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What can we expect from the Eagles’ defensive line?

Eagles training camp position preview: Defensive line.

Philadelphia Eagles v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles training camp is right around the corner! Players are scheduled to report to the NovaCare Complex on July 27. 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. Previously: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Offensive line.

THE PLAYERS

DEFENSIVE END

BRANDON GRAHAM, DEREK BARNETT, JOSH SWEAT, RYAN KERRIGAN, TARRON JACKSON, JAQUAN BAILEY, MATT LEO

Graham is entering his 12th season with the Eagles but there’s reason to believe he still has gas left in the tank. His career snap count is lower than you might realize. For perspective, a 33-year-old Graham has only logged 6,161 snaps whereas a 30-year-old Cox has logged 7,442 snaps. Then again, Graham was on pace for his first-ever double-digit sack season last year before he went quiet down the final stretch. Hopefully, the latter half of 2020 wasn’t an indicator of what to expect moving forward. At the very least, we can always count on Graham to bring maximum effort (and trash talk) every week.

Remember when Zach Ertz was the “This is finally his breakout year!” guy? Barnett has since taken up that mantle. The Eagles are still waiting to see something special from their 2017 first-round pick. Maybe it’ll help that he’s FINALLY about to enter a training camp healthy for the first time since his rookie season. And maybe he truly does still have upside since he turned 25 in June. But it’s quite possibly now or never for him as he enters a contract season.

Sweat was one of the rare bright spots from last year. Can he build on that and potentially supplant Barnett as a full-time starter? Or is he limited to being a quality role player? The old coaching staff (read: Jim Schwartz specifically) really loved Barnett. Maybe Sweat will get more of a chance with this staff? It’ll be interesting to see what the defensive end snap counts look like in this regard.

Isn’t it nice to know Kerrigan won’t be terrorizing the Eagles this year? (Unless he’s pulling an Orlando Scandrick, which shouldn’t be expected.) Seriously, what a relief that he’s one of the good guys now. Kerrigan logically fits in the defense as a rotational pass rusher. He should be effective — in theory, at least — with the Eagles managing his snaps. Not ideal if he’s playing a lot over Barnett and Sweat, though.

Jackson isn’t a sure bet to make the roster. The 2021 sixth-round pick is definitely at least behind the aforementioned four veterans and then there are edge rusher/linebacker hybrids to account for. Realistic best-case scenario is he makes the team as DE5 and develops behind the scenes, maybe seeing some limited snaps here and there.

Bailey has his work cut out for him as an undrafted rookie free agent signing. Bailey is on the older side for a rookie at 24, just a year under Barnett.

Leo spent last season on the Eagles’ practice squad via the NFL’s International Player Pathway. As such, he wasn’t eligible to be activated for games. He seems to be a long shot to stick around again considering he’s really on the older side for a player who’s never played an NFL snap at 29.

NOTE: I’m including Joe Ostman, Genard Avery, and Patrick Johnson in the linebacker preview since they were working with that position group in OTAs.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

FLETCHER COX, JAVON HARGRAVE, HASSAN RIDGEWAY, MILTON WILLIAMS, MARLON TUIPULOTU, T.Y. MCGILL, RAEQUAN WILLIAMS, WILLIE HENRY

There’s an argument to be made the Eagles should trade Cox. The Eagles aren’t likely going to do that, though. At least not unless they’re motivated sellers ahead of the NFL trade deadline. Cox is still a very good interior defender. But is he truly elite anymore? The numbers don’t suggest as much with just 10 sacks and 19 quarterback hits in his last 31 games played. Cox’s impact often goes beyond the box score, yes, but the numbers still need to be better than they have been. Especially when he’s commanding a team-high $23.9 million cap hit this year. That’s $6 million more than the next closest player. Cox needs to be a true difference-maker — not just merely good — for the Eagles to justify their resource allocation.

Hargrave got off to a slow start last year after dealing with some injuries. He came on as the season went along, though, and there’s reason to believe the 28-year-old can build on his progress. If Cox and Hargrave bring their A-games this year, the Eagles should be able to create some serious interior disruption.

When healthy, Ridgeway has shown the makings of a nice rotational player. The problem is ... Ridgeway has been healthy for just 32 out of 64 possible games over the past four seasons. Kind of an issue.

Tom Donahoe may not have been excited for the Eagles to draft Milton Williams but other members of the organization, such as Jonathan Gannon included, certainly were. Can he contribute as a rookie? A strong summer could land him the DT3 job. He might not be ready to make an instant impact, though.

Tuipulotu missed OTAs with an undisclosed injury. It’s unclear if he’ll be full go when training camp starts. If healthy, Tuipulotu could push for the DT3 job. He might be able to leapfrog Williams in the short-term even though his fellow rookie might possess more long-term upside.

McGill is competing for a DT3/DT4 job. He turns 29 this season so it’s not like there’s a lot of upside to be had with him.

Williams was a UDFA signing last year. He has his work cut out for him to make this year’s roster. Might have to aim for a practice squad spot.

Henry has played just 86 snaps since the start of the 2018 season. The 2016 fourth-round pick seems like a camp body in this situation.

HOW WILL IT PLAY OUT?

Graham, Barnett, Sweat, and Kerrigan are locked in as the Eagles’ top four defensive ends. That’s not an elite group but it could be a pretty good one.

Cox and Hargrave are locked in as the Eagles’ starting defensive tackles. It’s unclear who will win the two or three spots behind them. Ridgeway might have an edge but his injury history makes him a risky bet. Does the team really feel comfortable going with two rookies in Williams and Tuipulotu behind the starters?

WHO COULD BE A SURPRISE CUT?

Don’t see any surprises coming here. Then again, that’s exactly how a surprise works. The only thing I’ll say is that neither Jackson nor Tuipulotu should be considered stone-cold roster locks just because they were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.