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Eagles’ defensive line: the lifeblood of the defense

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Eagles training camp position preview: defensive line

San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles training camp 2018 is almost here. Players report to the NovaCare Complex on Wednesday, July 25. The Eagles’ summer schedule, including information on practices open to the public, can be found by clicking here. As we count down the days together, Bleeding Green Nation will be previewing every position on the Eagles roster. We continue today by taking a look at the defensive line.

The Players

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Haloti Ngata, Elijah Qualls, Destiny Vaeao, Winston Craig, Bruce Hector

Ah, Fletcher Cox. A top-3 interior defensive lineman in the NFL, well in his prime as the value of interior pressure has become better recognized in recent football seasons. Though playing in Billy Davis’ 2-gap system greatly restricted Cox’s disruptive ability as a penetrator, it benefitted him in terms of hand placement, quickness, and understanding of leverage. Cox used to be just a size and speed bully; now with added refinement, he’s nigh on unblockable. Just ask Zack Martin.

This is the final year of Cox’s 6 year, $103M extension that wouldn’t be rather easy for the Eagles to restructure. Barring a shocking drop-off in play or equally threatening injury, expect Howie Roseman to look into signing Cox to another warranted extension that gives him more guaranteed money, but lowers his $20M+ cap hits in 2019 and 2020.

No news is good news (hopefully?) in the Timmy Jernigan situation. Remember where we last left off: Jernigan was returning to the field sometime between September and November, without any guarantees on his contract beyond 2018. As such, we won’t see a lick of Jernigan in camp, which is disappointing. While he wasn’t the athlete in space that Cox was, he proved as disruptive a downfield penetrator under Jim Schwartz’s tutelage. He and Cox had the potential to be a Top-2 DT duo in 2018. His health is a huge storyline for the season to come.

Instead, a big riddle of camp will be the duo of young players who could earn some of Jernigan’s missing snaps in early in the season. It could have been Beau Allen’s moment in the spotlight, but Big Beau went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency, leaving 41% of the defensive snaps vacated on Philly’s rotation-heavy DL. Haloti Ngata, acquired on a one-year deal from Detroit, likely fills Beau’s space-eating role. He doesn’t represent a pass rush threat, however, and should not be relied upon in Jernigan’s upcoming absence.

As such, Elijah Qualls and Destiny Vaeao are the names to circle. I’m particularly bullish on Qualls, the second-year 6th-rounder out of Washington who presents a better rush profile. Qualls is a bowling ball of player—he doesn’t have great reach or change-of-direction skills, but boy can he knock some people down when he gets rolling. Qualls benefitted last season from the circumstances of the roster, as well as his strong camp: fellow 6th-round WR Shelton Gibson couldn’t stand out in the summer, while 5th-round LB Nate Gerry couldn’t crack a thick depth chart. That year of live game experience will only help him in his sophomore campaign.

Vaeao represents a quicker player than Qualls, and perhaps better fits into the mold of ‘penetrator’ that Jernigan will leave empty—not to mention, he significantly out-snapped Qualls in 2017. A third-year UDFA out of rival Washington State, Vaeao hasn’t shown the ability to generate rush angles yet in the NFL. His hands aren’t strong; he isn’t shifty enough; he doesn’t have the strength. If he can’t show promise in this season, especially with extra camp reps available, Philadelphia should look to move on. This is his biggest camp yet.

Winston Craig was signed and waived twice after going undrafted in the 2017 NFL Draft. At this point, he doesn’t represent a significant investment or player of interest for Philadelphia. The same can be said for Bruce Hector, a 2018 UDFA out of South Florida—but Hector will have the opportunity to create a first impression that Craig no longer does. They’re certainly roster dark horses at this point, but with a lot of confusion at the position, you never know what could happen.

DEFENSIVE END: Brandon Graham, Chris Long, Michael Bennett, Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, Steven Means, Joe Ostman, Aziz Shittu*, Danny Ezechukwu

*Aziz Shittu has played defensive tackle for the Eagles in his two seasons thus far, but is listed as a 288 lb DE on the official team roster. Given that he’s rehabbing back from injury, I don’t really know what his frame looks like at this time, so he’s a wild card. I apologize to any die-hard Shittu fans who are disappointed by my lack of focused analysis herein.

The long-awaited validation of Brandon Graham finally dawned in 2017, as years of unrewarded efforts—both on and off the field—manifested in a 9.5 sack season. Graham’s newfound success came in large part because of the focus Schwartz gave Graham in clear pass rush situations. Graham’s combination of snap explosiveness and deep arsenal of pass rush techniques made him a terror on two-way go situations against both guards and tackles. Expect a fired-up Graham for the entire 2018 season, as he’s likely still chasing that double-digit sack season—as well as the fat contract that has eluded him to this point in his career.

