After a few months of pondering his future, Chris Long officially announced his retirement on Saturday night.
The Eagles will miss him. No doubt.
They would have a better team if he was still on it.
But the main reason Long walked away is the same reason the Eagles think they are probably going to be fine without him. There wasn’t going to be much opportunity for Long in the 2019 season. So, barring injury, he wasn’t going to play that much anyway.
During his two seasons in Philly, Long was a third-down specialist. He played some other downs too, but he predominantly came into games on passing downs and got after the quarterback. For an aging pass rusher with plenty left in the tank, that’s a pretty desirable role. No, it’s not starter snaps, but being an integral part of the Eagles’ top pass rush line has to be pretty fun. This season, Long would have been bumped from that position.
The reason Long was on that pass-rushing line in 2017 and 2018 was because one of the other defensive ends (Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham or Michael Bennett) would slide inside to play next to Fletcher Cox at DT. Then Long would come on the field at defensive end to replace them. But this offseason, the Eagles added Malik Jackson, an interior rusher who will stay on the field for those third-down passing situations.
This is the Eagles’ new top pass-rush line: Graham, Jackson, Cox, Barnett
It’s not that Long wouldn’t have had any opportunity; it’s just that the role he had for two years was gone. He wasn’t interested in playing in a decreased role after feeling like he had two pretty productive years (he’s right about that; Long was productive in that role for two seasons). Long told Peter King that he’s a rhythm player and the Eagles were seemingly carving out a “player-coach” role for him. That didn’t interest him.
Long said the Eagles were honest with him about the reduced role he’d see if he returned and Long was honest with them, telling the Eagles to plan as if he wouldn’t return. That’s what they’ve been doing.
Here’s a look at the Eagles’ defensive line going into last season and their current defensive line:
DE: Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Michael Bennett, Chris Long, Josh Sweat
DT: Fletcher Cox, Destiny Vaeao, Haloti Ngata, Bruce Hector
DE: Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry, Josh Sweat, Shareef Miller, Daeshon Hall
DT: Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, Tim Jernigan, Treyvon Hester, Hassan Ridgeway
Going from Bennett and Long being their top backup defensive ends to Vinny Curry and Sweat/Miller is a considerable drop-off. The Eagles basically traded away Bennett for nothing and never really adequately replaced him. Curry is a solid player but hasn’t gotten over 4.0 sacks in a season since 2014. The issue isn’t that Long retired; it’s that the Eagles lost both Long and Bennett.
That could be a big problem if there’s an injury to Graham or Barnett. But if those guys stay healthy, the Eagles should be fine. Sweat or Miller or even Hall could fill that role as the fourth defensive end. In fact, if the Eagles want to develop one of them, this is a perfect opportunity to focus on limited snaps.
And it’s also worth mentioning that while the group of defensive ends is weaker this year, the group of defensive tackles is much stronger and deeper. Even though it likely ended Long’s career in Philly, the addition of Jackson was a good one. And if Jernigan can stay healthy, having him as a rotational player at his new salary is quite a coup.
If the Eagles did want to replace Long with an outsider, they might have missed their window. There aren’t many free agents available and even if they want to add someone or make a trade, it would probably make more sense to see how Sweat, Miller, Hall and Joe Ostman perform this spring and summer first. As much as the Eagles will miss Long, there’s a chance they can get by with the group they have.
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