Throughout the Chip Kelly era, the Philadelphia Eagles defense was bad. Really bad. Last season, in Jim Schwartz’ first season as the Eagles defensive coordinator, it was different. Philly hardly had a great defense, but it was a significantly improved unit over the previous three years. That semi-success was largely based on a newly implemented 4-3 scheme for the defensive line. Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, and Connor Barwin forged a group that initially looked unstoppable.
Of course, they only looked that way. Barwin didn’t make a smooth transition to defensive end and Fletcher Cox had, by his standards, only a decent year. Graham, however, was outstanding. After years as an average player, he turned in a performance that was worthy of Pro Football Focus’ 2016 All-Pro Team – alongside Khalil Mack. Bennie Logan also had a pretty good year, but his playing style didn’t augment Cox’s own style, keeping the latter from reaching his potential as an interior rusher.
Eventually, an incompetent Eagles offense led to a tired Eagles defense. With the added problems of Barwin’s unnatural position and the line’s general inability to stop the run. The Philadelphia Eagles defensive line was still better than in past seasons though – and with this offseason’s additions, looks to improve even further.
The State of the Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Line
Current Eagles Defensive Linemen
- Beau Allen, DT
- Derek Barnett, DE (2017 1st round pick)
- Fletcher Cox, DT
- Vinny Curry, DE
- Bradon Graham, DE
- Justin Hamilton, DT
- Timmy Jernigan, DT (From Baltimore)
- Chris Long, DE (From New England)
- Alex McCalister, DE
- Steven Means, DE
- Elijah Qualls, DT (2017 6th round pick)
- Aziz Shittu, DT
- Marcus Smith, DE
- Destiny Vaeao, DT
- Charles Walker, DT (2017 Rookie Free Agent)
Philly certainly doesn’t lack depth on the line right now. Despite cutting Connor Barwin and losing Bennie Logan to free agency, the line actually looks better. The Eagles first brought Tim Jernigan over from Baltimore to replace Logan. Then, they added two significant defensive ends: one in journeyman Chris Long and the other, Philly’s first round pick Derek Barnett.
Jernigan, a three-year player, had his best season in 2016 where he had five sacks, a fumble recovery, three passes defended, and an interception. Considering that Baltimore generally uses their linebackers for their pass-rush, that’s impressive. Long is nearing the end of his career, but he proved that he can be an exceptional rotational player last season.
Barnett is the big addition though. Many experts, like NFL’s Mike Mayock, believe Barnett can be an immediate starter opposite of Brandon Graham. Considered one of the best pure edge-rushers in the draft, Barnett should give the Eagles that extra oomph to create a formidable pass-rush.
2017 Projected Depth Chart and Outlook
1st Line – Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, Derek Barnett
2nd Line – Vinny Curry, Destiny Vaeao, Beau Allen, Chris Long
The Eagles made some significant changes to their defensive line this off-season, and on paper, look much better. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are guaranteed the starting end and tackle positions on the right side, while Tim Jernigan appears to the best option for the left defensive tackle. Jernigan has the pass-rushing capability to create enough pressure so as to allow Cox to be his normal, devastating self. The left defensive end will come down to either Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry, or Chris Long.
Long has the most experience, but there’s probably a reason he was used as a rotational player so it’s unlikely he wins the start. Curry could start, but many of his best plays have come off the bench. He may be better suited for a situational role. That leaves the door open for Barnett to make an immediate impact as a starter.
That’s a fairly impressive starting four. It also means that Jim Schwartz has a great “second” line to use. Throughout the 2016 season, Schwartz would occasionally rotate the entire defensive line out for a couple plays to keep fresh bodies in the game. If Schwartz can switch out the line in 2017 without a massive talent gap, the Eagles defense can stay fresh and play at a high level uninterrupted.
So what does that mean for some of the other names on the current roster? Vinny Curry, Destiny Vaeao, Beau Allen (when he returns from injury), and Chris Long look like they could be that “second line.” But that raises a lot of questions for the guys behind them. Former first-round pick Marcus Smith may be on his last limb in Philly. He actually played better as a defensive end than an outside linebacker in Kelly’s defense, but he’s now looking like an odd-man out. Alex McCallister, Steven Means, and Elijah Qualls are likely to make the roster as special teams or depth linemen; while the rest are roster long shots or future practice squad members.
Above all else, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive line appears to be ascending. If Philly builds on the improvements they made in 2016, this could be a well-respected defense in 2017.