Philadelphia Eagles 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After the Eagles won the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 2017 season, it looked like they would be a contender for years to come. They won that Super Bowl despite losing Carson Wentz to a torn ACL and he was playing at an MVP level before going down for the season in December. They had a well-rounded roster around the quarterback that finished the 2017 season ranked 10th in first down rate and 3rd in first down rate allowed. And most of their core was locked in for years to come, including Wentz and Super Bowl winning backup Nick Foles.

However, things did not go as planned. The Eagles made it back to the post-season the following two seasons, but with just a record of 9-7 and they failed to advance beyond the divisional round in either season. And then in 2020, the bottom fell out, leading to a 4-11-1 finish, the franchise’s worst since Andy Reid’s final year in 2012. How did this happen? Well, injuries were a big part of the problem, as the Eagles have had the most, 10th most, and 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury over the past three seasons respectively. 

Carson Wentz continued to get hurt, with his 2018 and 2019 seasons ending similarly to 2017, with him sidelined with injury, watching his team play in the post-season, only instead of winning a Super Bowl, Wentz watched Foles unable to repeat his magic from the previous year in 2018 and by 2019 Foles had gone elsewhere, leaving a 40-year-old Josh McCown to take over for Wentz when a concussion knocked him out early in the Eagles’ first round playoff game. Even McCown himself played most of that game through a torn hamstring after getting hurt early in his relief appearance.

In 2020, Wentz once again did not finish the season as the starter, but for a very different reason, as he was perfectly healthy, but his performance was so poor that the Eagles benched the one time MVP candidate. Wentz never regained his 2017 MVP level form, completing 66.2% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions across 27 starts in 2018-2019, but he was at least a league average starting quarterback and finished 14 among quarterbacks on PFF in both seasons.

In 2020, that fell to 57.4% completion, 6.00 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and a league leading 15 interceptions, despite only making 12 starts. Wentz wasn’t totally to blame as his supporting cast had a lot of issues, most notably a receiving corps that dropped a league high 10.7% of Wentz’ pass attempts, but he still finished the season ranked 34th out of 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, while the Eagles offense as a whole sputtered to a 25th ranked finish in first down rate over expected at -1.44%. 

Wentz arguably should have been benched sooner, especially since the Eagles had a second round rookie with potential in Jalen Hurts, who they selected 53rd overall. The Hurts selection did not make a lot of sense, not only because Hurts was arguably a reach at that point in the draft, but also because Wentz had just signed a 4-year, 128 million dollar extension the previous year that technically would not even take effect until 2021. With Wentz seemingly in the prime of his career in his age 28 season in 2020, there didn’t seem to be any feasible way to get Hurts on the field enough to justify that selection, even if Wentz’ injury history would lead them to need to invest in the backup quarterback position more than the average team. 

However, as much as Hurts’ selection did not make sense, it made even less sense that he remained on the bench throughout most of the season while Wentz struggled. Why invest that high of a pick in a quarterback if you won’t go to him until the very end of a season when your quarterback is leading the league in interceptions? The answer to that question was apparently organizational chaos, as head coach Doug Pederson and GM Howie Roseman seemed to have widely different views on Wentz and Hurts that led to a front office investing heavily in a player and a coaching staff not using that player even when it would make perfect sense to.

Hurts eventually took over for Wentz in week 14 and actually won his debut over the Saints, albeit a Saints team without Drew Brees, but that win was mostly because of a strong defensive effort and Hurts catching off guard a Saints defense that seemed to not realize he was a good athlete, rushing for 106 yards and on 18 carries, to make up for a 17 of 30 for 167 yards passing performance. 

That actually proved to be arguably his best passing performance of the season though, as Hurts finished the season completing just 52.0% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while adding 354 yards and 3 touchdowns on 63 carries (5.62 YPC). Even with his rushing production though, Hurts still actually finished with a lower grade from PFF overall than Wentz, ranking 40th among 42nd eligible quarterbacks, further calling into question why the Eagles felt the need to select him in the second round in the first place.

Hurts being moved into the starting lineup also didn’t do anything to help with the organizational chaos. Wentz seemed to almost immediately make his mind up that he was done with the Eagles, ultimately demanding an off-season trade that saw him reunite in Indianapolis with the offensive coordinator with whom he had his dominant 2017 season, now Colts head coach Frank Reich. Pederson, still apparently highly unimpressed with Hurts, decided to bench Hurts in the middle of their week 17 game against Washington, only not for Wentz, who was inactive due to the Eagles not wanting to risk him getting hurt ahead of an off-season trade, but instead for long-time third string quarterback Nate Sudfeld. 

The Eagles likely would have lost the game either way and Hurts was in the middle of a 7 for 20 passing performance when he was pulled, but Sudfeld was even a downgrade from that and the rest of the team became noticeably dejected by the move. That decision, along with long standing tension and disagreement with the front office, eventually led to Doug Pederson being let go as head coach this off-season, a decision that surprised many, but ultimately made sense even from a purely football standpoint, as Pederson had regularly struggled to get the most out of a talented roster since losing Frank Reich after the Super Bowl victory. 

