Eagles senior adviser Tom Donahoe gave him. Donahoe, who helped build a Steelers dynasty and helped the Birds win their Super Bowl, was visibly perturbed when general manager Howie Roseman traded down in the third round, forsook N.C. State defensive tackle Alim McNeill, and landed Williams. Now, Williams was raw on technique and a little light for a defensive tackle (287 pounds), but he was deep in versatility, intelligence, and athleticism.
Gannon, meanwhile, was delighted with the selection of Williams, whose intellect and desire filled out a resume to complement Gannon’s playing-time buffet: “I think he can play five spots on the defensive line,” Gannon said in July.
Super. Let’s see it.
Getting immediate production from a third-round tweener on a deep defensive line would be a coup for both Gannon, a newcomer, and Roseman, whose drafts have been awful — so expect Williams to get every opportunity. And expect him to produce.
10. The Safety Dance
This improvement would rank much higher if there was certainty that Rodney McLeod will return from his torn ACL to pair with Anthony Harris sooner than later. The Eagles’ defense might be able to weather the Falcons and 49ers, but Dak and Dallas will destroy a secondary anchored by K’Von Wallace, a second-year, fourth-round pick who managed just 18% of the defensive snaps in 2020, almost all of which came after McLeod injured his knee in Game 12.
Whenever McLeod returns, the improvement at the position over 2020 will be immense. Schwartz tried to convert cornerback Jalen Mills into a safety, which, independent of Schwartz’s other shortcomings, was a fireable offense on its own.