Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro bring back Stay or Go in 2023, trying to figure out the futures of every Eagles player on the roster.
We already looked at cornerbacks, receivers, linebackers, running backs, defensive tackles, interior offensive linemen, edge rushers and offensive tackles.
Up today: Safeties and tight ends.
Roob: It’s rare to see an undrafted rookie come in and really take ownership of a roster spot, but that’s exactly what Blankenship did this year both on special teams and when he had a chance to play on defense. Hard to believe watching him play that this kid wasn’t drafted. Smart, tough, physical, instinctive. Great attitude, too. Just wants to win. I don’t see a scenario where Blankenship isn’t a starter in 2023. Whether or not Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is back, Blankenship gives the Eagles exactly what they need right now – a cheap and cost-controlled but talented young player.
Dave: Blankenship turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2022 season. The UDFA from Middle Tennessee State was a long shot to even make the team when he signed but he was very impressive in training camp. But even after that, he didn’t get to play on defense until after the halfway point of the season. Once he did, though, he played like he belonged. Blankenship was a five-year starter in college and all that experience seemed to prepare him for his moment. There’s no question Blankenship will return in 2023. But with both incumbent starters facing free agency, is there a chance he could be in line to start in Year 2? It’s not crazy. Either way, Blankenship will be on the roster and if he’s a backup again, he’ll still be a valuable piece of the roster.
Roob: Chachere has bounced around the roster and practice squad for a couple years now without making much of an impact. He actually played a bunch of snaps in 2021 - 118 on defense, 322 on defense - and he's got the advantage of some positional versatility as well as special teams ability. And he plays a position where the Eagles do have some question marks. On the outside looking in, but has some things going for him in terms of experience and versatility.
Dave: Chachere spent all season with the Eagles either on the active roster or the practice squad and he played in seven games. He's 27 now and has pretty much been a special teamer during his NFL career. He has actually played in 23 games for the Eagles over the last two seasons. But the Eagles have found some pretty decent young gunners in Zech McPhearson and Josh Jobe and that makes Chachere more expendable. The Eagles didn't use him in the playoffs and that's probably not a great sign moving forward. But with a strong camp he can change my mind.
Roob: I was disappointed in Epps in his first year as a full-time starter. He didn’t make the splash plays I expected, and although he remains a very good tackler and a willing run defender, he just seemed a step behind too often in coverage. Good effort guy, and I’d have no issue bringing him back as a special teamer and depth guy if he’s willing to sign a low-budget contract. But the Eagles need to get more from a starting safety than they got this year from Epps. If he isn’t getting any contract nibbles a month into free agency, and the Eagles offer him a low-cost deal to come back in a reduced role as a backup safety and a core special teamer, I’m OK with that. But my gut feeling is he winds up elsewhere.
Dave: Epps was solid in 2022. He’s a smart player, who understands the defense and really helped the rest of the defensive backfield throughout the season. He was a steady force back there. But he’s a pending free agent along with Gardner-Johnson. And while Epps won’t cost nearly as much, he won’t be the priority. Could the Eagles afford to re-sign both safeties this offseason? Maybe. But if they have to pick one, it likely won’t be Epps. There’s a chance Epps could return if there aren’t other offers around the NFL but I think it’s more likely the Eagles go in a different direction in 2023.
Roob: Maybe the most important Stay / Go on the entire roster. Gardner-Johnson – acquired just before the season for 5th- and 6th-round draft picks (what a steal!)– had a monster season, sharing the NFL interception lead with six despite missing five games and giving the Eagles a versatile defensive back and a physical presence all over the field. Gardner-Johnson just turned 25 in December, so he’s still a young player with a bright future, and he’s got to be priority No. 1 for Howie Roseman this offseason once Jalen Hurts is done. My gut feeling is that they’ll be able to get a long-term deal done worth $12 or $13 million per year. Signing Hurts will limit what Roseman can do but it doesn’t mean he won’t be able to sign anyone. And although it’s a last resort, the franchise tag is there, and the number for safeties is relatively low – probably around $14 million. The problem with franchise tags is that the entire amount is guaranteed and counts fully against that year’s cap, and then you’re back to the same problem a year later. There’s no structuring a franchise tag. You just pay the guy. But in this case, with a player the Eagles just can’t afford to lose, it’s an option. Nick Sirianni loves Gardner-Johnson and clearly wants him here. I just don’t think Howie is going to lose this player.
Dave: The Eagles did trade for Gardner-Johnson to let him walk. That wasn’t the case when they pulled off the deal before the start of the season and nothing has changed after watching CJGJ change positions and still have success. After playing slot corner with the Saints, Gardner-Johnson became a safety with the Eagles and had six interceptions in 12 starts. Sure, he didn’t force all those picks to happen but he made the plays when they came to him and that’s a big deal too. Gardner-Johnson is still just 25 too and presumably has even more room to grow as a safety. Aside from his play, Gardner-Johnson also bring an energy and an edge to the team that is necessary and head coach Nick Sirianni seems to love him. My best guess here is that Howie Roseman figures out a long-term deal to keep Gardner-Johnson around for at least a few more years. He’d be near the top of my list in terms of in-house free agent priorities.
Roob: Core special teamer and a big hitter who made a few notable plays this year. Wallace is the kind of guy you need when you’re all of a sudden paying your quarterback $45 or $50 million per year – he’s young, cheap and cost-controlled for another year. You don’t want Wallace taking on a significant a role in the secondary, but as a depth guy and special teamer I’m OK keeping him around another year. I like his approach to his game. He’s truly fearless and unafraid of the moment. Physical player.
Dave: The former fourth-round pick from Clemson hasn’t grown into a starting role like some expected but even after he was demoted in 2022, he didn’t let it get him down. And when he was called upon on defense, he made plays. He also made plays on special teams, especially late in the season, helping to salvage the season some for that unit. This is the fourth and final year on Wallace’s rookie contract so his future after this season is in doubt. But for 2023, I expect him to be back on the roster in a reserve/special teams role.
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