With Wentz and Pederson gone, the Eagles committed themselves to Hurts at least for 2021 and, seemingly trying to get that Frank Reich magic back, the Eagles made somewhat of an out of left field head coaching hire in Nick Sirianni, who had been Reich’s offensive coordinator with the Eagles for the past three seasons and had generally gotten good results, but was not viewed as a head coaching candidate anywhere else this off-season. 

The Eagles had the opportunity to select another quarterback with their first round pick which was originally 6th overall and in fact they tried to move up to Miami’s original spot at 3 to select Zach Wilson, only to abandon that plan when they realized Wilson was likely going 2nd to the Jets and instead they facilitated a trade that allowed the 49ers to move up to 3 to select Trey Lance, with the Eagles gaining a future first round pick from the Dolphins and picking in the 49ers’ spot at 12, with the Dolphins taking over the Eagles’ spot at 6. 

The Eagles eventually moved back up to 10, but not for a quarterback, even with both Justin Fields and Mac Jones available, as they used that 10th overall selection on much needed help at the wide receiver position in Devonta Smith. The only quarterback the Eagles did bring in this off-season was veteran Joe Flacco, a one-time Ravens franchise quarterback who is firmly in the journeyman backup stage of his career, on his 3rd team in as many seasons, now in his age 36 season. He may be an above average backup quarterback and he could provide veteran leadership and mentorship as well, but he’s not a real threat to Hurts job, so it seems like Hurts will get the chance to be a season long starter.

He may only get that one season though as, even though the Eagles did not take a quarterback in this year’s draft, they did gain enough ammunition that they’ll likely be in position to add a top level quarterback in next year’s draft, getting that extra first round pick from Miami and a second round pick that could become a first from Indianapolis for Wentz. The Eagles also seem likely to be picking high in the draft again next year, not only because Hurts seems likely to continue struggling in year two, but because the rest of this supporting cast isn’t good either.

The Eagles will probably be healthier after having the third most adjusted games lost to injury last season, but at this point the Eagles’ injury problems are seemingly more than a personnel issue rather than bad luck. And to the extent that the personnel has changed on the field for the Eagles, this is a much less talented roster than they’ve been in recent years. After consistently spending near the top of the market in average annual salary, finishing in the top-8 in every season since 2011 in that metric, including four seasons ranked #1, the Eagles simply didn’t have the financial flexibility to spend at a high level this off-season after years of kicking the can forward on cap problems.

Their past financial aggressiveness coupled with an overall decline in the salary cap this off-season due to lost ticket revenue led to the Eagles now ranking just 25th in average annual salary, a metric that actually correlates with winning at a pretty high rate. Part of the issue is the Eagles paid Wentz 30 million dollars on an extension that he never played a snap on, so even if they do end up getting a first round pick for him, it’ll have come at the cost of 30 million dollars. If Hurts can’t be significantly improved after looking like one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league in limited action as a rookie, the Eagles are going to have a tough time consistently winning games this season and I would bet against Hurts developing significantly.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Hurts didn’t have as many of his passes dropped as Wentz did, 6.1% vs. 10.7% for Wentz, making his lack of passing game production even more concerning, but either way the Eagles did need to add significant talent to this group this off-season. Overpaid, injury prone veteran wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson were easy cap casualty decisions this off-season and, without the financial flexibility to add significant veteran talent in free agency, the Eagles are going with a full youth movement at the wide receiver position, led by 10th overall pick Devonta Smith, who projects as a long-term #1 receiver even if he has some growing pains as a rookie.

Smith isn’t their only recent first round pick at the position though, as they also used the 21st overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on a wide receiver in Jalen Reagor. He had an underwhelming rookie year though, only playing about half the snaps and averaging just 1.30 yards per route run, leading to him totaling just a 31/396/1 slash line for a team that had plenty of opportunity in the receiving corps, which didn’t have a pass catcher who topped 539 yards receiving.

With Reagor struggling and veterans Jeffery and Jackson hurt for most of the season, Travis Fulgham ended the season as a surprising team leader in receiving at 38/539/4, after the 2019 6th round pick didn’t catch a pass across 63 snaps as a rookie with the Lions, who made him a final cut before the 2020 season. Once landing in Detroit, Fulgham wasn’t spectacular, but he earned a slightly above average grade from PFF and averaged a somewhat respectable 1.50 yards per route run average, so he should be able to maintain a role in the Eagles’ top-3 wide receivers along with Reagor and Smith. 

The primary competition for those top-3 receivers is Greg Ward, who finished second on this team among wide receivers with a 53/419/6 slash line last season. Those are pretty unimpressive numbers considering how much Ward played though, as he averaged just 0.84 yards per route run and finished 102nd among 112 eligible wide receivers on PFF overall. The Eagles also have 2020 5th round pick John Hightower and 2020 6th round pick Quez Watkins, but they didn’t show much as rookies across 346 snaps and 119 snaps respectively. JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a 2019 2nd round pick, could also theoretically be in the mix for a role, but his draft slot is the only reason he’s still on this roster, as he’s averaged a pathetic 0.67 yards per route run in his career. This wide receiver group definitely has more upside than last season, but they’re still a very inexperienced young group with questionable depth.

