Now that the initial shock of losing Brandon Graham for the season has worn off, the Eagles have to go about replacing him.
It won’t be easy.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said he talked to his players on Tuesday about the challenge of replacing Graham, the longest tenured member of the team, a captain and the energetic engine of the defense.
“You know, from a leadership and a character, and an attitude standpoint, I think collectively we have to – everyone has to try to fill that void collectively because not one guy is going to be able to do that,” Gannon said. “We do feel good with the leaders that we still have within the defense, really good about the leaders that we have.
“And from the standpoint of him, the roles that he was playing, other guys are going to have to step in and fill where he was playing at. And we feel good about the guys that are going to do that.”
Perhaps there’s a slight chance Howie Roseman could at some point pull off a trade to bring in another edge rusher, but that seems unlikely. At least it seems unlikely he’d trade anything of substance for a play mid-season this year. The Eagles are trying to win in 2021, but have not been shy about prioritizing their future. So they won’t be in a hurry to give up draft picks.
And any free agents who are on the street right now are generally on the street for a reason.
That means the Eagles are going to have to replace Graham internally and they might mix and match depending on situations.
Here are some of their options:
Ryan Kerrigan the new starter?
Through two weeks of the season, the veteran Kerrigan has played 66 of 142 snaps (46%) on defense and has primarily been Graham’s backup/rotational counterpart at the left defensive end spot. So it’s worth pointing out that 52 of his 66 snaps (78.8%) have come from the left side of the line. Even in Washington, he primarily rushed off the left side of the line.
Perhaps this is as easy as bumping Kerrigan up to the starting gig. But Kerrigan is 33 now and is likely better suited to be more of a rotational player. He got more snaps than Josh Sweat in Week 2, but that shouldn’t continue. Heck, there might be some concern about Kerrigan in general. He’s played 66 snaps so far and hasn’t registered a single defensive statistic yet: No tackles, sacks, passes blocked, nothing. He missed most of training camp but it’s taking him a while to get comfortable. Kerrigan flashed a couple times in Week 2 as a pass rusher but didn’t get home. So it’s hard to argue that he deserves more playing time.
Move Josh Sweat or Derek Barnett
While Graham was clearly the starter at LDE spot and Kerrigan was the backup/rotational piece all summer, things were less defined at the RDE spot. Sweat and Barnett rotated at that spot with the first-team defense in training camp. Early in the season, Barnett has started both games but the Eagles handed Sweat a $40 million contract extension.
Overall, Barnett has played 78 snaps, while Sweat has played 67 after seeing his usage drop considerably in Week 2.
In Week 2 — because Graham went down pretty early — we got a slight hint of where the Eagles might be leaning if they decide to move one of these players. Of Barnett’s 45 snaps, 25 came from the right side and 20 came from the left. Meanwhile, Sweat played 17 on the right side and 11 on the left. So 44% of Barnett’s snaps came from the left side, while 39% of Sweat’s came from the left. Not a huge difference but perhaps a slight tell. Of course, Barnett has been the starter on his side for a few years now.
While Gannon said it’s “case by case” the Eagles are generally pretty comfortable with their defensive ends playing on either side of the line.
“They (the defensive ends) feel pretty good playing multiple spots and … both sides,” Gannon said. “So, I still feel good about being able to move people around to get the best matchup, whatever dictates for that week.”
Play Milton Williams at DE
The third-round pick from Louisiana Tech has position versatility, which we’ve seen in training camp and now during the season. During training camp, Williams was actually playing as an end more than he was at tackle but that has flipped in the season. Through two games, 39 of his 58 snaps (67%) have come as a defensive tackle.
So maybe the answer is to play Williams more at end going forward. The problem with that is it would leave the Eagles without a ton of depth at the tackle position. The only other tackles on the roster are starters Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave and rotational piece Hassan Ridgeway.
If the Eagles were to play Williams at DE, they might need to add more depth inside. They have Raequan Williams and rookie Marvin Wilson on their practice squad. And veteran T.Y. McGill, who was impressive this summer with the Eagles, is just a phone call away. He was released by the Eagles last week after coming off the COVID-19 list and is still a free agent.
Make Tarron Jackson a real part of rotation
Jackson, a sixth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina, played just two defensive snaps in the season opener but saw his usage get bumped up to 11 snaps in Week 2. That’s still a pretty low percentage compared to the rest of the rotation. So would the Eagles start one of those other guys at end and then just increase Jackson’s role?
Hard to see that right away. While Jackson (6-2, 254) did have some flash moments in training camp, it’s tough to imagine he’s really ready for a role of 25+ snaps per game. So maybe we see a slight increase over the course of the season but he probably isn’t the main answer, at least not for now.
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