Good morning, Eagles fans. Glad to see you survived the snow squalls yesterday. We’re one day removed from Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson’s year-end news conference, and a lot of interesting things came out of it. Be sure to read my colleagues’ work about Roseman and Pederson’s comments in the coming days.
Following yesterday’s trend of offseason wish lists, we’ll explore the team’s biggest defensive needs below.
— EJ Smith (email@example.com)
Against the Seattle Seahawks, the final blow to the Eagles’ hopes of staying alive came on a deep pass from Russell Wilson to DK Metcalf on third-and-long. The Eagles defense had dominant stretches in the 2019 season, but still has some obvious holes that need plugging in the offseason. Below are three biggest positions of need along with a few options both in the draft and free agency to remedy the issues.
1. Outside cornerback
When the Eagles are on the clock for the first time in April’s NFL draft, a wide receiver or a cornerback should be the first position addressed. The Eagles’ biggest need throughout this season and going into next is help on the outside. Jim Schwartz’s single-high safety defensive scheme puts a lot of pressure on corners in man coverage, asking them to contain wideouts often without safety help. Even if Schwartz is elsewhere next season, there still are major concerns at cornerback, particularly the outside.
Both Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby are free agents. Mills was coming off a foot injury, but did play well for part of the season once he returned. Darby was on a one-year deal after struggling to stay healthy, and had the worst year of his career. Maybe the Eagles could come back with Mills and one replacement on the outside, but bringing both back isn’t an option.
The good news for Howie Roseman and Co. is this year’s draft class has a very deep group of cornerbacks, including a handful of guys from the SEC. In free agency, the Eagles could try prying Byron Jones away from the Cowboys, but Jones has played in a dissimilar scheme to the Eagles, as the Cowboys play a lot more zone, particularly Cover-3.
Potential draft targets: Kristian Fulton (LSU), C.J. Henderson (Florida), Trevon Diggs (Alabama), A.J. Terrell (Clemson)
Potential free-agency targets: Byron Jones, James Bradberry (Panthers)
This was a big need for the Eagles even before Malcolm Jenkins said he won’t be coming back to the Eagles under his current one-year, $7.6 million deal. Even if the Eagles can rework Jenkins’ contract and keep him for a few more years, they’d still do well to add a young safety. At best, adding a player would free the defense up to use Jenkins’ versatility even more than the Eagles currently do. Rodney McLeod is a free agent, and Schwartz has praised McLeod’s play and credited him for being a leader in the group. Perhaps McLeod re-signs, but it’s possible he’ll find a new home in free agency.
Either way, the Eagles should add a safety in the draft. A rangy playmaker to complement Jenkins would benefit in the short term. A centerfielder type of player would allow Jenkins to line up as a slot corner, a blitzer, or a quarterback spy in various sub formations. Because the team needs to get younger, and because Jenkins and McLeod are both good fits in the defense, there aren’t many free agents worth suggesting.
Potential draft targets: Ashtyn Davis (Cal), Brandon Jones (Texas)
3. Cover linebacker
It’s no secret that the Eagles don’t value linebackers as much as other teams, and there’s no reason to expect that to change this offseason. The Eagles have a team option on Nigel Bradham’s contract, which has three years remaining and a $9.7 salary-cap hit next season. The front office might decide to bring Bradham back, but the defense did hold its own when Bradham missed time with injuries early in the season. Nate Gerry garnered praise for his intelligence when he was filling in as a play-caller during Bradham’s absence, and undrafted rookie T.J. Edwards got some playing time even when Bradham was healthy.
Kamu Grugier-Hill will also be a free agent after being placed on injured reserve with a back injury his agent said he’d played with for most of the season. Assuming he leaves, the team would do well in drafting a linebacker in the middle rounds. Maybe the Eagles can convert a college safety into a linebacker like they did with Gerry?
Potential draft targets: Antoine Brooks (Maryland), Troy Dye (Oregon)
Potential free-agency targets: Cory Littleton (Rams)
Should the Eagles give Jenkins a new contract, considering his age/his numbers drop this year? I love Jenkins as much as the next fan, but the team got burned by keeping players too long this year (Jeffery, Agholor). Personally I want to see him back but not bc of his play. — John Newman (FelixMonroe5) via Twitter.
Great question, John. Or is it Felix? Either way, thanks for asking. Howie Roseman did point out his weakness of being overly sentimental with players during his Wednesday news conference. Perhaps that will affect his decision with Malcolm Jenkins’ contract, but I don’t think this would be a case of keeping a player too long. Jenkins may not have had his best season, but he’s still a very solid player and I think it can sometimes go unnoticed how valuable he is to the Eagles’ defense. He doesn’t have an injury history, quite the contrary: He’s played 100 percent of the team’s defensive snaps each of the last two seasons. He’s the most versatile player on that side of the ball and he covers up a lot of mistakes.