The Eagles are more experienced at tight end, but they’re likely to be moving on from their most experienced tight end Zach Ertz at some point. Ertz was an above average tight end for the Eagles for many years, averaging a 87/938/6 slash line per 16 games from 2014-2019, but he saw that fall to 36/335/1 with a 0.92 yards per route run average in 11 games last season and, owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed for an age 31 contract season in 2021, Ertz doesn’t fit into the rebuilding Eagles’ plans. The Eagles are trying to trade him for a somewhat substantial pick, but they will likely have to settle for a late round pick if not outright releasing him as his salary is a tough selling point for an aging tight end  in a cap-condensed season.

The Eagles would also be in good shape at tight end even without Ertz, as tight end was actually a position of strength in 2020, in contrast to wide receiver. Dallas Goedert was limited to just 11 games due to injury, but he still had a 46/524/3 slash line that was 2nd on the team and, also a good blocker to boot, Goedert finished as PFF’s 6th ranked tight end overall. That’s nothing new for Goedert, a 2018 2nd round pick who ranked 10th among tight ends as a rookie and then 5th in 2019 and, with Ertz likely on the way out, he figures to see his biggest workload yet, still only in his age 26 season. He comes with significant breakout potential if he can continue playing at a high level in a bigger role.

The Eagles also have Richard Rodgers to back up Goedert and he was pretty impressive in limited action last season with both Ertz and Goedert missing stretches of time. Rodgers finished with a 24/345/2 slash line and averaged a ridiculous 2.65 yards per route run average, 2nd in the NFL among tight ends. Rodgers was mostly out of the league in 2018-2019, catching one pass across those two seasons and dealing with significant injury concerns, and he’s averaged just 1.03 yards per route run over his career, but if he’s healthy, he could be a capable #2 tight end, even without Ertz. The Eagles will once again need to focus on their tight ends in the passing game because of concerns at wide receiver, but they at least have upside at wide receiver with back-to-back first round picks being used on the position.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Eagles were injury plagued as a team last season, but no unit lost more to injury than their offensive line. In fact, it’s possible that Philadelphia’s offensive line was the most injury affected unit of any position group in the league. They led the league with adjusted games lost to injury on the offensive line and it wasn’t even really close between them and the team with the second most, the Dallas Cowboys, who saw their top-3 offensive linemen all miss significant time. For Philadelphia, they had four of their projected five starting offensive lineman all miss significant time, with none of the four playing more than 9 games, but it was even worse than that suggests.

It started in the off-season when right guard Brandon Brooks, one of the best players in the league at his position in 2019, tore his achilles, ending his 2020 season before it could even start. The Eagles then coaxed long-time left tackle Jason Peters out of semi-retirement to replace Brooks at right guard, with Peters having already been replaced at left tackle by 2019 1st round pick Andre Dillard, but then Dillard’s season ended before it could begin with a torn biceps that cost him all of 2020, meaning the Eagles were down 40% of their expected offensive line before the season could even start and forcing Peters back to the blindside.

Making matters worse, Peters, who wasn’t even counted in that original group of five projected starting offensive linemen, also missed significant time with injury, playing just 509 snaps in 8 games. Left guard Isaac Seumalo played just 588 snaps in 9 games, while right tackle Lane Johnson was limited to 405 snaps in 7 games, leaving the Eagles with a group that was in shambles for most of the 2020 campaign, with only center Jason Kelce avoiding the injury bug and making all 16 starts.

Kelce even had a bit of a disappointing year too, making every start for the 6th straight season, but falling to 12th among centers on PFF after finishing in the top-2 at his position in five of the past seven seasons. That’s especially concerning when you consider Kelce’s age, now heading into his age 34 season. It’s very likely that his best days are behind him and it’s possible he could keep declining even further. He may have another couple seasons left in the tank as a solid starter, but I wouldn’t expect much more from him.

Fortunately, the rest of this bunch is set to return, except for Jason Peters, who struggled last season when on the field and was not needed for his age 39 season on what should be a much better offensive line. Right tackle Lane Johnson and right guard Brandon Brooks are established at their positions and did not have anyone impress in their absence enough to challenge them for their job, but Andre Dillard and Isaac Seumalo could face competition to earn back their old role.

Dillard would seem to have the shakiest hold on his starting role, as he spent most of his rookie season on the bench behind Peters and struggled across 337 snaps when he did play, before missing all of last season with injury, so he’s highly unproven, while Jordan Mailata, who made 10 starts at left tackle in place of Dillard and Peters, actually earned an above average grade from PFF for his efforts. Dillard is a former first round pick, while Mailata was a 7th rounder in 2018 and has a much less impressive background, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Mailata outplays him in training camp and wins the job. Regardless of who wins the job, they are going to be starting someone inexperienced on the blindside, but both options do have upside.

Seumalo, meanwhile, has made 40 starts in 5 seasons in the league since the Eagles selected him in the 3rd round in 2016, including a 2019 campaign in which he finished 18th among guards on PFF as a 16-game starter, but he’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level and Nate Herbig flashed a lot of potential as an injury replacement guard last season, playing on both sides of the line and finishing 12th among guards on PFF across 12 starts. The 2019 undrafted free agent played just 3 snaps as a rookie and is otherwise very unproven aside from last year, but Seumalo has been inconsistent enough in his career that Herbig should at least get a chance to challenge Seumalo for his job.

