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Eagles defense features two of the league’s best 50 players

All about the d-line.

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Minnesota Vikings v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Pro Football Focus put together a list of their top 50 projected players in the league for the 2017 NFL season. You can check out the entire rankings here. There are two Philadelphia Eagles players who made the final cut. Both of them play on Jim Schwartz’s defense.

Checking in at No. 50 overall is Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

The move to an aggressive, penetrating, one-gap defense didn’t quite have the transformative effect on Cox that we thought it might heading into 2016, but we still saw plenty of dominance from a player who changes game plans with his ability to disrupt both run and pass plays. Cox notched 57 total pressures and batted down a pair of passes at the line, earning strong grades against both the run and pass despite going up against some extremely high-level offensive linemen over the season.

Cox was recently ranked No. 38 overall on the NFL Top 100 list as voted on by the league’s players. As I noted last week, Cox was paid like an elite defender and did not put up elite production. That’s not to say he was bad by any means. It’s just that the Eagles need even more out of him moving forward.

There’s reason to believe Cox could be even more dominant in 2017 given Philadelphia’s revamped defensive line. The additions of Timmy Jernigan, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long should help the Eagles’ pass rush. Jernigan’s presence in particular should prevent teams from giving so much extra attention to Cox. I’m looking forward to seeing how good this defensive line can be in Year 2 of Schwartz’s scheme.

Speaking of the d-line, the other Eagles player to make PFF’s top 50 list is none other than Brandon Graham. He checks in at No. 39.

Graham consistently generates a phenomenal amount of pressure on the quarterback. He may not get home as often as some pass-rushers, but that pressure has a demonstrable negative effect on opposing passers – to the tune of a 32.6-point drop in passer rating over the past 10 years of play. Graham had 86 total pressures in 2016, trailing only Khalil Mack’s 92, and had the second-highest PFF grade overall of any edge defender (93.3).

In addition to these stats, I’d like to point out once again how Graham led the NFL in combined sacks, hurries, and knockdowns last year. BG is pretty good.

The Eagles just need Graham to become a better finisher. Schwartz recently said he felt the veteran defensive end was a little unlucky last year in this regard.

“I was really impressed with the season that Brandon had last year,” explained the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. “Again, the sack numbers were five and a half, is that what it was, five and a half? That's not going to create a whole lot of headlines. But he was a better pass-rusher than five and a half sacks. With him, I think it was more circumstance with him. He didn't miss very many opportunities. He’d have great pressure and the ball would be gone a little bit quicker. If we do a better job with our coverage, I think we can see some improved numbers from Brandon, also.”

Improved coverage would definitely help out Graham and the defensive line as a whole. But that’s far from a certain thing considering the Eagles’ perceived weakness at corner.

The good news for Graham is that he, like Cox, should benefit from the Eagles’ defensive line upgrades as well. Offensive lines aren’t going to be able to solely key in on him with Cox, Jernigan, Barnett, Long, and Vinny Curry also getting significant playing time.

The Eagles’ defensive line is the strength of their team. The team’s overall success could largely depend on the performance of that unit.

I’d say “no pressure” but that would be a bad thing in this case.

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