Eagles

Are 2019 Eagles better or worse at defensive end?

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AP Images/Winslow Townson

Are 2019 Eagles better or worse at defensive end?

It was out with the old, and in with some more of the old for the Eagles at defensive end this offseason. Will the returning players make the unit better or worse in 2019?

Key additions: Vinny Curry (free agent, Buccaneers), Shareef Miller (draft, fourth round) 
Key departures: Michael Bennett (trade, Patriots), Chris Long (retired)

Why they could be better: Derek Barnett’s potential

Barnett had a nice rookie season with 6.0 sacks, including playoffs, and finished fourth on the club with eight tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hits, all while playing only 41 percent of the snaps. It was looking like he could take the next step in 2018, too, with 2.5 sacks four games into the campaign — until a shoulder injury struck. Then it was a matter of weeks before he wound up on the injured reserve list. Up to that point, it looked like the former 14th-overall draft pick was very much on the verge of a breakout season.

There’s really no reason that can’t still be the case. At least, nobody ever expects a shoulder injury to derail a defensive end’s career. The Eagles are likely penciling him in for the starting job on the opposite end from Brandon Graham, and why not? As long as he’s healthy, Barnett’s body of work thus far suggests he’s on his way to enjoying a successful NFL career.

Why they could be worse: Michael Bennett’s proven production

One can assume the real reason the Eagles’decided to part ways with Bennett was over something (or things) behind the scenes. It wasn’t the return — a fifth-round pick for Bennett and a seventh. It wasn’t the contract, because the Patriots only wound up giving him an additional $1.25 million in base salary and no new years. And it sure as hell wasn’t production, because the three-time Pro Bowler was the Eagles’ most disruptive pass-rusher off the edge by a wide margin.

Bennett finished with 10.0 sacks last season, including playoffs, and it should’ve been 12.0 except for two blatantly incorrect roughing penalties. He also ranked fourth in the entire NFL with 30 quarterback hits, and narrowly finished outside the top-10 with 15 tackles for loss. Granted, Bennett turns 34 in November, and it’s possible his personality simply wasn’t a fit here. Regardless, the numbers speak for themselves.

The X-factor: Brandon Graham’s inevitable decline

Everybody loves BG. The sack totals haven’t always been there, save for the 9.5 he registered in 2017 — plus one pivotal strip sack in the Super Bowl — but he was always more productive than traditional counting stats indicated. Graham is 31 now, though, and last year was his least effective rushing the passer in a long time. His 4.0 regular season sacks and 1 forced fumble were his lowest since 2013, and this wasn’t merely a matter of racking up a bunch of Mamulas, either, as he landed just 11 quarterback hits.

Fortunately for the Eagles, who just signed Graham to a new three-year deal worth $40 million in the offseason, there are reasons to believe he could bounce back. First, he was coming off of offseason ankle surgery and only rejoined the team in mid-August. Second, he was still stout against the run. Third, Graham showed signs of life in the playoffs with 1.5 sacks and a strip. So, was his down season a matter of circumstance, or is this the new BG?

Are the Eagles’ defensive ends better or worse?

If he’s 100 percent, Barnett has the ability to blossom into a star. He was well on his way last season. Yet, the Eagles are depending on him to replace Bennett’s production, re-signed Vinny Curry to replace retired Chris Long’s production, and Brandon Graham to stop aging so noticeably. It also wouldn’t hurt if one of Shareef Miller, Josh Sweat or Joe Ostman became a reliable fifth rusher. The Eagles got younger, and arguably more talented, but there are too many questions to say the ends are better on paper. 

WORSE

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Doug Pederson hoping to mix new face Jay Ajayi into Eagles' running attack

Doug Pederson hoping to mix new face Jay Ajayi into Eagles' running attack

Doug Pederson said he hopes to get recently re-acquired running back Jay Ajayi more involved in the offense as the Eagles head into the stretch run.

Ajayi has eight carries for 25 yards and a 3.1 average in two games since returning to the Eagles following a year layoff. 