On the right side, both Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks are locked in, but a combination of age and injury makes their 2021 projection shakier than their recent projections. Johnson has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 8 seasons in the league, including four top-ten finishes, but he’s missed 29 games over his career, including 25 games over the past five seasons, a stretch in which he failed to complete a 16-game season without missing time. 

Last season, Johnson was limited to just 405 snaps in 7 games and, while he still finished above average, his 39th ranked finish among offensive tackle on PFF was the worst finish single season finish of his career, a big concern given that he’s now heading into his age 31 season and could easily be on a permanent decline, especially given his injury history. He’s a safe bet to miss at least a little bit of time and when he is on the field, I would expect that his best days are behind him and possibly that he could drop off significantly.

Brooks doesn’t have the same injury history as Johnson, playing in all 16 games in 3 straight seasons prior to last year’s fluke injury and making at least 14 starts in every season of his career except his rookie year in 2012, and he has been one of the best guards in the league as well, finishing in the top-30 among guards on PFF in all seven healthy seasons as a starter, including four finishes in the top-13 and a career best #1 ranked finish in 2019. However, he’s a year older than Johnson, now heading into his age 32 season and, at the very least, it’s highly unlikely he’ll repeat his career best year at his age off of a major injury. It’s also possible we could see him decline significantly as well.

The Eagles can’t count on this whole group being healthy in 2021, but they have decent depth, as the losers of the left tackle and left guard battles should provide good insurance policies both outside and inside, while second round rookie Landon Dickerson gives them depth and a potential long-term starter at center, and it would be hard for the Eagles to be more banged up upfront than they were last season. This group’s combination of age, inexperience, and injury history makes their projection shakier than it’s been in recent years heading into the season, but the upside is there for this to be an above average offensive line.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Eagles were actually pretty effective moving the ball on the ground last season, especially compared to their passing game, led by lead back Miles Sanders, who averaged 5.29 YPC on 164 carries in 12 games. Sanders did very little in the passing game, finishing as PFF’s 2nd worst ranked pass catching running back and averaging an abysmal 3.79 yards per route run and 0.67 yards per target, but he ran well enough to rank 28th among running backs on PFF in rushing grade and earned an average grade from PFF overall.

That was surprising, as it’s basically the opposite of what Sanders was as a rookie second round pick in 2019. Sanders finished with a 50/509/3 slash line and a 1.53 yards per route run average, but was underwhelming as a runner. His 4.57 YPC average was somewhat impressive, but it was largely the result of several long runs, which are unpredictable on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis, and he ranked just 34th out of 45 eligible running backs in carry success rate at 45% and finished with a below average rushing grade from PFF. In 2020, his long carry rate (15+ yards) dropped from 3.9% to 3.7%, but his carry success rate shot up to 55%, 13th in the NFL, allowing him to have a significantly improved average even without as many long runs.

Sanders’ inconsistency throughout his first two seasons in the league makes his projection tough, but it seems as if the Eagles believe he’ll be more like the back he was last year than the one he was as a rookie, using a 5th round pick on a passing down specialist running back in Kenneth Gainwell and signing 2018 2nd round pick Kerryon Johnson off of waivers from the Lions to give the Eagles more passing down options to compete with Boston Scott, who took a significant amount of the passing down work from Sanders and was marginally better, but still underwhelming with a 1.00 yards per route run average. 

Scott also took 80 carries from Sanders last season and averaged an impressive 4.68 YPC, but 51 of those came in 4 games that Sanders missed with injury and Sanders averaged 13.7 carries per game in the 12 games he played, so Scott was a true backup whenever Sanders was in the lineup and, if Sanders keeps running like he did last season, it’s going to be hard for the Eagles not to give him more work. Scott isn’t even locked into his backup role either, as prior to impressing in limited action last season, the 2018 6th round pick averaged just 4.02 YPC on 61 carries in his first career action 2019 and clearly the Eagles aren’t totally sold on him after adding a pair of backs to compete for his role this off-season.

Gainwell was arguably the best receiving back in the draft, but is an underwhelming prospect as a runner and probably won’t see more than a few change of pace carries as a rookie. Kerryon Johnson is the most intriguing of the backup options as he was highly drafted and looked on his way to developing into a feature back as a rookie, with 5.43 YPC on 118 carries and a 32/213/1 slash line in 10 games as a rookie, but that season was ended short by injuries and the past two seasons since returning have basically been a wash for him. 