Directly tethered to that contract is the year Derek Barnett puts out in 2018. The better Barnett looks, the lower the figure Howie Roseman and Co. may feel motivated to send Graham’s way. As many BGN readers know, I lobbied for tempered expectations for Derek Barnett’s sophomore campaign. On Barnett’s film, I saw a player who won often when the cards were stacked in his favor, and failed to generate his own big plays against stiffer NFL competition. He will grow, of course; he’ll get better. Expect to see more effective counter moves in Barnett’s 2018 arsenal—likely an improved spin move to start—to improve his pressure rate, and hope for increased explosiveness in Year 2. But more than 6.5 sacks would be, in my eyes, a big surprise.

Chris Long’s return for 2018 is a huge storyline that goes under-appreciated. With Vinny Curry’s departure, Jernigan’s injury necessitating some interior snaps for Michael Bennett, and a souped-up deal for 2018, Chris Long will likely build on his 48% snap count number from 2017. He proved not only an excellent situational rusher, with great footwork, hand fighting, and finishing bend—but a stout run defender that warrants more consistent snaps. He became a veteran leader of this team in only one season, and you want that caliber of player on the field.

Michael Bennett, by the same token, represents a huge addition. He can slot in anywhere from 3-technique to 9-technique and defend the run and pass with equal degrees of aggressiveness and understanding. Like Long, he’s a veteran; he’s seen it all before. A newcomer in camp, expect DL coach Chris Wilson to stick Bennett in a variety of alignments with a variety of teammates across July and August. Understanding how different DL packages work together will allow Wilson and Schwartz to provide new blitz looks every week of the regular season, as well as respond to injuries along the front four.

And now, Josh Sweat—man oh man, this Eagles DE room is deep. We don’t often talk about fourth-round rookies battling for regular season playing time—especially in a position this loaded—but Sweat wasn’t a fourth-rounder because of skill level. The 250 lb EDGE from Florida State must prove to a new coaching staff—and a new medical team—that he can take on an NFL workload of lifting and practice time. At Florida State, Sweat remained limited as a practice participant for almost every season following his injury. His talent will shine against the second- and third-team offensive tackles at camp; he’ll earn a 46-man active roster spot as well—that’s not the issue that clouds Sweat’s future. The question is how long his career will be in that roster spot.

The Josh Sweat pick must have been a gut-punch for Steven Means. The high-energy EDGE has received tons of love from Eagles’ coaches and players, but never really broke the roster bubble to show his stuff on Sundays. Now in a contract year, Means has one more camp to impress Eagles coaches; one more preseason to impress opponents as well. Don’t be shocked if Means’ name comes up in August trade conversations—he’s better than a fifth or sixth man, without a doubt.

I’d expect Joe Ostman to sail a similar boat as Means, frankly. Uber productive at Central Michigan, Ostman’s size projects him far more favorably to a 3-4 OLB role—and his high-motor play should translate well to special teams. With an esteemed DL in Philadelphia, a good performance by Ostman will generate a strong reference from DL coach Chris Wilson in NFL circles. His path to the Eagles’ roster likely hinges on a Means trade, but don’t be shocked when a 3-4 team snaps him off waivers after 53-man roster cuts.

Danny Ezechukwu, Ostman’s fellow 2018 UDFA, doesn’t bring the absurd numbers of Ostman, but he does bring the size concerns. His primary goal in camp should concern special teams performance—an area in which Philadelphia isn’t weak—and proving value as an off-ball linebacker as well. It’s an uphill battle, and Ezechukwu’s Purdue tape doesn’t inspire much.

How will it play out?

As it did last season, this defensive line will define and shape this defense. Unfortunately, the Eagles will likely open the season without 3 of the top 7 players from last season’s rotation. While plug-and-plays like Bennet and Ngata indicate the organization’s acknowledgement of the turnover, Philadelphia will need their young players to step up to continue building on 2017’s dominance.

I expect the depth chart to shake out thusly (snap counts):

DE: Brandon Graham (65%), Josh Sweat (35%), Steven Means (<5%)

DT: Fletcher Cox (60%), Elijah Qualls (20%), Destiny Vaeao (15%)

DT: Timmy Jernigan (60%), Haloti Ngata (50%)

DE: Chris Long (60%), Derek Barnett (55%), Michael Bennet (55% [some at DT])

Who could be a surprise cut?

Means getting cut for an opportunity elsewhere wouldn’t shock me—he’s just more talented than the snaps he’ll see here. Philly would likely try to trade him for anything first, of course.

It would be shocking if the Eagles moved Brandon Graham during the preseason—but they have shopped him around as his contract negotiations loom. It’s not entirely off the table.

Poll

On a scale of 1-10, what’s your confidence level in the Eagles’ offensive line? (10 being the most.)

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    10
    (238 votes)
  • 32%
    9
    (194 votes)
  • 20%
    8
    (124 votes)
  • 5%
    7
    (30 votes)
  • 0%
    6
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    5
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    4
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    3
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    2
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    1
    (2 votes)
594 votes total Vote Now