A Pro Bowler in 2016 with the Dolphins and a stud down the stretch during the Super Bowl season, Ajayi suffered a torn ACL in Week 5 last year and didn’t play from Oct. 7, 2018, until Nov. 24, 2019, when he made his 2019 debut against the Seahawks.

Ajayi didn't have OTAs or a training camp and didn't even practice until the Wednesday before the Seattle game. 

It's a process with him, but we understand who he is and the injury that he's coming off of, so we're careful with that,” Pederson said. “But at the same time, he's a bigger, powerful guy that we can use in spots.

With Jordan Howard missing the last three games with nerve damage in his shoulder, rookie Miles Sanders has essentially been the entire running attack. But the Eagles are so hesitant to increase his workload significantly that it’s created a situation in which the Eagles just haven’t run the ball very much during their three-game losing streak because they haven’t had a viable second option.

During these last three games, Sanders has 40 carries, Ajayi eight and Boston Scott seven.

This is the first time the Eagles have leaned this heavily on one back in a three-game stretch since 2012. 

During a late-season three-game stretch in which LeSean McCoy was hurt, Bryce Brown got 52 carries and Dion Lewis had four.

The Eagles ran 45 percent of the time in the nine games Howard played and 31 percent since he got hurt. They’re 0-3 without him.

Miles has done a great job,” Pederson said Saturday. “I’d love to get Jay a few more touches and get Boston in the mix so we're not obviously wearing Miles down here this last month of the season.

The current stretch is the first in franchise history that the Eagles have thrown at least 40 times and run the ball 23 or fewer times in three straight games.

Howard hasn’t played since before the bye week and is out for the Eagles’ game Monday night against the Giants. 

Pederson said earlier in the week he doesn’t expect this to be a season-ending injury, but will Howard be able to pick up where he left off after such a long layoff even if he does return?

The Eagles began the season with Howard, Sanders, Corey Clement and Darren Sproles in what looked to be a deep running back rotation. 

Sanders is the only one of that group left. Can Ajayi make a difference after such a long layoff? Sounds like Pederson wants to find out.

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Eagles Injury Update: Latest on Derek Barnett, Nelson Agholor, Jordan Howard

Eagles Injury Update: Latest on Derek Barnett, Nelson Agholor, Jordan Howard

Updated: 3:39 p.m.

Derek Barnett and Nelson Agholor will likely be game-time decisions for Monday Night Football, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said on Saturday morning. 

Barnett (ankle) and Agholor (knee) both missed all three days of practice this week and are listed as questionable.

Meanwhile, linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill is still in the NFL’s concussion protocol. He was just placed in protocol on Thursday and won't play Monday night. 

And Jordan Howard (shoulder) has still not been cleared for contact; he can’t play until he is and that’s not happening before Monday. He's officially questionable. 

Lane Johnson also missed practice on Friday and Saturday for a non-injury reason but is expected to play on Monday. 

If Agholor is unable to play, the Eagles would be left with just three healthy receivers on the roster: Alshon Jeffery, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Greg Ward. 

“We’re very comfortable, obviously, with the guys we have,” Pederson said. “So if it’s three, it’s three. We brought up [Josh Perkins] a week ago to help us there, so it’s an addition there. We go and we go play. We’ll discuss those over the next couple of days leading up to the game. If we have to make a decision we will. We feel good with the guys we have in that receiver role.” 

If the Eagles do decide to make a roster move, they have three wide receivers on their practice squad: Robert Davis, Marcus Green and Marken Michel. 

While Agholor had his knee injury before last week’s game, Barnett got hurt during the loss in Miami, but was still able to play through the injury and play 50 snaps. Barnett has played the third-most defensive snaps on the team this year, so losing him for this game wouldn’t be insignificant. 

If Barnett can’t play, expect Josh Sweat and Vinny Curry to get more reps. After that, Genard Avery, Daeshon Hall and even Shareef Miller could see a few snaps. 

For the Giants: 

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