Injuries further limited Johnson to 113 carries in 8 games in 2019 and his 3.57 YPC average was a steep drop off as well. In 2020, Johnson actually played in every game, but was buried on the depth chart as the third running back and showed very little with a 3.48 YPC average on 52 carries in his limited opportunity. Johnson is still only heading into his age 24 season and has shown at least enough as a passing down back (1.22 yards per route run average) that he could earn a receiving back role in this offense, but he also has the upside for more as a runner if he can get past his injuries and show some of his rookie year form. This isn’t a great backfield, but the Eagles don’t have bad options.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

Even though the Eagles struggled on offense last season, they actually finished the season ranked a middling 18th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.21% because of a defense that ranked 9th in first down rate allowed over expected. That suggests the Eagles should have finished better than 4-11-1 and in fact a big part of the problem for this team last season was a -10 turnover margin that ranked 4th worst in the NFL, a metric that tends to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Eagles will win more games this season though. We’ve already established the Eagles’ offense is likely to continue struggling, but their defense seems unlikely to match last year’s performance. Defense is already the much more inconsistent side of the ball, but the Eagles are relying on an aging core and didn’t have the financial flexibility to fill in holes around them this off-season.The defensive line has led the way for a team that has actually finished in the top-9 in first down rate allowed in five straight seasons, but the players who have deserved the most credit for this defensive line’s strong play over the years, edge defender Brandon Graham and interior defender Fletcher Cox, are going into their age 33 and age 31 seasons respectively. 

I’ll get into Cox later, but Graham was arguably the Eagles’ best defensive player last season, averaging 47.4 snaps per game as a 16-game starter and finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked edge defender, playing at a high level against the run and adding 8 sacks, 9 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate. That is a pretty typical year for Graham, who has finished in the top-16 among edge defenders on PFF in 7 straight seasons, providing consistently high level play against the run and adding 47.5 sacks, 69 hits, and a 14.4% pressure rate in 111 games. However, at his age, a drop off can come suddenly and it would actually be a little bit of a surprise if he didn’t start declining a little bit this season. The Eagles can’t afford much dropoff from him given his importance to their defensive success last season.

The Eagles tried to prepare for this by using the 14th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Derek Barnett, but he has yet to develop. Barnett is nominally a starter for this defense and has averaged 39.3 snaps per game in his career, but he’s also missed 16 of 64 games, without ever making it through a full 16 game season, and his performance has left something to be desired as well, earning consistently middling grades from PFF and totaling just 19.5 sacks, 40 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate in 48 career games. Barnett may still have untapped potential, only in his age 25 season, but I would bet against a 5th year breakout year from him and he’ll likely miss at least a couple games with injury again.

The Eagles do have solid depth at the edge defender position though. Josh Sweat is a 2018 4th round pick who has totaled 10 sacks, 12 hits, and a 8.3% pressure rate in his career in 39 games, despite playing just 21.6 snaps per game. He’s never played more than the 422 snaps he played last season and he might not translate to a larger role if needed, but he’s likely to remain as a reserve unless injuries strike and he does theoretically have the upside to develop into a starter if needed. The Eagles also replaced departed veteran reserve Vinny Curry, who impressed across 310 snaps last season, signing another veteran, long-time division rival Ryan Kerrigan from Washington, to replace Curry.

Kerrigan was one of Washington’s best players of the past decade, after being selected by them 16th overall in 2011. His prime came from 2014-2018, when he totalled 60 sacks, 39 hits, and a 14.4% pressure and finished in the top-23 among edge defenders on PFF in four of five seasons. However, Kerrigan fell off pretty quickly after that. In 2019, he earned just a middling grade from PFF and missed the first games of his career, limited to 12 games total. In 2020, he played in every game, but was a clear reserve, playing just 398 snaps and his performance across those snaps was underwhelming. 

Now going into his age 33 season, two years removed from his last good season, Kerrigan’s best days are almost definitely behind him, but the Eagles won’t need him for a big role and it’s possible he could be useful as a reserve if he can bounce back a little bit from last year’s underwhelming performance. If not, the Eagles did use a 6th round pick on edge defender Tarron Jackson, but him contributing in a major way as a rookie seems like a stretch. This is a relatively deep edge defender group, but they lack a top level player outside of Brandon Graham, so this group will go as he goes and it’s possible he drops off significantly, given his age. 

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Fletcher Cox’s age isn’t as big of a concern, as he’s still only heading into his age 31 season, but he did show some signs of slowing down last season. Cox still finished as PFF’s 28th ranked interior defender, especially playing well as a pass rusher, with 6.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 9.8% pressure rate, but that was still a noticeable drop off for a player who finished in the top-14 among interior defenders from 6 straight seasons and in the top-8 in 5 straight seasons prior to last season, while totaling 39.5 sacks, 71 hits, and 11.9% pressure rate over that stretch. Cox is young enough that he still has some bounce back potential, but his best days are likely behind him and it’s possible he could keep declining, in which case this defense would be in trouble.

The Eagles tried to prepare for Cox aging by signing ex-Steeler Javon Hargrave to a 3-year, 39 million dollar contract last off-season, but, like the addition of Derek Barnett opposite Brandon Graham, that move has not paid off, at least not yet, as Hargrave was largely a middling player across 602 snaps in 2020. Hargrave finished 37th, 23rd, and 9th among interior defenders across his final 3 seasons in Pittsburgh respectively and, still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, he comes with some bounce back potential, but that’s not a guarantee.

