Eagles Insider

The one area the Eagles could be exceptional in 2021

Eagles Insider

Brandon Graham is coming off his second straight eight-sack season, something no Eagle had done since Trent Cole. Derek Barnett has increased expectations along with his massive salary. Josh Sweat is coming off a career-best season and has gotten better every year. Ryan Kerrigan is closing in on 100 career sacks.

Meet the Eagles' defensive ends, a group that goes into 2021 with tremendous potential.

Sure, there are question marks when you look at these guys. 

Graham is 33 and going into his 11th year. Barnett has underachieved since the Eagles made him the 14th pick in 2017. Sweat still needs to show he can be a consistent pass rusher. Kerrigan turns 33 this summer.

But this is also potentially the Eagles’ deepest group of edge rushers ever.

The Eagles have never had four outside rushers with six sacks in a season, but each of these guys is capable of that. Or more. 

Graham has averaged 7½ sacks over the past four years in his late-career resurgence. Barnett had 6½ sacks in 2019 and 5½ last year. Sweat recorded a career-high 6.0 last year. Kerrigan even as a part-time player in Washington the last two years had 5½ and 5½ sacks.

This is the first time since sacks became an official stat in 1982 that the Eagles have four edge rushers on the roster who had at least 5½ sacks the previous season.

Rushing the passer isn’t just about sacks, but it’s the best way we have to measure edge pressure, and new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker has four guys in the rotation who are all capable of generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

 

And considering the talent level in the secondary, that’s going to be huge for this defense. The best way to cover up poor cornerback play is by forcing a quarterback to throw quickly.

And this group should be able to do that.

Although the offensive line should be very good if those guys stay healthy, the defensive line is the strength of this team. 

Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave give the Eagles a formidable inside presence and the ability to break down the pocket, and rookie Milton Williams and veteran Hassan Ridgeway provide interior depth. 

Cox has 54½ career sacks, 6½ last year, and Hargrave has 19 career sacks, 4½ last year. Considering the extra blockers teams need to account for Cox, the edge rushers should have some advantageous matchups.

Rocker has spoken about his desire to rotate guys and keep everyone fresh, and that’s going to be especially important considering Graham and Kerrigan’s age. Graham hasn’t shown any signs of letting up, but 33 is 33. 

And a four-man rotation will be quite a challenge for offensive tackles, who'll have to deal with Graham and Barnett and then suddenly have to account for a fresh Sweat and Kerrigan.

Graham always plays hard, but he did seem to wear down last year, recording seven sacks the first eight games and just one the last eight. Now, the Eagles should have the depth to decrease his reps from the 47 per game he played last year to maybe 40-ish, while keeping him fresh for the second half of the season.

The Eagles didn’t do a whole lot well last year, but they did rank third in the NFL in sacks per pass play (one every 11.8 attempts), and with added depth both inside and outside, there’s no reason that number can’t be even better.

This is a young team with a rookie coach and unproven talent across the board. Just like the Eagles will be counting on a veteran O-line to give the offense a chance to succeed, they’ll be counting on the D-line to give the defense a chance.

This is already one of the better defensive lines in the NFL, and if Barnett can live up to expectations or Kerrigan can turn the clock back a couple years or Sweat can continue improving, it could be an exceptional defensive line.

And on a team loaded with unknowns, that’s something the Eagles desperately need.

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