Next in our ongoing series, we will be taking a look at the defensive tackle position. The Eagles signed Malik Jackson last off-season as a priority free agent but he was lost for the year in the season opener. This year, Jackson is back and joining him is another priority free agent signing in Javon Hargrave. How will the snaps be divided between Jackson, Cox, and Hargrave? Just how productive can this unit be?

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Offensive Line

Fletcher Cox

The Eagles defense runs through Fletcher Cox. He is the face of the defensive line and the focus of every offense that the Eagles face. That said, 2019 was a down year for Cox. He only notched 3.5 sacks (down from 10.5 in 2018) and saw his tackles for loss drop from 12 to 5.  In fairness to Cox, the injury he sustained from the 2018 playoff run clearly impacted his play. This isn’t to suggest that Cox was bad in 2019. However, turning in a good performance is a definite step down for the usually elite, Fletcher Cox. Cox’s 2019 assessment is backed up by his 84.5 PFF grade.

Fletcher Cox played 78% of the defensive snaps in 2019 and 80% of the snaps in 2018, both years where the defensive line was plagued with injury. But if you look back to 2017 when the unit was largely injury-free, Cox played less than 60% of the snaps. This is a number the Eagles would like to get him closer to again in 2020.

Javon Hargrave

When rumors started circulating about a big signing for the Eagles in free agency, absolutely nobody circled the name Javon Hargrave. The Eagles had just invested significant money into Malik Jackson in free agency the previous year, but that didn’t stop them from inking Hargrave to a 3-year deal worth $39 million dollars. Hargrave is a very durable player, having appeared in 63 of 64 possible games in his career. He has never been a very productive player (14.5 sacks in 4 years as a starter), but if you put on the tape you see that the stats don’t exactly tell the whole story.  

Hargrave played in the Steelers 3-4 system that tasked him to eat up double teams in the middle of the offensive line as nose tackle. He was very disruptive as a player, but the number of double teams he faced limited his production from a stat standpoint. Nevertheless, he graded out with an 83.4 grade from PFF for the 2019 season. In Philly, Hargrave won’t be the focus of opposing offensive protection schemes. Playing next to Fletcher Cox almost ensures that he will face very few double teams. This immediately makes Javon Hargrave one of the biggest breakout players in 2020.

Malik Jackson

Malik Jackson hadn’t missed a game due to injury in his 7-year career. Then in the 2019 offseason, he signed with the Eagles and promptly suffered a season-ending injury in the season opener. Malik Jackson is a terrific pass rusher who will definitely benefit from playing next to Fletcher Cox. He struggles as a run defender, and those struggles got him benched during the 2018 season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Those issues should be mitigated by a Jim Schwartz defensive philosophy that is focused on always being plus one in the box.

With such a crowded defensive tackle group, the Eagles could choose to kick Malik Jackson out to defensive end in some pass-rushing situations to add depth to that unit. Jackson played defensive end early in his career with the Denver Broncos, so kicking outside would be a move he is familiar with.

Hassan Ridgeway

Hassan Ridgeway was acquired via trade for a 7th round pick during the 2019 draft. He appeared in 7 games during the season before going in injured reserve for an ankle injury. Despite only playing in 7 games, he still managed to play 24% of the defensive snaps on the season (he was on track for 55% of the snaps before his injury).  

Ridgeway was a perfectly fine rotational option for the Eagles. Looking forward, Ridgeway is much more suited to being a DT3 than being thrust into a starting role. Fortunately, the Eagles are very deep at defensive tackle. Hassan Ridgeway will round out the defensive tackle position as the DT4 and play on a rotational basis in 2020.

Position Grade and Final Thoughts

As noted in the linebacker preview, the Eagles have invested so much money into the defensive tackle position in an attempt to both stop the run and rush the passer from the interior of the defensive line. The cost for that has clearly taken its toll at the linebacker position.  

The Eagles have the most talented and deepest defensive tackle groups in the entire NFL. The versatility of Malik Jackson is paramount. It gives the Eagles insurance should Brandon Graham fall off or Derek Barnett fail to take a leap forward in his development. The Eagles need Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, and Malik Jackson to take control of the line of scrimmage every week. The success of the Eagles defense depends on these three consistently causing havoc on the defensive line. 

Grade: A+