Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
Arizona | Atlanta | Baltimore | Buffalo | Carolina | Chicago | Cincinnati | Cleveland | Dallas | Denver | Detroit | Green Bay | Houston | Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Kansas City | Las Vegas | LA Chargers | LA Rams | Miami | Minnesota | New England | New Orleans | NY Giants | NY Jets | Philadelphia | Pittsburgh | San Francisco | Seattle | Tampa Bay | Tennessee | Washington
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
Considering how well the Eagles' defense performed in 2022, it is no wonder the team made it to the championship game. In the last twenty years, two teams have reached 60 sacks, and none put up more than 61. Philadelphia set a new mark with an unheard-of 70. The pass defense gave up the fewest yards and the fewest yards per attempt, while the team's 17 interceptions ranked fourth, and their 22 passing TDs allowed was eleventh. The run defense was middle of the pack, but this unit gave up the eighth fewest points and created the fourth most turnovers.
That was a lot of goodness for those of us that love defense, but it is going to be tough to get back there in 2023 after the rest of the league picked apart their roster in free agency. The Eagles are going to have at least five new starters this year after losing both safeties, two linebackers, and one of the league's premier defensive tackles. They had some guys waiting in the wings, hit free agency for some help, and used their first three draft picks on that side of the ball, but is that going to be enough to re-capture the magic?
The 2022 Eagles had four players reach double-digit sacks. Something I don't believe has ever been accomplished before. The good news is that three of those players are back. Haason Reddick led the charge with 16, setting a new career mark. It is a shame that the Cardinals wasted the first three years of his career in a bonehead attempt to make him an inside linebacker. Since moving to the edge in 2020, Reddick has put up 12.5 sacks for the Cardinals, 11.5 for the Panthers, and 16 in his first year with Philadelphia. Sacks are not his only contribution. Reddick has forced 12 fumbles, recovered 4, and knocked down 7 passes over those three seasons as well.
The tricky part when it comes to Reddick is position. He sees time in a normal edge/defensive end role, but a lot of his production has come as a strong side linebacker in 4-3 schemes. It's hard for an offensive line to block a pair of great pass rushers. Imagine the challenge of facing three with a blazer like Reddick and, say, Brandon Graham overloading one side. In many ways, Reddick and Micah Parsons are the poster children for the True Position format. We can argue and try to split hairs all day about them playing linebacker or defensive end, but no one can say they are not edge defenders.
Reddick's tackle numbers shrank when teams started using him right. Last year's total of 49 combined was a career-low, but with 16 sacks, 8 turnovers, and three batted passes, no one noticed. At age 28, he is among the leading candidates for a sack title at some point in the next few years. At worst, he should give us about 50 combined tackles, a dozen sacks, and a handful of turnovers in 2023. One bonus that comes with him lining up at both spots is that he doesn't come off the field as much as the team's other pass rushers, so his tackle production is not going to hold back his fantasy value.
Both starting defensive ends, Graham and Josh Sweat, recorded eleven sacks in 2022. For Sweat, it was his first year as a clear-cut starter after working as the third man behind Graham and Derek Barnett for three years. At 29-18-11, with two turnovers and a score, he broke into the top 20 for the first time. Chances are, it won't be the last.
Both Sweat's sack and tackle totals have steadily increased over his career. The 2018 fourth-round pick saw his first real playing time in 2019, posting 21 combined stops and 4 sacks. In 2020 his play share increased, and his number went up to 38 combined stops and 6 sacks. In 2021, Sweat went for 45 stops and 7 sacks. That trend will have to stop at some point. But he is only 26 years old, so that point could be well down the road.
On the other end of the age spectrum, Brandon Graham is 35 and entering his 14th year with the Eagles. Yet his eleven sacks last year were a career-high. Graham is a late bloomer. Throughout his career, he has been a solid and dependable three-down starter for the Eagles and a borderline DL2/DL3 for IDP managers. Before last season, he consistently recorded tackle numbers between 31 and 41 solos and 11-16 assists, but it took him eight years to finally put up more than six sacks. Graham now has eight or more in three of the last four seasons, not counting 2021, when he was out with an injury.
The problem with Graham and the concern for Sweat, in fantasy terms, is snap counts. One of the reasons the Eagles were so successful last year is that they were deep with quality pass rushers and were able to rotate often to keep them all fresh. As a result, Sweat played 587 and Graham 474 of roughly 1100 snaps. The mass rotations may have been a plus in terms of pass rush success, but limited opportunities will always hurt in the tackle columns. Thus, even with the career-best eleven sacks, Graham's 19 solos and 16 assists kept him from packing much of a punch in IDP circles and will likely do so again this year.
If he has recovered from last year's ACL injury, Derek Barnett should reclaim his spot in the defensive end rotation. If he is not at full speed, Barnett could be on the roster bubble. The 2017 first-round pick has never lived up to expectations and is in the final year of his contract. The team could decide to save some money and move on. Especially if rookie Nolan Smith is as advertised.
In stature, play style, and skill set, Smith draws a lot of comparison to Reddick. At six foot two and 238 pounds, he is undersized for an edge defender, especially a 4-3 defensive end. But Smith plays much bigger and is stubborn versus the run. He tested very well at the combine, including a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash, which is lightning fast and can give 290-pound offensive tackles nightmares. Smith has some work to do on the technical side as a pass rusher, but the raw talent is there for him to be special within a couple of years.
