The Eagles were third overall in the NFL in 2022 in team defense, giving up 5,125 yards last season over 17 games, and were second in the league, yielding an average of 301.5 yards a game behind only the San Francisco 49ers (300.6 ave). Five starters off that defense are gone (defensive backs C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps, linebackers T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White, and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave). White and Edwards were lost to free agency, and along with them, the bulk of the linebacker room. The Eagles added free agent linebacker Nicholas Morrow from the Chicago Bears, coming off a career season in which he had 115 tackles and 11 tackles for losses.
The 2023 Eagles look strong everywhere. The offense is established. It’s going to be the strength of the 2023 Eagles. Hargrave is a huge loss, right there with offensive right guard Isaac Seumalo, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The absence of Edwards and White will need to be filled.
Will the Eagles’ success rely on second-year linebacker Nakobe Dean?
If Dean doesn’t perform as projected, the Eagles will have to win shootouts in 2023.
Dean reminds many Eagles fans of another linebacker who once played in Philadelphia, the late Sam Mills, the 5-foot-9, 232-pound fire hydrant who played for the USFL Philadelphia Stars and went on to a Hall of Fame NFL career with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. Dean, listed at 5-11, 231, certainly has the same physical dimensions. Dean was the leader of a defense that won Georgia the 2021 national championship.
He will be counted on to be leader for the Eagles’ defense this year.
“I think Dean is going to be really good,” said Hall of Fame veteran football writer Ray Didinger. “I agree he will be a major player in the Eagles’ 2023 picture. I think the Eagles are going to score a ton of points. They’re going to be as explosive and dynamic as they were last year. I don’t think that is going to change. But the defense, initially, is going to be a work in progress. You must fill a couple of significant holes. Hargrave was a good player who will not be all that easy to replace. I would put Gardner-Johnson in with him, and that’s right down the middle of your defense.
“Then you have to replace your leading tackler, who was Edwards (a team-high 159 tackles/99 solo), their middle linebacker. The Eagles will need to figure out who replaces that production, and they’re going to have to do it with a new defensive coordinator (Sean Desai). A lot of that will revolve around Dean. When you look at the whole picture of the Eagles, they’re going to rely on Jalen Hurts, A.J. Hurts, and I would put Dean right up there really high, if the Eagles are going to get back to the Super Bowl. Dean is going to have to take charge out there with a new defensive coordinator and new pieces around him. He’s the one who’s going to have the radio in his helmet.”
One glaring area Didinger liked about Dean coming out of Georgia was his innate instinct of knowing where the ball was going before blockers could reach him. Linebacker, Didinger believes, is the most instinct reliant position on the field, whereas the other positions are played mostly by assignment. What sets the great linebackers apart, like Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, who was listed at 6-1, 250, is their ability to reach the point of attack before the play arrives. Lewis was a great student of the game, who studied film and tendencies. He could pick up and read tells how a play could unfold.
A possible fear with Dean is over committing, where he runs himself out of plays. Against Green Bay last season, on Keisean Nixon’s 53-yard kickoff return with just over two minutes to play, Dean, along with Zech McPhearson and Kyron Johnson got stuck out of position inside, allowing a huge running lane. The other side came, for example, in the 35-10 victory over Tennessee. In the blowout, Dean got a chance to play regularly, opening the second half with a big pop on C.J. Board on the Eagles’ kick return coverage. On a second-and-10 at the Eagles’ 17 with just over six minutes left, Dean came up to stop Julius Chestnut for a two-yard loss.
“I only had three concerns on my scout on him, and his pluses filled the other side of my page,” Didinger said. “My first concern was a lack of height, which could be a liability on occasion; No. 2 was sometimes being over aggressive and will overrun plays; and No. 3 was size could limit his usage, which I could say I became less concerned with the more I watched him play. There was a time I thought he would be a package player, but the more I watched him, I could see him playing every down.
“He’s such a good player, but there were times at Georgia that he was running so fast, he would just miss a play. But he will make so many other great plays that those plays he overruns or gets outmuscled, I could live with those. He’ll make the big hit that will force turnovers. No one plays a perfect game. Lawrence Taylor never played a perfect game. The great Reggie White never played a perfect game.
“I was very excited when the Eagles took him last year in the third round. I didn’t think he would drop to the third round. There were some NFL people who thought he was too small. I certainly didn’t believe it. If he reminds me of someone, it is Ray Lewis. I am not saying, nor do I mean to compare Nakobe Dean to Ray Lewis, an all-time Hall of Famer, but by the way Dean plays, how instinctive he is, and how he commands, that’s what reminds me of Ray Lewis. Nakobe Dean commanded the best college defense I ever saw. That says a lot. Wherever they put him, to me, he’s a natural middle linebacker, he’s going to make a lot of plays. You’re going to see that with the Eagles. The makings are there for a guy who is going to be a really talented player. If Dean turns out to be the player I think he is going to be, he will be a fan-favorite here, a guy who plays with a fire and passion like a Brian Dawkins.”
Will the 2023 Eagles’ success rely on Nakobe Dean?
Knowing Dean, it sounds like a responsibility he wants.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.