I promise, this is about the Eagles. Just hear me out. In 37 A.D., Caligula became the leader of the Roman Empire following the death of the hated Tiberius. Tiberius didn’t start out as a hated Emperor. In fact, he began his career as a promising military leader. But as adversity began to grow he began to grow paranoid and power-hungry, ruling over the empire with an iron fist and killing anyone who opposed him before eventually totally withdrawing from society.
Caligula represented change and the people loved him for it. In the first 3 months of his reign over 160,000 animals were sacrificed to the gods in his honor. Unfortunately, 1 year later Caligula became very ill and his mental state was significantly altered. He began a spiraling descent into darkness that he would never recover from that saw him claim to be a god, resurrect treason trials, and continue to spiral until he was assassinated by a member of his Praetorian Guard.
I know what you are thinking: What does this have to do with the Eagles?
As a read about the life of Caligula, I can’t help but think about the current state of the Eagles’ front office. In 2013, Chip Kelly was hired to take over a floundering team and took the NFL by storm. But as he continued to reach for more and more power off the field while failing to innovate on the field, he lost the locker room and the team in general.
Howie Roseman was brought back out of the broom closet to assume his role as the general manager after being banished by Chip Kelly, and Doug Pederson was hired to be the head coach of the team. Shortly thereafter, the Eagles selected Carson Wentz with the #2 pick in the 2016 NFL draft and people were bullish on the Eagles’ future.
In 2017, the team had a season for the ages that culminated in a Super Bowl championship. Roseman, Pederson, and Wentz were given the keys to the city, and book tours, parades, and celebrations broke out all over Eagles Nation. Doug Pederson famously proclaimed that this was the “new normal” in Philadelphia. However, almost immediately the descent into darkness began. A mere 2 years and 9 months later the trio is under constant fire and only Wentz’s long-term future with the team is secure (and only then by virtue of his massive contract). What happened? How did we get here? Obviously, a record of 22-22-1 over the last 3 years plays a large role, but how did this team get to the place it finds itself in now?
The Descent Into Darkness
There are many, many angles one can take when examining the drop off from 2017 to 2020. Today, I want to focus on the slow but steady bleed off of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Consider the defensive depth chart from 2017 compared to 2020:
|DE||Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, Derek Barnett||Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, Vinny Curry|
|DT||Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan||Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Malik Jackson|
|LB||Mychal Kendricks, Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks, Kamu Grugier-Hill||Nate Gerry, Duke Riley, Alex Singleton, T.J. Edwards|
|CB||Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson||Darius Slay, Avonte Maddox, Nickell Robey-Coleman|
|S||Rodney McLeod, Malcolm Jenkins, Corey Graham||Rodney McLeod, Jalen Mills, Will Parks|
The defensive end position has remained largely unchanged since 2017 except for the aging of the core. Derek Barnett has gone from being a backup role player to being a starter (minus starter-level production), Vinny Curry has aged 3 years and it shows up majorly on the field, and the Eagles replaced Chris Long with Josh Sweat.
At defensive tackle, the Eagles signed Malik Jackson to a huge contract and then turned around the very next offseason and paid Javon Hargrave even more money. The team has invested a tremendous amount of resources (both draft capital and salary cap) into the defensive line. They have the 5th highest positional spending on the iDL among all NFL teams and while their financial investment into EDGE rushers isn’t nearly as high it is due in large part to the fact that they are playing 2 former 1st round picks at the position. What do they have to show for the investment? A bottom 8 rushing defense. And while the team is 2nd in the league in sacks it hasn’t manifested itself into shutting down opposing offenses, as the Eagles rank 16th in the league in points per game allowed.
The Eagles have thrown a tremendous amount of money and draft picks at the defensive line and the group simply disappears for games at a time.
In 2017 the Eagles started a very good group of linebackers in Jordan Hicks, Nigel Bradham, and Mychal Kendricks. Kendricks and Hicks both walked in free agency while the Eagles decided to resign Bradham, who had the best year of his career in 2017. It turns out that 2017 was an anomaly and Bradham ended up being a bad linebacker while Jordan Hicks has gone on to be very good linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals.
But the bleeding doesn’t stop there. After Kamu Grugier-Hill, a longtime backup for the Eagles and short time starter in 2019 walked in free agency last offseason, the team ended up with the lowest-paid linebacker group in the entire NFL and they still haven’t gotten their money’s worth.
With 100% sincerity, I can say that the 2020 Eagles have one of, if not the, worst group of linebackers in the entire history of the NFL. The team has tried to cover it up by pouring more and more money into the defensive tackle position and it has had disastrous results.
The Eagles have been grasping at straws in the defensive backfield for years. Jalen Mills was so bad at cornerback that the team decided to move him to safety this offseason in an attempt to mitigate his lack of athleticism. They decided that cutting Malcolm Jenkins, the heart and soul of the defense, and replacing him with Mills was a good idea. To the surprise of no one (except Jim Schwart and Howie Roseman), Mills isn’t a good safety either.
Rodney McLeod always lacked the range needed for a true center field style safety that Jim Schwartz’s single high scheme needs but again the Eagles forced a square peg into a round hole. That isn’t to say that McLeod has been bad in Philadelphia, but he lacks the athleticism needed to be a playmaker in the scheme the Eagles deploy. And that was before he tore his MCL in 2018 and lost even more of his explosiveness.
The Eagles Have Completely Failed To Draft Cornerbacks
At cornerback, the team invested draft picks into the position when they selected Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas in the 2107 draft. Neither pick panned out and so the Eagles extended Ronald Darby to cover up their inability to draft and develop cornerbacks. Take Avonte Maddox for example, his rookie season he looked promising in the slot and at safety and received a PFF grade of 63.3. In 2019, with a year of Eagles coaching under his belt, his grade fell to 58.9. This year? 39.3.
In fact, if you compare the Eagles corners from last year to this year a troubling trend emerges:
|2019 PFF Grade||2020 PFF Grade|
Darby, Jones, and Douglas improved their PFF grades by an average 18.3 points simply by leaving Philadelphia for greener pastures. And it doesn’t just work for players who leave Philly either. Nickell Robey-Coleman signed with the Eagles and saw his PFF grade drop 23 points from 2019 to 2020. In fact, if you compare the average PFF grade of the Eagles starting CB trio of Darius Slay, Avonte Maddox, and Nickell Robey-Coleman to the trio of CBs that the Eagles let walk or cut loose after last year in Ronald Darby, Sidney Jones, and Rasul Douglas the former Eagles best the current Eagles 72 to 52.8.
Big investments into defensive players have never panned out under Jim Schwartz. No high draft pick has ever made an impact. No high-dollar free agent signing has worked.
Little guys who were afterthoughts like Patrick Robinson and Josh Sweat have worked out, but not big investment has except for Darius Slay. Then again, the Eagles gave up 3rd and 5th round picks to trade for the 29-year-old cornerback, and then made him the highest-paid corner in the league. Should it really be counted as a win to acquire an aging player at the cost of both draft capital and a massive contract all so you can be 3-6-1?
The Eagles defense lacks an identity. They have continued to throw more and more resources at the defensive line in hopes that it can mask their inability to find and develop defensive backs and their unwillingness to pay a linebacker money on par with what an upper-level manager can make at Walmart. Until the team-building strategy and/or the defensive scheme changes the defense will never be consistently good enough to win football games.
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