As we get near the start of the Eagles’ 2018 training camp, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the key position battles to watch this summer.
Today we’ll look at the defensive line.
Names to know
Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, Michael Bennett, Haloti Ngata, Chris Long, Derek Barnett, Destiny Vaeao
What to watch
The only guy we don’t really need to waste time talking about is Cox. He’s really good and he’s going to need to be a big part of the team. OK, enough about Fletch.
There are a lot of moving pieces here. It starts with a couple of injuries. Jernigan is still recovering from offseason back surgery and is probably a candidate to begin the season on the Non-football Injury list. And Graham is also recovering from surgery to help heal a high ankle sprain he had late last season and played through in the playoffs. As long as Graham is healthy by the start of the season, he’s going to start at defensive end. That means we know two starters for the season opener.
The team added Bennett through a trade and added Ngata through free agency. The Eagles also cut Vinny Curry and let Beau Allen walk. Still, this is a very strong unit, perhaps even stronger than it was a year ago.
Long contemplated retirement but came back and Barnett should improve as he enters Year 2. They, at the very least, make this unit incredibly deep. Even more, defensive line coach Chris Wilson said he wants Barnett to push for a starting gig this year. Last year, Barnett was a rotational player and was often a pass-rushing specialist.
There are a few ways the starting lineup might work out and it’s really dependent on Jernigan’s health and Bennett’s comfort in the defense. The Eagles have options with Bennett because of his ability to play end and tackle. If the Eagles really see Ngata as a rotational player unable to start until Jernigan returns, perhaps Bennett slides inside. That might give the Eagles a chance to get their four best on the field: Graham, Cox, Bennett and Barnett. Not a bad idea, unless they think Bennett is a liability in the run game, where Ngata would obviously be a better fit. The Eagles also have Vaeao, but even though he’s well-liked by coaches, can’t imagine he’d start over Ngata.
Either way, the Eagles are going to continue to rotate. So beyond fighting for starting gigs, this is about fighting for playing time and snaps. There are limited numbers to go around.
Graham is healthy for the season opener but Jernigan is not and starts the season on NFI. I think Graham, Cox, Ngata and Bennett begin the season as starters, but Bennett and Graham spend plenty of time inside on passing downs. Eventually, don’t be surprised to see Barnett’s playing time increase to the point where he’s a starter.