The Eagles pulled one of the surprise moves of the offseason when they acquired three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett in a trade with the Seahawks. Then again, the club had to do something to combat the departures of Vinny Curry (released) and Beau Allen (free agency), both of whom are now in Tampa Bay.
Was the juggling act a success? It’s surprisingly difficult to project whether the Super Bowl champion Eagles will be better or worse along the defensive line after the changes.
Curry registered 8½ sacks in the past three years. Bennett registered 8½ sacks in 2017 alone. That’s not to say Curry doesn’t get pressure — his 22 quarterback hits including the playoffs last season were one off the team highs — but Bennett is a finisher, averaging eight sacks over the last six regular seasons.
The Eagles addressed the rush up the middle as well. Five-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata appeared in only five games in 2017, but his two sacks equaled Allen’s four-year total as a reserve.
New additions aside, there’s reason to suspect the Eagles could get more production from defensive end Derek Barnett as well. Chosen 14th overall in last year’s draft, Barnett finished his rookie season strong with six sacks and two forced fumbles in his final 13 games, including the playoffs. Pass rushers often take a big leap forward in Year 2, so watch out.
Bennett turns 33 in November. Ngata is 34 and was still recovering from a torn biceps as of June. By contrast, Curry is 29, Allen turns 27 this year and both players are currently healthy. What the Eagles gained in star power, they also gained in wear and tear.
Then there’s Chris Long. A key cog coming off the edge for the Eagles a season ago with five sacks and four forced fumbles, Long is 33 and briefly pondered retirement during the offseason.
Bennett, Ngata and Long are at that age where the wheels can come off at any time, yet all three of them are slotted for important roles in 2018. It has to be a serious concern for the Eagles.
Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox
The foundation of the Eagles’ front four is still intact, a unit that was the driving force behind the NFL’s No. 1 run defense in ’17.
Graham turned 30 in April, though the defensive end has never looked better, finishing last regular season with new personal bests for sacks (9½) and tackles for loss (15). Cox doesn’t necessarily fill up the box score, but continues to be extremely disruptive up the middle — his 24 quarterback hits including the playoffs tied for the team high.
Just write those names on the depth chart and worry about the other spots later.
Jernigan got off to a blazing start for the Eagles, racking up eight tackles for loss and 1½ sacks in his first nine games. The club hastily signed the defensive tackle to a four-year extension based on that performance.
In the 10 games that followed, Jernigan managed one tackle for loss and one sack. Then, in May, the 25-year-old underwent surgery for a herniated disc in his back, and he’s expected to miss a minimum of one game. There’s been speculation he could be out much longer.
He looked like a star for half a season, then disappeared. Now he’s on the shelf until who knows when.
If nothing else, Jernigan should be motivated upon returning. The Eagles reworked his contract after the injury, eliminating all guaranteed money in future years.
Better or worse?
This is tricky, in part because so much rides on Jernigan. If he’s out for an extended period, trying to fill those snaps will likely take a toll on a unit heavy on over-30 players.
Since Jernigan was invisible for half of last season anyway, we might as well assume the same for 2018 and focus on what we know. The Eagles essentially swapped Curry and Allen for Bennett and Ngata, which, assuming the old guys hold up, seems like a win. Barnett’s continued development should ease the pain of any age-related decline, and fourth-round draft pick Josh Sweat out of Florida State is a wild card here.
BETTER, provided Jernigan returns by midseason. Otherwise, WORSE.