Jim Schwartz’s entire defensive scheme is based around the front four getting pressure on the QB without needing to bring additional rushers. A look at the linemen on the Eagles’ roster shows a dedication to this philosophy. This is a group designed to get penetration and attack. Schwartz will be able to deploy his personnel in a variety of ways, with many of them having experience playing both DE and DT.
The Starting Four
Fletcher Cox has been the second best defensive tackle in the league for years, and if Aaron Donald didn’t exist, he would be getting consistent defensive player of the year buzz. Cox has a terrifying blend of size, speed, and power that requires a double team on every play. Watching any player – tackle, guard, or center – try to block Cox by himself is pure comedy. It is not a stretch to say that Cox is the second most important player on this team behind only Carson Wentz.
Malik Jackson is his new partner in crime this season. After four quality seasons split between Denver and Jacksonville, Jackson’s play fell off hard last season. The Eagles have bet on Jackson making a return to form this season. At his best, Jackson is a penetrating DT who can generate pressure on the QB. Hopefully that’s the version of Jackson the Eagles get.
Bookending Cox and Jackson are Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett. Much like Cox, Graham is a known quantity. He is a very well-rounded edge rusher and edge setter who can rush from the inside on pass rush downs. Now 31 years old, Graham’s play has slipped ever so slightly, but he’s still an unquestioned #1 DE. Derek Barnett is the opposite of all that. He is an unknown quantity who turned 23 this offseason. He missed most of last season due to a shoulder injury and will need to prove he belongs with the starters.
The Rotational Guys
Vinny Curry and Timmy Jernigan both return to the Eagles. Curry spent an ineffective year with the Buccaneers, while Jernigan missed most of last season due to injury and then hit free agency before re-signing.
It’s rare to have “high upside” veterans, but that’s where the Eagles find themselves with these two. Jernigan and Curry were both starter-level players prior to last season and hope that last season was the aberration. If both are healthy and effective, the Eagles could boast the best defensive line in football for 60 minutes a game.
The Other Guys
At defensive end, Josh Sweat, Daeshon Hall, and Shareef Miller are fighting for 1-2 backup spots. All have good draft pedigrees – Hall was a 2017 3rd round pick, Sweat was a 2018 4th round pick, and Miller was a 2019 4th round pick. This battle was even more intense before Joe Ostman tore his ACL, but he is now out for the year. Right now, Miller is the odd man out. Sweat has more athletic upside, while Hall has performed better. While it would be awkward to cut two of their five draft picks from this year before the season even started, it shows why they only made five in the first place. I can’t see a situation where all three are kept – this is a place to look for a trade, as other teams could definitely be interested in these guys in a 4th DE role.
At defensive tackle, the question is whether Hassan Ridgeway vs. Treyvon Hester is an “and” or an “or.” Hester famously blocked a kick now known as the double doink, and I’m linking it because it is still as enjoyable to watch now as it was then. Hester blocked another kick in the first preseason game, and if Dave Fipp gets a say in the roster construction, Hester will make the team. However, Ridgeway played very well in limited snaps last season and may have been the Eagles’ best defensive lineman in their opening preseason game. Right now, I project both to make the team, perhaps at the expense of Hall.
Too much depth is never a bad thing.
The Eagles will be able to find good combinations of linemen out of this group. While some number of them will likely not perform up to standard, enough of them should perform well enough to get the job done. Still, if Barnett struggles, the Eagles could be on the lookout for potential edge rush help. Defensive end is one of the easier positions to pick up midseason, especially in a scheme like Schwartz’s, so it’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses if the Eagles aren’t generating enough edge pressure.