Are 2019 Eagles better or worse at defensive tackle?

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Are 2019 Eagles better or worse at defensive tackle?

The Eagles bolstered the defensive tackle position in free agency, through a trade and by re-signing one of their own, but whether the unit is better or worse in 2019 largely falls on one player.

Key additions: Malik Jackson (free agent, Jaguars), Hassan Ridgeway (trade, Colts) 

Key departures: Haloti Ngata (retired)

Why they could be better: Fletcher Cox gets some help

Cox was basically a one-man show in 2018, lining up for 80 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps. The next closest defensive tackle on the club: a way-past-his-prime Haloti Ngata (Ngata... Ngata... not gonna be here anymore) at 35.5 percent. Of returning interior linemen not named Cox, only Trayvon Hester was on the field more than 8 percent of the time.

And, incredibly, Cox set a new career-high with 10.5 sacks and finished second in the NFL with 34 quarterback hits. Opponents knew the guy next to him was either washed, a defensive end moving inside or just a body, and it didn’t matter one bit. Couldn't stop him. So what happens when Malik Jackson averaging 5.5 sacks over the last six seasons is occupying the space next to Cox? Tim Jernigan returns, too, and Hassan Ridgeway — acquired for a seventh-round pick — provides a veteran challenger for Hester’s spot. All of a sudden, this is a deep, dangerous group.

Why they could be worse: Cox’s injury

Up to this point, all indications are Cox’s offseason foot surgery was not serious and the four-time Pro Bowl selection will be ready to go for training camp. Great. When it’s July 25 and he’s practicing with his teammates, this immediately becomes a non-issue.

Honestly though, the only argument for the Eagles’ defensive tackles taking a step back in 2019 is if Cox isn’t 100 percent going into this season — and don’t act like it can’t happen. Every year in camps all across the league, there are players who were to be “ready for camp” who don't come back until late August, even after Week 1. Again, there is no reason to assume that will be the case with Cox, but on the off chance he’s not himself come September, any dip in performance, let alone absence, would be felt by the entire D-line.

The X-factor: Jernigan

Thanks to the Jackson signing, the defense probably won’t need to depend on a whole heck of a lot from Jernigan. Yet, imagine if he’s healthy and providing a high-end starter's level of talent off the bench, at a position where the Eagles were literally plugging in journeymen like T.Y. McGill last season. Yes, that is a real person who wore midnight green in ’18.

Jernigan basically missed all of the previous year with a mysterious back injury, pretty much only making a few bit appearances in the playoffs. But just one year earlier, he was a regular on a Super Bowl-winning defense, recording a respectable 2.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hits. He posted even bigger numbers with the Ravens before that. Now, he’s the No. 3, playing on a team-friendly one-year deal, with much to prove. If he’s healthy and motivated, the Eagles may very well field the best interior in the league.

Are the Eagles’ defensive tackles better or worse?

There really isn’t much to add at this point. As long as Cox is healthy, it’s a no-brainer. Jackson is an upgrade, Jernigan is healthy as far as we know and there’s competition for the other roster spot. BETTER

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Eagles Injury Update: Doug Pederson optimistic Alshon Jeffery will return against Packers

Eagles Injury Update: Doug Pederson optimistic Alshon Jeffery will return against Packers

Doug Pederson is optimistic about the possibility of Alshon Jeffery being ready for Thursday’s game against the undefeated Packers in Green Bay. 

“I’m hoping that he’s ready to go,” Pederson said Monday. “We’ll see this week. We’ve got a couple days. Walkthrough later today, we’ll get the guys in here. We’re hoping he’s ready to go.”

Jeffery hurt his left calf in the first quarter in Atlanta a couple weeks ago and the Eagles have really missed him and DeSean Jackson, who was also hurt in that first quarter. Jackson is expected to miss at least this next game, but it seems like Jeffery is closer to a return. 

Without their top two receivers, the Eagles were forced to play Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins and JJ Arcega-Whiteside for most of the last two games. While Agholor and Hollins have made some plays, all three haven’t been able to do enough and have had costly errors. 

A few other injury updates from Pederson’s day-after press conference: 

Ronald Darby: The Eagles’ starting corner left Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. As of this afternoon, Pederson didn’t have an update yet. He said he was still getting more information. If Darby can’t play Thursday, the Eagles are down to just three healthy cornerbacks: Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones, Avonte Maddox. (Jalen Mills is still on PUP.) 

So if Darby is out this week, the Eagles will likely need to make a roster move. Craig James is on the practice squad, so that’s a possibility. Another would be bringing back Orlando Scandrick; the 32-year-old veteran is a free agent after spending training camp with the Eagles. 

Andre Dillard: The Eagles’ first-round pick hurt his knee in relief of Jason Peters and was forced out of Sunday’s game after just five snaps. He did return to the sideline later in the game, but eventually Peters returned. 

