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If yards allowed were the only consideration, the Eagles would have been a pretty good defense in 2021, finishing eleventh against the pass and ninth versus the run. That is about the only good thing there is to say about last year’s performance. Philadelphia was dead last in completion percentage at almost 70%. The 28 passing scores they allowed ranked 20th, and the 18 rushing touchdowns ranked 23rd. Only the Falcons recorded fewer sacks, and four teams had fewer takeaways.
In situations like this, teams often throw numbers at the problem by adding a slew of cheap veteran free agents and middle-round picks. Philadelphia took a different approach. They did not add a ton of bodies. Instead, they addressed every level of the defense with high-profile veterans and/or early-round draft picks. On paper, this unit looks much improved heading into 2022.
The interior line was not the problem last year. The tackle position produced 15 of the team’s 29 sacks and five of their 16 takeaways. In Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia has one of the league’s outstanding interior tandems. They are both hard-to-move big men that play the run tough and are athletic enough to contribute to the pass rush.
Hargrave is coming off the best statistical season of his career. He had some good ones with the Steelers in 2018 and 2019, but last year’s 62 total tackles and 8 sacks were both career-highs for the six-year veteran. Those numbers were enough to make Hargrave the number 17 defensive lineman and the number 6 tackle in 2021. There is reason to believe he could be even better going forward.
Hargrave was far less productive in his first season with the Eagles, going 16-22-4.5 in 2020. His slow start had much to do with a pectoral injury that caused him to miss some time early and had an effect on his play for much of the season. He was bothered by a sore shoulder over the second half of last year, fueling concerns about durability.
The reason for my optimism is how Hargrave started last year. Over the first seven games, he was 16-23-6 with a forced fumble and an average of 12.6 points. There is also the consideration of position. He turned in two strong seasons with the Steelers while playing nose tackle in their 3-4. With Cox handling the 1-technique duties, Hargrave has worked mostly at the more productive 3-technique with the Eagles. If he can stay out of the trainer’s room, I believe last year’s production will be the beginning of a trend rather than a career outlier.
Early in his career, Fletcher Cox was an IDP stud. In 2015 he racked up 71 combined tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 5 takeaways and was a top-ten lineman. Throughout most of his career, Cox has been a factor for managers in leagues that require interior linemen. As recently as 2020, he was the eleventh-ranked tackle. He is not all that old, turning 31 last December, but there are some signs that Cox may not be the player he once was. He has been an iron man, missing very few games over ten seasons. Regardless of the coaching staff in charge, Cox has not come off the field much, which means there is a lot of mileage on his body. Just last year he played 739 snaps in 14 games.
While his high volume of snaps is circumstantial evidence, other factors must be considered. Cox saw his production drop sharply last year to 33 total stops and 3.5 sacks. Both of those statistics represent low points in his career numbers. Maybe the most significant sign is the Eagles drafting of his heir apparent, Jordan Davis, in the first round this spring.
Another interesting note is that Cox is in the final year of his contract, so maybe the writing is on the wall here. There is still fuel in the tank so even if it is not with the Eagles, he is likely to be playing somewhere in 2023. He may not be the same dominating player he once was but is still plenty good enough to be an NFL starter for a while longer.
Many scouts and draftniks touted Davis as a younger, bigger version of Cox. I like the comparison to Haloti Ngata by NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein better. At 6-foot-6 and 341 pounds, Davis is huge and powerful. Teams didn’t even try to run up the middle against Ngata; that is what Davis will bring to the field. He is not going to make plays outside the tackles and his most effective pass rush is to throw blockers in at the quarterback.
Davis is not going to be on the field in many passing situations and will be double-teamed on every running play that is not designed to go outside. Just as it was at Georgia, he will have a considerable impact on the field but it will not show up brightly on the stat sheet. Anyone that drafts this young man with visions of Fletcher Cox-like numbers will be disappointed.
Philadelphia made no significant additions at defensive end, so they will count on the return of longtime starter Brandon Graham from injury to provide a spark. Graham tore his Achilles in week two, missing the rest of last season. The twelve-year veteran has been a mainstay on the edge since becoming a starter in 2012 and, except for a few years when he was stuck as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, has been a dependable DL2 for IDP managers.
He has never reached double-digit sacks in a season, but from 2017 through 2020, Graham averaged 33-12- 7.5 and 3 turnovers. He claimed to be past the rehab portion of his recovery and working on conditioning in April. Graham is expected to be ready when veterans report to training camp. The question is, will he be the same player at age 34 and coming off a major injury? The jury is still out on that, but in the meantime, Graham is worthy of a late-round shot as a DL3 with a little upside.
With Graham on the shelf, Josh Sweat joined Derek Barnett as the starting defensive ends last year. This trio will once again make up the rotation on the edge but it will be interesting to see who starts opposite Graham. Before 2021 it was Barnett in that spot, but he has been outplayed by Sweat in each of the past two seasons.
Calling Barnett a bust would be a bit harsh. If he were a third or fourth-round pick, his 21 sacks over five seasons would be viewed differently, but Barnett was the 14th overall selection in 2017. Both the Eagles and fantasy managers keep waiting for a break-out season that never comes. When his shot at the spotlight came last year, Barnett choked, going 19-27-2. As the great Bill Parcells once said, "when someone shows you who they are, believe them." At this point, it is time to accept that Barnett is an average NFL defensive end with a ceiling of about 40-45 combined tackles and six or so sacks.
Sweat was a fourth-round pick in 2018 and has been the third wheel at defensive end since his second season. He was fairly productive in that role, recording four and a half sacks in 2019. In 2020 he took another step, putting up 38 combined tackles, 6 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles on 421 snaps. Sweat didn’t exactly seize the opportunity last year, but he did prove to be a dependable option. His seven-and-a-half sacks were second-most on the team, and his mark of 19-26-7.5 with a forced fumble and 4 batted passes in 14 games as a starter were enough to make him a decent DL2. There are no pro-bowls or sack titles in his future, but if the coaching staff recognizes that he is a starter, Sweat can be a solid contributor for us.
The other two members of the defensive line that are likely to see a decent amount of action are second-year pros, Milton Williams and Tarron Jackson. Both had fairly significant roles as rookies. Milton saw a few snaps at defensive end on early downs, but much of his 495 snaps were on the inside, particularly in passing situations. Jackson worked his way into a timeshare with Ryan Kerrigan as the third defensive end. Both players could see bigger roles down the road, with Cox possibly being in his final year with the team and Barnett set to become a free agent after the 2023 season.
- DE Brandon Graham – Low-end DL2 or quality depth if healthy
- DE Josh Sweat – Watch list player with low DL2 potential if he starts
- DE Derek Barnett – Marginal value with a DL3 ceiling
- DE Tarron Jackson – has some long-term potential
- DT Fletcher Cox – Low DT2 with marginal upside
- DT Javon Hargrave – Low-end DT1 with top-five upside
- DT Jordan Davis – Marginal box score production expected
- DT Milton Williams – Deep/injury sleeper
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