Our post-draft mailbag had a few questions that covered a similar topic that I want to dig a little deeper on: 2023 expectations.
Kjb304: Defense has subtracted and added a lot of parts including DC. What are the realistic expectations for this defense in 2023?
The 2022 defense was special. Their 70 sacks was two shy of tying the all-time record, and four players with 10+ sacks had never happened before. That obviously isn’t going to happen again.
So regression is coming. But how much, and what would it look like?
We can talk about what Sean Desai brings to the table, and we have plenty of time between now and the start of the season to do that. But it doesn’t really matter who the coach is, the Eagles have built their defense to overwhelm the offensive line. Pressure QBs and they play worse, get them on the ground and they can’t do anything. They have seven first round draft picks currently on the roster and have signed veteran free agent defensive linemen in every season since 2017. If the Eagles can’t create pressure and get to the QB then everything falls apart.
The 2021 defense was 31st in sack rate and sacks, 19th in pressures, and 21st in pressure rate, and 32nd in completion percentage because QBs had all day in the pocket to pick them apart. Not coincidentally, that team was winless in their seven games with highest passing yards against, giving up at least 27 points in those games, the rest of the season they were 9-2 and gave up more than 18 points just once.
The 2022 Eagles were 1st in sacks and sack rate, 2nd in pressure rate, and 3rd in pressures, and 12th in completion percentage because QBs were under duress. In their seven highest passing yards against they were 5-2, and gave up 24 points on average.
Pressure and sacks are the bellwether for the Eagles defense. For 2023 it will likely not be great, but good enough should be, well, good enough.
If Jonathan Gannon had returned (sorry to put that scary thought in your mind) I would set the benchmarks at top 10, you can win with that kind of performance. Which for 2022 would have been 44 sacks (the Eagles had 70), a 7.5% sack rate (the Eagles was 11.2%), 152 pressures (the Eagles had 168), and a 23% pressure rate (the Eagles had 25.5%).
Those are the areas I’ll be looking for this season. Everything else for the defense, their ability to generate turnovers, their ability to keep QBs inefficient, their ability to neutralize WRs, everything flows off their ability to get into the backfield. That’s what they’re built to do.
Mofwood: Looking forward to the season, which will have the greater negative impact — the changeover of the players or the changeover of the coaching staff?
Most of the returning players on both sides of the ball are coming off career years or for the older veterans their best season in years. Some of them are young enough that “career year” is just “next step in their progression” specifically AJ Brown, Devonta Smith, and Josh Sweat, and hopefully Jalen Hurts. But some of them aren’t. Haason Reddick is probably not going to get 16 sacks again, because it’s really hard to get 16 sacks, there have only been 10 such seasons in the last five years and only one player has done it more than once (Myles Garrett). And Brandon Graham setting a new career sack total at age 35 after setting a new total at age 34 is not going to happen. At some point in the future Lane Johnson will give up a sack. AJ Brown is not going to be able to score 3 TDs against the team that traded him.
Veteran players will regress to their “true” talent level, which is still excellent. Some younger players will have a regression year because progress is usually inconsistent. And then there’s injuries, more on that later. That’s just how it goes.
But that makes it harder to win football games, and we care about winning football games. So it will be on the coaches to adapt. Tough break but that’s the job.
CapinCrunches: With all the love that the Eagles have been getting this postseason, am I right to be preparing for a let down? It seems every year, the team that “wins the offseason” flops in the regular season. Obviously there’s a difference between being praised for making shrewd moves vs being praised for throwing money at every big name, but what’s the chance you think this could all blow up in our faces? (The old vets fall off a cliff, the young DLs underwhelm, the RBs with an injury history get injured...)
As you point out, there’s a difference between the “ooh, shiny” version of winning of the offseason and the “this crew is good” version. The Eagles had the latter, but that doesn’t guarantee them anything. Could relying on older veterans who just played a 20 game season, some of who played through injury blow up? Yes. Could potentially playing so many young players on defense backfire? Of course.
If the Eagles struggle next season, and we’re not talking about “11 wins after winning 14 games last year” struggle but “in danger of missing the playoffs” struggle it will very likely be for one reason: injuries. Health is a huge factor in a team’s success or lack of it. It is not a coincidence that 7 of the 10 healthiest teams in both 2022 and 2021 had a winning record, while 6 of the 10 least healthiest teams in both seasons did not. A key player having a two week injury is nothing in other sports, in the NFL it could be difference between making and missing the playoffs.
The Eagles were one of the healthiest teams last year, and above average in 2021, while in 2020 they were pretty decimated. Surprise surprise, they had a winning record in the healthy years and were really bad in the injured year.
Obviously a serious injury to Jalen Hurts would be the worst. Four other areas have concerns.
- Secondary. The Eagles could easily be in big, big trouble if one of James Bradberry or Darius Slay goes down for an extended period of time. We’ve already seen it struggle when Avonte Maddox was out. If Bradberry or Slay goes down, who takes over? The only start of Zech McPhearson’s career was the meaningless Week 18 game last year, and his only extended playing time in 2022 was Week 4 against the Jaguars. He played fine in that game, but can they count on him for extended time? Can they count on Greedy Williams, whose season high in playing time last year with the Browns was his first game back from injury?
- Offensive tackle. Lane Johnson hasn’t played a full season since 2015, and has missed at least two games in each of the past four seasons. Jordan Mailata has never started a full season. The Eagles can get by with one of them out, but if they miss time together they’re in a really bad spot. I talked about this yesterday, but the backup left tackle is a giant question mark, they haven’t actually replaced Andre Dillard.
- Defensive tackle. This one isn’t hard to imagine because it sort of already happened. Stopping the run was an issue in the first half of the season, especially after Jordan Davis and then Marlon Tuipulotu went down with injuries in back to back weeks, prompting the Eagles to sign Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh off the street. The Eagles were able to sign them in large part because they had the best record in the league at 8-1. Would either have signed if they were 6-3? While the Eagles have high hopes for the all young DT talent they have on the roster, Fletcher Cox is the only one on the roster with starting experience. There’s potentially a lot of growing pains on the interior even without injuries, if anyone misses extended time that will amplify the issue.
- Pass catchers. The Eagles have three outstanding pass catchers in AJ Brown, Devonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert. After that… not much. Last season WRs and TEs who weren’t that trio combined for just 64 receptions, 33 of which were by Quez Watkins. Olamide Zaccheaus caught 40 last season but would be over extended as more than a spot starter. The freshly signed Dan Arnold, a WR turned TE who has some starting experience could help.
Even worse could be if the Eagles have a low number of long term injuries but a high number of short term injuries all over the roster. If I was told they would lose 78 games to injury (the median last year) but I got to choose for how long players got hurt (weird deal with the devil but what can you do) I would make the bulk of those to be concentrated on a small number of players. Replacing a few players for a long time should be easier than replacing a bunch of players each week.
Think about the 2017 team, who had 15 players on offense and 17 on defense play at least 13 games, they were 13th best in Adjusted Games Lost; while the 2018 team had only 12 and 14, respectively, they were 32nd in AGL. Of course there was more to it than just injuries, but the constant lineup changes were definitely a factor as to why the 2018 team started 4-6 and needed to win three straight at the end of the season to make the playoffs. It’s hard to find a rhythm when every couple of weeks there’s a different starting lineup. Or think about how in 2020 the team had 10 different offensive line combinations in all of their first 10 games and were 3-6-1 in those games.
That’s what concerns me most about 2023. There’s talent all over the roster, but the cliche is true, the best ability is availability.