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Evaluating the top defensive tackle options for the Eagles following the Tim Jernigan injury news

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What should the Birds do?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive tackle depth took a hit with the news that Tim Jernigan, who had surgery on a herniated disc, could be out until November. Jernigan is reportedly expected to make a full recovery, but the fact that the Eagles un-guaranteed a large portion of his contract indicates there’s still long-term concern about the injury.

If the season started today, Fletcher Cox and Haloti Ngata would be locked in as the Eagles’ starters at defensive tackle. The depth beyond that is unsettled. And that’s not an insignificant problem to have considering how often Jim Schwartz likes to rotate the Eagles’ defensive linemen in order to keep them fresh.

Let’s take a look at some of the options the Eagles have when it comes to preparing for Jernigan’s absence.

FREE AGENTS THE EAGLES CAN SIGN

Jernigan’s recovery time-frame has been estimated at four to six months. In the worst case scenario there, Jernigan would likely miss eight games before returning in mid-November. The Eagles might want to add a free agent defensive tackle if they think he’s going to miss that much time.

JOHNATHAN HANKINS

The 26-year-old Hankins is the top free agent defensive tackle on the market. The Eagles were reportedly showing “lots of love” to him in free agency last year (so nice of them!) but that never materialized into an actual deal. Hankins signed with the Colts instead but ended up being released after just one season with Indy. Measuring in at 6-3, 320 pounds, Hankins is more of a run-stuffer than he is a one-gap penetrator. He also might be more pricey than what the Eagles want to pay, which likely explains why he’s still on the market.

JAY BROMLEY

Another former Giants defensive tackle. Bromley, 25, was a third round pick by New York in the 2014 NFL Draft. He measures in at 6-3, 314 pounds. The sense I get from Giants fans is that he didn’t live up to expectations but he wasn’t awful. They’d be fine bringing him back to New York on a cheap one-year deal. Bromley could compete for a No. 3 or No. 4 defensive tackle job while Jernigan is out for the Eagles.

NICK FAIRLEY

Fairley was released by the Saints earlier this offseason after he couldn’t pass a physical. Fairley reportedly has a career-threatening heart condition. Despite this, he reportedly wants to keep playing. The Eagles should at least check in on Fairley’s medical status. He’s an obvious fit in the Eagles’ scheme due to his time spent with Schwartz. With that said, it’s very possible his condition rules him out as a realistic option.

CEDRIC THORNTON

Roseman signed Thornton as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2011. “Swamp” could be a fallback plan if the Eagles end up not liking any of their in-house options. Not an ideal fit for Schwartz’s scheme.

TYRUNN WALKER

Pass.

FROSTEE RUCKER, KARL KLUG, ETC.

There’s a bunch of generic run-defenders on the market that the Eagles could pick up on the cheap as depth guys. Nothing to get excited about, besides their cool names.

INTERNAL OPTIONS THE EAGLES COULD TURN TO

The Eagles have some in-house candidates they can hope to get by with, especially if Jernigan’s recovery is closer to four months than six. Let’s examine.

DESTINY VAEAO

Vaeao has been the Eagles’ No. 4 defensive tackle the past two years after originally joining the team as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Vaeao hasn’t done much to impress and he’s actually graded out as one of PFF’s worst defensive tackles. He’s just a guy, at best.

ELIJAH QUALLS

The Eagles’ 2017 sixth-round pick flashed during the summer last year. Believe it or not, he actually finished the preseason as PFF’s top overall graded defensive tackle. In 142 snaps played, he generated seven hurries, seven run stops, six tackles, and two sacks. That production didn’t carry over to the regular season, when Qualls was even kept inactive behind Justin Hamilton, who was originally being stored on the practice squad, at one point. Maybe the 23-year-old Qualls can take a step forward this year. It’d be very convenient for the Eagles if that was the case. I don’t know if he ever projects at a full-time starter but it’d be great if he could just be the No. 3 guy in the rotation.

AZIZ SHITTU

Shittu spent the 2016 season on Philadelphia’s practice squad after originally joining the team as an undrafted rookie free agent. He projected to compete for a depth job in 2017 before suffering a knee injury in May 2017. Shittu is now back to push for playing time. I liked what we saw out of him in the 2016 preseason when he generated five hurries, two quarterback hits, and two hurries in only 121 snaps played. Shittu is my dark horse candidate to keep an eye on at this position.

WINSTON CRAIG

The Eagles experimented with moving Craig, a 2017 undrafted signing out of Richmond (the alma mater of Joe Douglas), to defensive end last preseason. He should get more playing time at his natural defensive tackle position this year. Expectations are low but maybe that’ll help him.

BRUCE HECTOR

The Eagles haven’t officially confirmed this signing yet but reports indicate Philly gave Hector the biggest guarantee of any of their UDFA signings. Hector’s scouting report indicates he’s a good fit for Schwartz’s one-gapping, attack defense. Someone to keep an eye on this summer.

WHAT SHOULD THE EAGLES DO?

Considering it seems like the Eagles have some long-term concerns about Jernigan’s status, I think it would be wise to add another body at defensive tackle.

The Eagles’ internal options (especially Qualls and Shittu) provide some hope but it can’t hurt to add a little more depth/competition.

What say you?