The Eagles bolstered the defensive tackle position in free agency, through a trade and by re-signing one of their own, but whether the unit is better or worse in 2019 largely falls on one player.
Key additions: Malik Jackson (free agent, Jaguars), Hassan Ridgeway (trade, Colts)
Key departures: Haloti Ngata (retired)
Why they could be better: Fletcher Cox gets some help
Cox was basically a one-man show in 2018, lining up for 80 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps. The next closest defensive tackle on the club: a way-past-his-prime Haloti Ngata (Ngata... Ngata... not gonna be here anymore) at 35.5 percent. Of returning interior linemen not named Cox, only Trayvon Hester was on the field more than 8 percent of the time.
And, incredibly, Cox set a new career-high with 10.5 sacks and finished second in the NFL with 34 quarterback hits. Opponents knew the guy next to him was either washed, a defensive end moving inside or just a body, and it didn’t matter one bit. Couldn't stop him. So what happens when Malik Jackson averaging 5.5 sacks over the last six seasons is occupying the space next to Cox? Tim Jernigan returns, too, and Hassan Ridgeway — acquired for a seventh-round pick — provides a veteran challenger for Hester’s spot. All of a sudden, this is a deep, dangerous group.
Why they could be worse: Cox’s injury
Up to this point, all indications are Cox’s offseason foot surgery was not serious and the four-time Pro Bowl selection will be ready to go for training camp. Great. When it’s July 25 and he’s practicing with his teammates, this immediately becomes a non-issue.
Honestly though, the only argument for the Eagles’ defensive tackles taking a step back in 2019 is if Cox isn’t 100 percent going into this season — and don’t act like it can’t happen. Every year in camps all across the league, there are players who were to be “ready for camp” who don't come back until late August, even after Week 1. Again, there is no reason to assume that will be the case with Cox, but on the off chance he’s not himself come September, any dip in performance, let alone absence, would be felt by the entire D-line.
The X-factor: Jernigan
Thanks to the Jackson signing, the defense probably won’t need to depend on a whole heck of a lot from Jernigan. Yet, imagine if he’s healthy and providing a high-end starter's level of talent off the bench, at a position where the Eagles were literally plugging in journeymen like T.Y. McGill last season. Yes, that is a real person who wore midnight green in ’18.
Jernigan basically missed all of the previous year with a mysterious back injury, pretty much only making a few bit appearances in the playoffs. But just one year earlier, he was a regular on a Super Bowl-winning defense, recording a respectable 2.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hits. He posted even bigger numbers with the Ravens before that. Now, he’s the No. 3, playing on a team-friendly one-year deal, with much to prove. If he’s healthy and motivated, the Eagles may very well field the best interior in the league.
Are the Eagles’ defensive tackles better or worse?
There really isn’t much to add at this point. As long as Cox is healthy, it’s a no-brainer. Jackson is an upgrade, Jernigan is healthy as far as we know and there’s competition for the other roster spot. BETTER
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