The rest of the team may be rebuilding, but the defensive line is loaded.
The Eagles’ defensive line was one of the few bright spots in a miserable 4-11-1 season last year, and it’s gotten even better and deeper this offseason.
Last year, the Eagles ranked 10th in the NFL against the run, allowing 4.2 yards per carry, and Pro Football Focus rated their D-line pass rush as second best in the league behind the Steelers based on their 38.4 percent pressure rate when they didn’t blitz.
The Rams, Buccaneers, Saints and Bears — all also from the NFC — are the only other teams that ranked in the top 10 last year both against the run and in generating pass pressure.
The Eagles’ defense ranked 20th overall, but it was a respectable 13th in yards allowed per play, and that’s with a terrible secondary.
So it would have been understandable if the Eagles simply went into the offseason figuring they didn’t really need to upgrade the defensive line, they’d be fine just bringing everyone back and focusing on other areas to improve.
Instead, they’ve made a series of moves that show that even with a new coaching staff the franchise’s philosophy remains building out from the lines first.
The first thing the Eagles did was guarantee Derek Barnett’s one-year option year at just over $10 million. That’s quite a commitment for a former first-round pick who only has 19½ sacks in four injury-marred seasons. But Barnett is only 24 — turns 25 in a few weeks — and the Eagles clearly believe there’s a double-digit sack guy lurking in there.
Bringing back Barnett gave them three capable pass rushers under contract — Barnett, first-time Pro Bowler Brandon Graham and Josh Sweat.
Then they drafted a couple outside rushers late in the draft, Tarron Jackson out of Coastal Carolina in the sixth round and Patrick Johnson out of USC in the seventh round. The Eagles list Johnson as a linebacker, but it looks like he’ll be essentially a stand-up outside rusher.
And then came the blockbuster when they signed four-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, whose 95½ sacks are fifth most in the NFL over the last decade and seventh most among all active players.
Graham is 33 and Kerrigan is 32, so you know defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon is going to want to rotate everybody, and Graham, Barnett, Sweat and Kerrigan are one heck of a four-man rotation that should rack up some sacks and force quarterbacks to throw faster than they want.
The offseason hasn’t been quite as dramatic when it comes to the interior defensive line, but the Eagles have been active.
Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave are the key guys here and both are signed for a couple more years.
The first move was a low-key sound one, when the Eagles re-signed Hassan Ridgeway to a one-year deal. Ridgeway is a solid rotational interior lineman but has suffered season-ending injuries in Week 7 in each of his two years with the Eagles.
A healthy Ridgeway gives the Eagles a very good three-man rotation with Cox and Hargrave.
But Ridgeway’s injuries are a concern, and the Eagles addressed defensive tackle early in the draft, taking Milton Williams out of Louisiana Tech in the third round, No. 73 overall. They added Marlon Tuipulotu from USC in the sixth round.
You need even more depth in a 17-game season than a 16-game season, and with Graham, Kerrigan and Cox all in their 30s, deep rotations inside and outside make sense.
If the Eagles keep 10 defensive linemen, right now it lines up with Graham, Barnett, Sweat and Kerrigan and either Jackson or Johnson outside and Cox, Hargrave, Ridgeway, Williams and Tuipulotu inside. If they keep nine, one of the kids probably goes to the practice squad.
And if they dress, they’re going to play.
“You have to rotate them,” Gannon said. “You never want three or four guys to be at 65 snaps and then two or three guys at 10 snaps, and I really learned that from (Colts defensive coordinator Matt) Eberflus. He would say, ‘Get the horses fresh.’ He wanted them rotated. He wanted them fresh. And depending on certain situations, you're going to have some certain guys in there because you're utilizing their strengths. But whoever's up on game day is going to play.”
The Eagles have linemen both inside and outside who can stuff the run and get to the quarterback. They have a level of talent, experience, youth and depth that very few teams have.
But it’s only May. And if there’s one thing we all know, it’s that Howie Roseman is never finished making moves.
There are question marks all over the place with this team, but not on the defensive line. It's loaded.
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