Eagles’ expensive tackle rotation should be ‘engine’ of the defense
The Eagles have great expectations for their interior pass-rush rotation, which is the deepest and most talented it’s been in years.
Shortly after the Eagles agreed to contract terms with Javon Hargrave, Howie Roseman had to make a phone call.
For the second free-agency period in a row, the team’s splashy signing was a defensive tackle to start opposite Fletcher Cox. Malik Jackson and Hargrave were now both in the fold as highly paid defensive tackles with only one starting spot available between them. Roseman had some explaining to do to Jackson, who was suddenly on the outside looking in after missing most of last season with a foot injury.
Jackson remembers Roseman telling him the San Francisco 49ers had just made it to the Super Bowl with a strong defensive line. Roseman remembers pointing out a different example.
“I think I told him that the defensive line was one of the main reasons that we won the Super Bowl, too,” Roseman said. “That’s always our goal, to be really strong up front. ... We believe in Malik a lot, and he was a huge loss for us last year. He was a big part of our offseason in 2019, and I just wanted him to understand that, at that time where we were, Hargrave was a player that we had a really high grade on at an important position. And it was because of our belief in the line; it wasn’t because of our belief in Malik.”
Money where it counts
The Eagles enter the 2020 season with great expectations for their interior pass-rush rotation, which is the deepest and most talented it has been in years. Jackson played just one half for the Eagles last season before suffering a Lisfranc foot injury, but he was expected to be the best defensive tackle to play opposite Cox. Hargrave has missed training camp with a pectoral strain, but he and Jackson will make sure Cox is constantly neighbored by a premier rusher who can exploit favorable matchups when Cox draws double teams.
The Eagles are paying a significant price for it, too. Hargrave’s three-year contract is worth up to $39 million, and his $13 million annual salary makes him the 13th highest-paid interior lineman in the league this season, five spots behind Cox, who is set to make $17.1 million this year, according to overthecap.com. Jackson is expected to make $10 million, giving the Eagles three of the 21 highest-paid defensive tackles in the NFL. No other team has more than two.
Roseman reiterated the front office’s confidence in Jackson even though he missed most of last season. Jackson’s training-camp performance while Hargrave was sidelined gave good reason for the confidence. The 30-year-old was disruptive during the two-week stretch of practices open to the media.
Jackson, who is well removed from his eight-sack Pro Bowl season in 2017 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, said he went into camp with something to prove.
“I have some ground to make up, especially if I can go back all the way to my last year in Jacksonville,” Jackson said. “Got benched a little bit there, then came here and got injured. I’m not going to say they forgot about me, but I think I just have some ground to make up and make people remember.”
Follow the leader
Roseman’s belief in a correlation between pass-rushing talent and the final teams standing each year is not misplaced. The 49ers had the third-highest pass-rushing grade by Pro Football Focus last season, and ranked second in quarterback pressure percentage.
The Chiefs weren’t as productive — ranking 20th — but were led by defensive tackle Chris Jones, who was the second-best interior rusher, according to PFF’s pass-rush productivity grades. He trailed only Aaron Donald, a perennial All-Pro. Jones had three pass deflections during Super Bowl LIV last February.
The Eagles’ pass rushers in 2017 were the highest-graded group by PFF. In 2018, they were ranked second. Last year they were fifth, although Cox had a down year with only 3½ sacks.
Especially considering the team’s lack of top-end talent at edge-rusher, the trio of defensive tackles will be asked to carry much more of a burden this season.
Defensive line coach and run-game coordinator Matt Burke said the group is up for the task.
“The closest path to the quarterback is the A-gap,” Burke said. “It’s the most direct. You can get interior pressure with those guys. It tends to affect the quarterbacks a lot. To have three-plus accomplished guys that have shown they can win in those interior rushes is going to be huge.”
How it all fits
Jackson and Cox’s developing chemistry came at the expense of Hargrave’s missing all of training camp with a pectoral injury.
There’s reason to believe he’ll be ready for the season opener on Sunday against the Washington Football Team, and it would be the first time the three players will have a chance to share the field in a live situation.
What might that look like? Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said earlier this offseason that the three might be able to play together, with Jackson moving out to defensive end. The Eagles have a history of moving defensive ends such as Brandon Graham and Michael Bennett into the three-technique on passing downs but not the other way around.
“Malik has played some defensive end in the past,” Schwartz said. “He’s a really skilled pass-rusher. ... In our past and my past, we have had guys who have played defensive end and defensive tackle. Malik can do some of those things.”
“That will be the engine that really runs our defense.”
Jackson said he’s open to coming off the edge some of the time.
“I’ve done it before. Now, I don’t want to do it consistently,” he said. “I really [prefer] the three-technique, but I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do to win the ballgame. I’m very much a team player, and whatever Coach calls, I’m in there.”
Whether they’re rotating or sharing the field, the Eagles’ defensive success this year will likely rely in large part on whether the group performs up to expectations, something Roseman said he’s eager to see.
“I’m really excited about that,” Roseman said. “Hopefully we get some of those guys back to make that defensive line even stronger, and that will be the engine that really runs our defense.”