“Dillard is OK,” Pederson said. “Dillard’s fine.” 

Jason Peters: Peters started the game but left in the second quarter. Pederson said the 37-year-old left tackle had “a little nausea,” which wasn’t unlike nearly 70,000 people at the Linc on Sunday. Pederson speculated that Peters’ nausea might have been heat-related; game-time temperature was 84 degrees. 

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Is there any reason to believe Eagles' pass rush can figure it out?

Is there any reason to believe Eagles' pass rush can figure it out?

Nearly a quarter of the way into the 2019 season, the Eagles are on pace to set a franchise record for futility rushing the passer.

There hasn’t been anything to suggest improvement is imminent, either.

The Eagles (1-2) have managed to register only two quarterback sacks so far, their lowest total through three games since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. That puts the defense on pace for 24 sacks for the season, which would be five fewer than their worst finish in 2005 — the team went 6-10 that year.

In fact, of the five Eagles squads to finish with 36 sacks or fewer in a 16-game season, none posted a record better than 8-8.

After a 27-24 loss to the Lions on Sunday in which the Eagles only hit the quarterback three times in 33 dropbacks, it’s become an issue even members of a prideful defensive front can no longer ignore.

“Everybody saw the game,” said Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett. “We have to do a better job up front.”

It gets worse. One of the Eagles’ two sacks belongs to Andrew Sendejo, a defensive back. The other is credited to interior lineman Timmy Jernigan, who’s out at least a month with a foot injury.

That means not one active player in the front four — a group that still includes All-Pros Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, and Barnett, a former first-round draft pick — has recorded a sack through three games.

“We’re not getting to the quarterback, especially me,” said Cox, who reached a career high with 10.5 sacks last season. “I’m getting there, but I’m not getting there quick enough. We’ve gotta do a better job as a group, as a D-line and as a defense.”

Health is clearly one issue. Tackles Malik Jackson and Jernigan both went down two weeks into the season, while Cox (foot) and Barnett (rotator cuff) appear to be working back from injuries that limited them throughout the entire offseason.

The issues up the middle are perhaps most concerning. Cox posted the same stat line as Jernigan and Jackson on Sunday — zeroes across the board — as Lions quarterback Matt Stafford was consistently step up in a clean pocket.

But it’s also looking like the Eagles may have made some missteps on the edge this offseason. Graham was signed to a big contract extension coming off a down year, but Michael Bennett was traded away and Chris Long retired, unwilling to accept a reduced role. The Eagles didn’t appear to make a serious play for Jadeveon Clowney when he became available in August, either.

“I know how the sacks go,” said Graham, referring to his belief sacks come in bunches. “Right now, we’ll just let people say what they’re gonna say. We’ve gotta keep on working. It’s a long season. You never know how this stuff ends.”

It’s worth noting the Eagles finished inside the top-10 with 44 sacks in 2018. That was with Jernigan and Barnett sidelined most of the year, and Jackson playing for the Jaguars.

But Bennett’s 9.0 sacks and Long’s 6.5 were replaced by Barnett, a largely unproven third-year player, and Vinny Curry, who hasn’t recorded more than 3.5 sacks since 2014. Graham only had 4.0 sacks last season. And the unit was carried by Cox, who does not look good, let alone dominant.

“I can’t be disappointed in myself because I’m out there giving everything I’ve got,” said Cox. “Sometimes a player can try to do so much and end up making mistakes or feel the pressure, so I’ll do my job and try to be as disruptive as I can be.”

Unfortunately, that may not be good enough if somebody doesn’t soon step up around him.

To the league’s credit, teams are finding ways to slow the Eagles’ defensive line. After the unit showed signs of life in Atlanta, the Lions came in with a game plan that called for plenty of max-protection packages, keeping their backs and tight ends in to block.

Regardless, the Eagles aren’t going to have a lot of success in today’s NFL without getting their hands on opposing quarterbacks, especially not with a suspect secondary.

“If nobody believes in us, that’s cool,” said Graham. “We’ve just gotta fix some stuff. We know we’re right in it. We know what we’ve got. We’ve got injuries, but I like the fight that we have to the end.

“We just haven’t made enough plays to win the game.”

Graham says the Eagles are “standing tall through it all,” which is normally the type of thing a team without Antonio Brown-type scandals might say in November, not after Week 3.

And it may just be a matter of time until Cox is feeling better, Barnett once again looks like a promising prospect, Graham comes on or somebody like Curry or Akeem Spence provides some relief. Any one of those coming to fruition could change the entire unit’s fortunes.

Until then, the Eagles aren’t the Super Bowl contender so many believed they were when the season began.

“I’m not worried,” said Graham. “We only lost two games. We can always finish strong. You never know what starts happening in a season.”

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