The Eagles’ defensive line underwent a massive overhaul this offseason, beginning with the release of Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan’s departure in free agency. The front office then took a three-pronged approach to filling the holes created by those departures, adding Chris Long in free agency, trading for Tim Jernigan and using a first-round draft pick on Derek Barnett.
Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham remain as the unit’s foundation, but the Eagles were charged with replacing 50 percent of the starting lineup and roughly 30 percent of the total playing time up front. Doing that – and getting better at the same time – is no easy task.
One of the most underrated additions of the entire offseason was the trade for Tim Jernigan. The Eagles swapped third-round picks with the Baltimore Ravens, dropping from No. 74 to No. 99 for Jernigan, who had 5.0 sacks in 2016 and at least 4.0 sacks in each of his three NFL seasons. That may not seem like a ton, but to put those numbers in perspective, Bennie Logan was second to Fletcher Cox among Eagles interior linemen with 2.5 sacks last year.
Jernigan was primarily used as a two-gap lineman in Baltimore as well, which meant his job was to fill space. In the Eagles’ wide nine, Jernigan – 25 in September – will be cut loose and free to pursue the quarterback, which means theoretically his sack totals stand to increase.
Jernigan bumps Beau Allen into a rotational role, along with Destiny Vaeao returning for his second season and seventh-round choice Elijah Qualls. The group is definitely deeper, and possibly vastly improved at the top.
In a sense, the Eagles swapped out Connor Barwin for Chris Long and Derek Barnett. That doesn’t necessarily mean more production at the top of the depth chart, but it does make for a deeper talent pool at defensive end. As a result, Marcus Smith is pushed down from DE4 to DE5 – and nobody is going to be unhappy to hear that.
Marcus Smith’s odds of ever panning out
Smith actually ended 2016 on something of a positive note, unbeknownst to the majority of observers, finishing with 3 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits. For the sake of comparison, Barwin didn’t fare much better (6 TFL, 5.0 SK, 10 QH), especially considering he played over three-times as many snaps. It was the most extensive playing time of Smith’s career, and the former first-round pick showed some semblance of growth.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to imagine Smith will see as much action in 2017, if he’s on the 53-man roster at all. His tumble down the depth chart has been noted, and he may have conceded any shot at beating out Long for more playing time when he decided to skip voluntary OTAs this spring. Smith waded into bust territory long ago, but any remote chance he had of living up to his draft status or even becoming a regular contributor is fading fast.
Cox underwhelmed last season after signing a contract extension worth over $100 million. Nine tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits are quality numbers for an interior lineman, but it’s not the otherworldly presence the Eagles should expect for the money.
Fortunately, the case can easily be made Cox will be benefit from the upgrades around him in 2017. Jernigan and the improved pass-rush depth on the edge should take some of the offense’s focus away from the two-time Pro Bowl selection, who is still an absolute nightmare one-on-one. We’ll project Cox to experience a rebound of sorts, with something between his production last season and in 2015, when the 26-year-old finished with 11 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits.
It’s great to see Graham is finally getting his due, earning second-team All-Pro honors in 2016. He’s been a terrific two-way defender for years and was always more disruptive than sack numbers indicate.
But therein lies the question with Graham. The eighth-year veteran is a very good player, but averaging 5.5 sack per season does not make a great NFL player. What will be interesting to see is whether Graham can take the next step toward becoming an elite pass rusher at age 29. His 22 quarterback hits last season were tied for 13th in the league, and if he could just finish a few more of those, double-digit sacks would be in sight. Even though he’s getting older, you may not want to rule out another breakout season for Graham just yet.
Most people have given up on Curry as being anything more than a rotational player, and you can’t blame anybody for feeling that way, particularly after he failed to live up to a massive contract extension in 2016. With 6.0 sacks total over the past two seasons, and accounting for $9 million against the salary cap in 2017, there is definitely some buyer’s remorse with Curry right now.
Of course, Curry was also battling a knee injury for much of last season, which there’s no telling how that affected his play. Furthermore, he had 9.0 sacks alone in 2014, so we know he’s capable of much more. Curry turns 29 this month, so his best years could certainly still be ahead of him. This is probably his last chance to live up to his deal with the Eagles, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
We have no idea if Barnett is going to be a great NFL player, but with 29.0 of his 33.0 career sacks at the University of Tennessee coming against SEC opponents, it’s hard to believe he won’t make any impact. As is the case with pretty much any incoming rookie, it’s a question of ceiling, especially in his rookie year.
Oftentimes, pass rushers don’t have a huge impact their first year in the league, and are usually limited to a handful of sacks whether they are backups or starters. However, players taken as high as Barnett – No. 14 overall – are far more likely to get regular playing time and approach double-digit sacks, as you might expect. There’s no telling which column he will fall under, but if we guess somewhere in between, Barnett could be good for around 6.0 or 7.0 sacks this year.
BETTER OR WORSE?
Barwin turned 30 last year, and both he and Logan were better fits in the 3-4 defense under the last coaching regime. Long is no spring chicken, either, at 32, but has played in 4-3 schemes and wide-nine alignments is whole career, and along with Barnett, there is simply have more firepower on the edge. Up the middle is no different, as Jernigan is a likely upgrade in the Eagles’ system. The 2017 version of the D-line looks vastly superior, and that’s before wild cards like Curry and to a lesser extent Smith come into play. Better