Possibly the biggest offseason loss for Philadelphia was when Javon Hargrave signed with San Francisco. Of the four players in double-digit sacks last year, Hargrave was the only one that lined up inside. The Eagles still have a great player in Fletcher Cox, who tallied 22-20-7 in 2022. Cox has 61 career sacks over his eleven seasons and is a stalwart run defender. He has been a force on the field over his career and is consistently a borderline DT2/DT3 for IDP managers. Cox still has gas in the tank at age 32 but is in the final year of his contract. With all the draft capital the team has used at the position recently, it might be a sign that the Eagles and/or Cox are prepared to move on at the end of this season.
The Eagles used their first pick in each of the last two drafts on interior defensive linemen, taking Jordan Davis at thirteen last year and Jalen Carter at nine this spring. Davis is a 340-pound road grader that will anchor the line from the nose tackle position. He is hard to move and will eat up both space and blockers, but as we saw last year, a large part of his contribution to the team is not going to show up on the stat sheet. Davis had nine tackles and nine assists on 269 plays as a rookie. Both his playing time and tackle numbers should go up in year two, but he may never be much of an IDP factor. Davis had 90 combined tackles and 7 sacks in 41 games at Georgia.
Carter is smaller at 310 pounds and is more nimble. As a two-year starter for Georgia, he totaled 69 combined stops and 6 sacks. Those are not flashy numbers but are enough to show that he can contribute in the tackle columns and as a pass rusher. In the right situation, Carter could make an IDP impact. I'm not sure the Eagles are in the right situation, though. Not because of his ability or the scheme but simply because of the depth they have and the commitment to play everyone. Davis, Carter, Fletcher Cox, and Milton Williams are all going to see significant action, but they are not the only players that will see time. Last season, both Cox and Hargrave played just over 700 snaps, with Williams getting 395 and four others at least 175.
- DE Brandon Graham – Has value as a spot start or bye week fill in
- DE Josh Sweat – Low-end DL2 or strong DL3
- DE Derek Barnett – No impact expected
- DE Tarron Jackson – No impact
- Edge Haason Reddick – DE1 with elite upside
- Edge Nolan Smith – High upside rookie
- DT Fletcher Cox – Low-end DT2 or priority DT3
- DT Jalen Carter – Plenty of potential but a tough road to show it
- DT Jordan Davis – Marginal value expected
- DT Milton Williams – Injury sleeper
The Eagles had an eye on the future when they selected Nakobe Dean in round three last year. The future is now. Both T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White played well in 2022, but that didn't stop the team from showing them both the door in the offseason. White's exit was expected. He signed a short-term contract to be a seat warmer for Nakobe Dean.
Edwards, on the other hand, spent four years with the team and was coming off what was by far the best year of his young career. He led the team and was seventh in the NFL with 99 solo tackles. Edwards added 60 assists and a pair of sacks but put just one mark in the turnover column. That was good enough to rank eighth among linebackers in IDP circles but was not good enough to get him a new contract in Philadelphia.
Having Nakobe Dean redshirt in his first season served two purposes. It allowed him to get fully healthy and get accustomed to the pro game while learning the defense. Most teams had Dean as a first-round talent, but he fell to the third due to injury concerns. He battled through several issues while at Georgia, including a sore ankle, a meniscus problem, and a torn labrum that he showed toughness by playing through at the end of the 2020 season. The big one, however, was the pectoral injury Dean suffered while working out in preparation for last year's combine.
The injury was initially reported as a strain, but reports by several national insiders, including Ian Rapoport, claimed it was more serious, and surgery was an option. Dean and his camp insisted it was not that bad and decided against surgery, leaving concerns among teams that 2022 could end up being a lost season. There were a lot of questions entering last year's training camp. As we enter training camp 2023, there is no more mystery.
Dean has a year in the system under his belt, there is no injury shadow hanging over him, and the way is clear for him to take over the lead role at linebacker. So what kind of production can we expect? Dean could be a beast right out of the gate. Over the last few years, we have seen strong numbers from lesser players at the Eagles' middle and weak-side positions. Perfect examples are Alex Singleton, who averaged better than eleven points per game in both 2020 and 2021, and Edwards at 12.6 last year. Dean will work behind an excellent defensive line. With no other great linebackers in the mix and uncertainty about what the team has at safety, there may not be a great deal of competition for tackles. Dean accounted for four turnovers and a score in his final season at Georgia, so he should make some contributions in the big play columns as well. All things considered, I believe Dean lands firmly among the top 20 with top-12 potential.
Dean will move into the role that Edwards had last year, and Nicholas Morrow will play the part of Kyzir White. At 67-43-1.5 with 7 passes defended, White ranked 40th among linebackers. Morrow should be able to at least match that and could be a good bit better. Morrow played well as a backup for the Raiders in 2019. In 2020, he impressed coming off the bench for a couple of early games and finished the season as a starter. He was set to be the team's weak-side linebacker in 2021 before a preseason injury sidelined him for the year.
Morrow played virtually every snap for the Bears last year, going 82-33-0 with an interception and finishing 32nd at the position. Before you downgrade him for the last of splash plays, keep in mind that the Bears were horrible and that Morrow was 62-17-3 with 3 takeaways and 9 passes defended on 722 snaps in 2020. He is not a threat to outproduce Dean but could be a good third starter for us.
Philadelphia rarely fields three linebackers at the same time, so barring an injury, Shaun Bradley, Davion Taylor, and Kyron Johnson will earn their keep on special teams. Bradley is the most experienced of the group, entering his fifth year. He would likely be first off the bench but none of these guys have ever started an NFL game.
- MLB Nakobe Dean – Unproven but high expectations
- WLB Nicholas Morrow – Target as a priority LB4 that could be your third starter
- MLB Shaun Bradley – Injury sleeper
- WLB Davion Taylor – Injury sleeper
- SLB Kyron Johnson – No impact
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