Top reserve Malik Jackson, who was mostly a snap eater across 537 snaps, is no longer with the team, but the Eagles did use a 3rd round pick on Louisiana Tech’s Milton Williams. Williams projects as a long-term starter, either in place of Cox if he continues to decline and needs to be replaced over the next couple seasons or if Hargrave does not bounce back in 2021, in which case his 13 million dollar salary for 2022 would very much come into question. In the short-term, Williams figures to be a reserve, perhaps the Eagles’ top reserve at the position.

Williams primary competition for reserve snaps figures to be Hassan Ridgeway, who only played 138 snaps last season and has been only a middling player across an average of 214 snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league, but it’s possible he could see an uptick in playing time with Jackson gone if Williams isn’t ready to contribute in a significant way as a rookie. The Eagles also used a 6th round pick on another interior defender Marlon Tuipulotu, but he’s unlikely to be a factor as a rookie. Fletcher Cox’s age is a concern in this group, as possibly is their depth, but Cox and fellow starter Hargrave at least come with some bounce back potential and upside.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

While the Eagles got strong play from their defensive line last season, which elevated this unit as a whole, the rest of this defense had issues and, without the resources to address those issues, most still remain. At linebacker, the Eagles were able to piece together a decent unit, but they didn’t have any true every down players, instead playing four different linebackers between 479 snaps and 750 snaps. That might have worked last season, but two of those players Nathan Gerry (479 snaps) and Duke Riley (571 snaps) are no longer with the team. Fortunately, those were the worst two of the bunch, but their depth is thin without them, which could force the other two linebackers, TJ Edwards (492 snaps) and Alex Singleton (750 snaps) into larger roles, in which they could struggle.

Both Edwards and Singleton are also very unproven in general. Edwards went undrafted in 2019 and, while he flashed potential as a rookie, it was only on 112 snaps. He was solid in 2020 as well, but again it came in limited action, primarily as a base package run stuffer, so he is still a major projection to a larger role. Singleton, meanwhile, played a larger snap total than Edwards did last season, but was also primarily a base package player and struggled in coverage on the occasions he played in passing situations. 

Singleton also had never played a defensive snap in the NFL prior to last season, despite technically being a part of the 2015 NFL Draft class, spending his rookie year on practice squads, then spending three years in Canada in the CFL, before playing in a special teams only role with the Eagles in 2019 and then eventually working his way into the starting lineup last season in a thin linebacking corps. It’s an impressive story, but Singleton could struggle to repeat even his middling performance from last season, especially if he has to play an even larger role and drop into coverage more often. Because it took him 5 years to actually get onto the field on defense, Singleton is already in his age 28 season.

To try to replace Gerry and Riley, the Eagles converted defensive end Genard Avery into a linebacker and also signed ex-Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson. Both moves are unlikely to pan out. Avery has actually flashed potential as a pass rusher in his career, with a 11.4% pressure rate in three seasons in the league, but he’s been buried on the depth chart at defensive end with the Eagles, playing just 160 snaps in about a year and a half since they traded a mid round draft pick to the Browns for him. He’s unlikely to have more success as a linebacker, which is arguably a worse position for him. At the very least, even if he has success as a run stuffer, which he could, he’s highly unlikely to help with this unit’s coverage issues, as he’s struggled mightily in that aspect in the rare occasions he’s dropped into coverage in his career.

Wilson, meanwhile, has at least shown some coverage ability in his career, but the 2017 undrafted free agent played just 716 snaps over his first three seasons, before being forced into a larger role for an injury plagued Minnesota linebacking corps in 2020, playing 1,034 snaps and finishing below average on PFF, especially struggling against the run, ranking 85th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers in run defense grade. The Eagles could also potentially give more playing time to 2020 3rd round pick Davion Taylor, although his poor performance across 33 snaps last season is pretty uninspiring. 

Shaun Bradley, a 6th round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, also saw very little action as a rookie, playing 77 snaps, and doesn’t have the same upside as Taylor, who at least theoretically could develop into a solid starter long-term. Jacoby Stevens, a 6th round pick this year, could also be in the mix, but he’s unlikely to be a factor. This is an underwhelming group heading into the season, one that would be in even worse shape if they lost one of their top-2 linebackers, who they are already going to be relying on for likely career high snap counts.

Grade: C

Secondary

To mask their lack of coverage ability in the linebacking corps a little bit, the Eagles would use a 3rd safety around the line of scrimmage in sub packages who essentially functions as a 2nd linebacker, more often than most teams do. The Eagles lost Jalen Mills, who earned a slightly above average grade from PFF in 2020 while leading this position group with 1,034 snaps played, but they replaced him with their one significant free agent addition, ex-Vikings safety Anthony Harris and their other safeties from last season, Rodney McLeod (873 snaps), Marcus Epps (365 snaps), and K’Von Wallace (203 snaps), all return as well so the Eagles could continue using their safeties in the same way.

Either way, Harris and McLeod are locked in as starters. Harris had a down year in 2020, finishing 38th among safeties on PFF, after ranking 5th and 2nd respectively in 2018 and 2019. Harris was forced to take a big pay cut down to 1-year, 4 million on his contract with the Eagles this off-season, after spending 2020 on the franchise tag in Minnesota, and he could prove to be a great value if he bounces back to his 2018-2019 form. 

That’s far from a guarantee though because Harris is a relatively unproven player. The 2015 7th round pick played just 637 snaps in the first three seasons of his career prior to breaking out in 2018, and now he heads into his age 30 season, so his best days could easily be behind him. Even if he is just the middling starter he was last season though, he should be a good value for an Eagles team that needed a replacement for Mills this off-season.

McLeod is also getting up there in age, heading into his age 31 season. He’s yet to really show any decline yet though, finishing last season 22nd among safeties on PFF in 2020, his 7th straight season receiving an average or better grade from PFF as a starter (94 starts). In fact, other than an injury shortened 2018 campaign and his first year back from that injury in 2019, McLeod has finished in the top-35 among safeties on PFF in 4 straight seasons. He could easily start to decline in 2021, but it would be a surprise to see him remain a capable starter.

Neither Marcus Epps nor K’Von Wallace project as reliable starters, so the Eagles will need their starting safeties to both stay healthy, allowing Epps and Wallace to remain in reserve roles. A 4th round pick in 2020, K’Von Wallace still has some upside, but struggled across 203 snaps as a rookie. Epps, meanwhile, was just a 6th round pick in 2019 and, while he showed some promise in his limited action last season, he’s still highly unproven, playing just 110 snaps as a rooke (split between the Eagles and the Vikings) before last year’s limited action. They’re solid depth, but probably would struggle as anything more.

The Eagles are not nearly in as good of shape at cornerback though. They probably thought they solved their longstanding cornerback problem by trading for Darius Slay last off-season, giving up a 3rd and 5th round pick and making Slay one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the league in the process, by giving him a 3-year, 50.05 million dollar extension. However, while Slay did a solid job locking down on side of the field, opposing passing attacks were able to easily just pick on the Eagles’ other cornerbacks, as the Eagles cycled through several options and didn’t have another cornerback play more than 35 snaps last season and earn even an average grade from PFF.

Avonte Maddox (509 snaps) and Nickell Robey-Coleman (612 snaps) were the most notable cornerbacks to struggle, finishing 134th and 104th respectively among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. Robey-Coleman was let go this off-season, but he wasn’t replaced and, aside from 4th round pick Zech McPherson, the Eagles made no notable additions at this position this off-season. As a result, Avonte Maddox will be forced back into a starting role opposite Slay, despite struggling mightily as a starter in 2020 and never earning even an average grade from PFF since being selected by the Eagles in the 4th round in 2018. 

Even Darius Slay is a bit of a question mark as he’s heading into his age 30 season now and has fallen off a little from his prime, when he finished in the top-28 among cornerbacks in five straight seasons from 2014 to 2018, including three seasons in the top-15. Beyond that, Slay and Maddox are the only cornerbacks on this roster with any real experience and, as a result, it wouldn’t really be a surprise to see the Eagles have to turn to the 4th round rookie McPherson for a significant year one role, in which he would almost definitely struggle. He at least has upside though, which might not be the case with the rest of this bunch, who also likely would struggle if forced into a significant role. 

Michael Jacquet played the most snaps of any other returning cornerback last season, but the 2020 undrafted free agent struggled mightily across 160 snaps. Other options including fellow 2020 undrafted free agent Jameson Houston, who played just 22 snaps as a rookie, 2018 undrafted free agent Craig James, who has played 82 career snaps, and 2016 6th round pick Kevon Seymour, a journeyman who has never topped 317 snaps in a season and struggled mightily in that action when he did play. Opposing passing attacks should have no problem attacking the Eagles’ cornerbacks, even if Slay doesn’t start to show his age. They are better at safety, but only by default in what looks like an underwhelming group overall.

Grade: C+

Kicker/Punter

The Eagles finished 22nd in special teams DVOA last season and their worst aspect was place kicking, led by kicker Jake Elliott, who went 24/26 on extra points and 14/19 on field goals as the Eagles sole place kicker, finishing 34th among 36 eligible kickers on PFF. Elliott somehow managed to simultaneously go 1/3 on field goals inside 30 yards and 2/5 on field goals outside of 50 yards, while strangely enough making all his field goals from 30-49 yards. Elliott has been better in the past, making 92.8% of his career extra points and 83.9% of his career field goals, while never previously finishing worse than 18th among kickers on PFF, but he’s also never finished higher than 12th among kickers on PFF, so he is a pretty low upside even if he does manage to bounce back. He should be better than 2020 though, even if only by default.

Elliott was more middling on kickoffs and their kickoff unit was middling as a whole, as was their punting unit, led by Cameron Johnston, who was PFF’s 23rd ranked punter out of 34 eligible. Johnston is no longer with the team and looks most likely to be replaced by Arryn Siposs, a 2020 undrafted free agent who happens to be the only punter currently on this roster. Siposs has never attempted a punt in the NFL, but he did average a 44.0 yards per punt average in two seasons as a collegiate starter at Auburn in 2018-2019 after playing professional Australian rules football for a few seasons, so he has shown a good leg. He’s very unproven, but he might not necessarily be a downgrade from Johnston. I wouldn’t expect him to be an upgrade either though.

Grade: C+

Return Specialists

The Eagles also struggled in kickoff returns, ranking 20th with a 20.9 yards per return average, led by top returner Boston Scott, who averaged just 21.1 yards per return on 28 attempts. Scott has been mediocre as a kickoff returner in his career, totaling just a 21.8 yards per return average, but he could remain the starter by default because he doesn’t have an obvious replacement. 

John Hightower returned kicks in college, but had just a 23.3 yards per return average and wasn’t given the opportunity to return any as a rookie. Jason Huntley was better with 25.8 yards per return and 5 touchdowns as a collegiate returner, but he was given just two kickoff return attempts as a rookie. It’s possible Huntley or Hightower could take the job from Scott and prove to be an upgrade, but it’s also possible Scott keeps the job or either of the unproven players struggles in his place.

The Eagles were better on punts, earning an above average DVOA, but their numbers are inflated by one 74-yard punt return from Jalen Reagor, who was not their primary punt return and returned just four all season. Primary punt returner Greg Ward was middling at best with a 6.4 yards per return average across 21 attempts, after averaging just 3.4 yards per return in his first action as a punt returner in 2019. Reagor is expected to have a big role on offense, so I wouldn’t expect him to become the primary punt returner, and, without another obvious option on this roster, Ward seems likely to keep his job, unless Boston Scott (7.2 career punt returns for 6 yards per attempt) takes over this job as well. This is an underwhelming returner group. 

Grade: C+

Special Teamers

The Eagles generally got good play from their supporting special teams last season, helping to prop up this special teams unit, despite underwhelming play from their specialists. The Eagles lost Duke Riley, a solid special teamer across 251 snaps last season, but they added an adequate replacement for him in Andrew Adams, an experienced special teamer who has averaged 210 special teams snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league. They also lost Corey Clement (265 snaps), but he struggled and all of the rest of their key special teamers are set to return.

Alex Singleton (294 snaps), Shaun Bradley (281 snaps), TJ Edwards (254 snaps), Marcus Epps (241 snaps), and Rudy Ford (137 snaps) all played at an above average level last season and have a good chance to continue playing well in 2021. Edwards was the best of the bunch, finishing 30th among special teamers on PFF and he’s not a one-year wonder either, finishing 27th among special teamers across 331 snaps in 2019. Rudy Ford finished 28th among special teamers on PFF in 2020, but he saw less playing time than Edwards and doesn’t have the same history of success. The other aforementioned special teamers also don’t have the same history of success, but in Bradley’s case it’s because he was a rookie last season and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see most of these players continue playing at an above average level.

Davion Taylor (176 snaps) and Richard Rodgers (144 snaps) also saw significant action last season, but they both struggled and don’t have a track record of success, so they will likely continue struggling in 2021. This is somewhat of a top heavy group, but they could get more from outside of their top players this season, particularly if they can get significant contributions from their rookie class. They also changed up the leadership on special teams, hiring promising young coach Michael Clay to his first coordinator job to replace Dave Fipp, who they let go this off-season after 8 seasons with the team. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see that be a benefit for this group, although that’s far from a guarantee. This isn’t a bad special teamers group though.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Eagles finished higher in schedule adjusted first down rate differential than their record suggested last season, ranking 1th at -0.21%, but finishing with just a 4-11-1 record. Their -10 turnover margin, 4th worst in the league, was to blame for much of the difference and history suggests they will be much improved in turnover margin just due to the natural random variance of the statistic. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win more games. Their offense should be healthier and has more receiving talent this season, but Jalen Hurts is likely to be one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this season unless he takes a big step forward from year one, so this offense figures to remain among the worst in the league, after ranking 25th in first down rate over expected at -1.44%.

Their defense, meanwhile, figures to struggle to repeat last season’s 9th ranked first down rate allowed over expected at -1.23%. Their four most important defensive players last season, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Rodney McLeod, and Darius Slay are all over 30 and probably their fifth most important player, Jalen Mills, is no longer with the team. Anthony Harris should be a solid replacement for Mills, but he’s also going to be over 30 aside from his addition, the Eagles really did not do much to fill holes on an overall top heavy defense. The Eagles also will be transitioning from defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, one of the more accomplished defensive coordinators in the league, to an unproven former position coach with the Colts, Jonathan Gannon.

With top players seemingly likely to regress, more questionable coaching, and the depth still not there, the Eagles figure to be middling at best on defense. Overall, they have lost a lot of talent in recent off-seasons and are now spending an unordinarily limited amount on their roster, having to finally pay for years of spending among the most money in the league and being creative to fit it all under the cap. Unless they can get an improbable breakout year from their quarterback, they are likely to be among the worst teams in the league in 2021. I will have a final prediction for the Eagles at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21 Update: The Eagles made a much needed addition to their cornerback group when they signed Steven Nelson, who should be an above average starter opposite Darius Slay, but there are still a lot of problems for this team.

9/4/21 Update: I am a little higher on the Eagles’ chances this season because of the Gardner Minshew trade, as he will at least give them a low floor option to turn to if Jalen Hurts struggles as he is likely to, but this is clearly a rebuilding year for this franchise and I have a hard time seeing them being even a .500 team.

Prediction: 5-12 4th in NFC East

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