Eagles Have Look of Top-10 Defense
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - It may surprise you to learn that the Philadelphia Eagles had the 13th-ranked defense in the NFL during the 2016 season where the shift away from the Chip Kelly/Bill Davis years to a more conventional approach under highly-regarded defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz led to significant progress.
Year No. 2 in Schwartz's aggression-based scheme figures to only get better as the veteran coach has been given players who better fit his mindset, most notably defensive tackle Tim Jernigan and press-coverage corner Ronald Darby.
Schwartz will admit the engine of his defense is always the front four and the ability to get pressure on the opposing quarterback with a four-man rush. ESPN South Jersey contacted two veteran scouts recently and asked about Philadelphia's front and both insisted in was top five in all of football.
"It starts with Fletcher (Cox) and Brandon (Graham)," a long-time AFC scout said. "That's all all-day affair right there and then Jernigan is a better fit for what Jim is looking for. Bennie (Logan) is a good player but he's more of a run stopper. Schwartz wants someone to push the pocket."
Add in a healthy Vinny Curry at right end with No. 14 overall pick Derek Barnett, a natural pass rusher who has gotten to the QB in both preseason games, and you see the framework of a special unit coming together.
The presence of veteran Chris Long on the outside as well makes this a deep unit on the edges with the only question mark being the interior depth behind Cox and Jernigan where second-year man Destiny Vaeao and perhaps rookie sixth-round pick Elijah Qualls will need to provide some meaningful reps until Beau Allen returns from a torn pec.
The rest of the front seven is also impressive where the playmaking Jordan Hicks and long-time Schwartz favorite Nigel Bradham remain the team's three-down linebackers while the athletic Mychal Kendricks provides a capable third option if needed even if the veteran isn't all that happy in a limited role.
Schwartz is fond of the baseball references and if he were to describe his defense before the acquisition of Darby he probably would have called in strong up the middle as Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod have consistently been called one of the better safety tandems in the league by the defensive coordinator.
And then you had the Achilles heel, cornerback. The position still isn't great but by prying away Darby from Buffalo for Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick, Howie Roseman turned a disaster area into one that could be considered a strength of the team in 12 months if everything goes correctly.
The Eagles added a 23-year-old cornerback who has already played at a high level in this league to a nucleus that includes improved second-year man Jalen Mills as well as rookies with high ceilings in Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas.
"You look around the league, and it is a corner-deficient league," Roseman said after making the deal. "It's hard to find those guys. It's hard to find guys who have been solid starters in this league and can play at a high level. And teams that have them aren't really ready to move them."
In the short-term Darby will handle the left corner opposite Mills while Douglas is given time to develop on the outside and Jones recovers from an Achilles tear suffered during his pro day back in March.
“He's definitely going to help us there in the back end," coach Doug Pederson said after watching Darby against his old team on Thursday night in which the CB intercepted one Tyrod Taylor pass and nearly had two. "You kind of credit some of the throws, too, to our defensive line. The pass rush was there tonight and disrupting some of the timing offensively. Our guys were in position to make plays. ...You know, it's great to see. It's great to see our defense come up with takeaways and put the offense in good situations.”
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen