Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 7 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (3-3) at Dallas Cowboys (3-3)

The conventional wisdom is that the sky is falling in Dallas, with the Cowboys being on a 3-game losing streak. However, the Cowboys actually have a positive first down rate differential across those three games, at +1.98%. Their -4 turnover margin over those 3 games is the primary reason behind their losing streak, but turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Despite just a 3-3 record, the Cowboys rank 4th in first down rate differential at +6.48%, winning the first down rate battle in every game this season except last week’s loss to the Jets.

Their only three wins thus far have come against easy opponents, but they won all 3 games convincingly, by at least 10 points, winning the first down rate battle by +10.96% across the three games, while all three of their losses could have been wins if a couple things had gone differently. They are also still one of the most talented teams in the league on paper, so I still like their chances going forward. The Eagles also look like one of the most talented teams in the league on paper, but they haven’t played as well, coming into this game ranking just 16th in first down rate differential at 0.21%, very much in line with their 3-3 record. 

The Cowboys also seem to have the better injury situation, though both teams are pretty banged up. The difference is that it looks like most of the Cowboys’ injured players will try to play through their injuries, while the Eagles have ruled out several starters already. Left tackle Jason Peters and top linebacker Nigel Bradham will join top cornerback Ronald Darby, starting defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, starting cornerback Avonte Maddox, and starting wide receiver DeSean Jackson on the sidelines this week for a Philadelphia team whose injuries are starting to pile up. 

The Cowboys, meanwhile, have ruled out starting cornerback Anthony Brown, but top cornerback Byron Jones, wide receivers Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb, and offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’El Collins are reportedly likely to play through their injuries, though all could easily be at less than 100% and at risk of in game setbacks. Despite being the better team in the better injury situation, the Cowboys are favored by just 2.5 points here at home, so we are getting good line value with them. I have this line calculated at -5.5. I wouldn’t go crazy with this bet because of all of the injury uncertainty, but this line really seems off.

Dallas Cowboys 28 Philadelphia Eagles 23

Pick against the spread: Dallas -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Philadelphia Eagles at Minnesota Vikings: 2019 Week 6 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (3-2) at Minnesota Vikings (3-2)

Last week, when I picked the Vikings to cover against the Giants, I said I thought they would be a team that would look great against easy competition, but struggle to win big games. Part of my reasoning for that is that quarterback Kirk Cousins has typically struggled against tougher competition. Dating back to his first full season as a starter in 2014, Cousins is just 7-20 in week 4 or later against teams that are above .500. Even with a better supporting cast with the Vikings, he was 1-5 last season and has already lost this season to the Packers and Bears (while beating the Falcons, Giants, and Raiders by a combined 54 points).

The Eagles, who rank 2nd in my roster rankings, certainly qualify as tough competition, even as the visitors in this game. They’re just 3-2, but they won the first down rate battle in their loss to the Lions and have arguably the most complete roster in the NFL. The Vikings have a strong roster as well, but I still have this line calculated at even, and that’s before taking into account Cousins’ struggles against tougher competition. As field goal underdogs, the Eagles are worth a bet and I like their chances of pulling the straight up upset as well.

Philadelphia Eagles 24 Minnesota Vikings 23 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +3

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at Philadelphia Eagles: 2019 Week 5 NFL Pick

New York Jets (0-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (2-2)

This line is pretty high at Philadelphia -14, but I don’t think it’s high enough. In their last game, the Jets were 21-point underdogs at New England and only covered because they got two late return touchdowns off of a muffed punt and a pick six thrown by backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham when Tom Brady was taken out of the game with the game in hand. The Eagles aren’t the Patriots, but I have them third in my roster rankings, so they’re not far behind. They’re only 2-2, but both of their losses were close and they won the first down rate battle in one of them. 

The Jets had their bye last week, but it didn’t help them get healthier, as they will remain without starting quarterback Sam Darnold, top offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, top linebacker CJ Mosley, and top edge defender Jordan Jenkins, with only defensive lineman Quinnen Williams able to get healthy over the bye. The Eagles are also coming off of a mini bye as well, with their last game coming on Thursday Night Football against the Packers. I have them calculated as 18-point favorites against a depleted Jets team that is starting a third string quarterback.

The only thing preventing me from betting on the Eagles is that they’re not in a great spot, with a much tougher game in Minnesota on deck. The Eagles are 3-point underdogs in that game on the early line and favorites of 10+ are just 63-84 ATS since 2002 before being underdogs, including just 14-28 ATS as favorites of 13+ points. They can still cover this spread even if they don’t play their best game though.

Philadelphia Eagles 27 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia -14

Confidence: Low

Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (1-2) at Green Bay Packers (3-0)

Typically, playing on a short week benefits the home team significantly, as they don’t have to travel, which gives them more preparation time on a short week. There are a couple exceptions. The first exception is when it’s a divisional matchup, as teams tend to be much more familiar with divisional opponents than non-divisional opponents and not need as much preparation. The second exception is when the road team is better than the home team, as better teams tend to handle the short week better. 

None of those exceptions are in play this week, as the Packers are favored here at home against an Eagles team who they haven’t played since 2016. Non-divisional home favorites are 35-15 ATS all-time on Thursday Night Football (excluding week 1), so the Packers should have a good chance to cover this spread. They’ve also been a dominant home team with Aaron Rodgers under center over the past decade or so, going 40-19 ATS at home in games Aaron Rodgers has started and finished since 2011. 

Unfortunately, we’re not getting any line value with the Packers, with this line shifting from Green Bay -3 on the early line last week to now Green Bay -5 this week. The line moved because the Eagles lost at home to the Lions, but the Lions are an underrated team who can be a legitimate playoff contender in the NFC and the Eagles actually won the first down rate battle in that game by 6.23%. 

Now the Eagles seem to be underrated. I’ve liked the Packers since the off-season and I think they’re one of the top few teams in the league, but I still have this line calculated at only Green Bay -4. The homefield advantage on a short week should help them significantly, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this ended up being a really close game, so I’m probably not going to bet on Green Bay at -5. I may reconsider tomorrow. I am also locking in a couple picks I love this week before the lines move. One of those games is likely to be my Pick of the Week.

CLE +7 @ BAL

DET +7 vs. KC

Final Update: Za’Darius Smith is questionable after suffering a hamstring injury in practice on Tuesday. He’s expected to play, but could be limited. The free agent acquisition been one of the best edge defenders in the league thus far this season and he’s been a big part of why the Packers have been so good defensively this year, so it would definitely hurt the Packers if he couldn’t play at full strength. I’m going to leave this as a low confidence pick, even though the Packers are in a great spot.

Green Bay Packers 24 Philadelphia Eagles 17

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -5

Confidence: Low

Detroit Lions at Philadelphia Eagles: 2019 Week 3 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (1-0-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (1-1)

The Eagles are in a tough spot this week. Not only do they have to play again in 4 days on Thursday Night Football, a spot favorites tend to struggle in (55-76 ATS since 2012), but they have to play one of the top teams in the conference, the Green Bay Packers. They could easily not give their best effort this week against the Lions. However, I can’t take the Lions with any confidence because we’re not getting any line value with them. This line has been pushed down to Philadelphia -5, likely because the Eagles will be without wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery, but wide receiver was the one spot the Eagles could afford to have injuries. 

Even without their top-2, the Eagles have a capable trio of Nelson Agholor, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, and Mack Collins and they also still have talented tight end Zach Ertz and possibly talented backup tight end Dallas Goedert, who was able to return to practice on Friday after suffering an injury last week as well. More concerning are the Eagles’ injuries at defensive tackle, where Malik Jackson and Timmy Jernigan have gone down for the season, but even without them I actually have this line calculated at Philadelphia -6.5. 

The Lions have their own injury concerns, with linebacker Jarrad Davis, defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, left tackle Taylor Decker, and cornerback Rashaan Melvin all questionable and the Eagles had one of the deepest rosters in the league coming into the season, so they’re still one of the best teams in the league despite being banged up. I’m taking the Lions because I’m not expecting the Eagles’ best effort in a bad spot, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them cover this spread regardless. Five points is not enough cushion to be confident in Detroit.

Philadelphia Eagles 24 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Detroit +5

Confidence: None

Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 2 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (1-0) at Atlanta Falcons (0-1)

I had relatively high expectations for the Falcons going into the season, as their defense looked likely to be improved with Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen back from injury. Their defense struggled in a week 1 loss in Minnesota, allowing a 44.90% first down rate in a 28-12 defeat. The Falcons didn’t play nearly as badly as the final score suggested, however, as the game swung on a few turnovers. The Falcons only lost the final down rate battle by 1.61%, but they threw two interceptions, lost a fumble, failed to recover two Minnesota fumbles, and had a punt blocked. Turnover margin and fumble recovery rate tend to be highly inconsistent week-to-week, so I think the Falcons are pretty underrated going into this week.

The Eagles are obviously a tough opponent, but I still have this line calculated at Atlanta -1. We’re not getting great value with the Falcons at +2, but I think they have a good shot to win this game outright. We could very easily see a much more focused Falcons team at home in a big measuring stick game against one of the top teams in the conference. This is only a low confidence pick against the spread, but the money line at +115 is worth a small bet.

Atlanta Falcons 30 Philadelphia Eagles 27 Upset Pick +115

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +2

Confidence: Low

Philadelphia Eagles 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 2017 Eagles won the Super Bowl, despite losing quarterback Carson Wentz for the season with a torn ACL, along with other key players like linebacker Jordan Hicks and offensive tackle Jason Peters. The 2018 Eagles dealt with a different level of injuries though and barely made the playoffs at 9-7 as a result. While the Eagles lost several notable players for the season in 2017, they still ranked just 13th in the league with 53.5 adjusted games lost to injury. In 2018, they had the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury, more than doubling their 2017 total with 118.5 adjusted games lost to injury. They fell from 8th in first down rate, 3rd in first down rate allowed, and 5th in first down rate differential in 2017 to 13th, 8th, and 8th respectively in 2018.

Wentz dealt with injuries again, missing the first two games of the season rehabbing from the torn ACL and then missing the final 3 games of the season and playoffs with a back injury, but the Eagles weren’t really much worse with backup Nick Foles in the lineup. In Wentz’s 11 starts, the Eagles had a first down rate of 37.95%, as opposed to 36.04% in 7 starts with Foles under center. Wentz did not look healthy all season, dealing with knee and back issues, while Foles once again proved himself as the most valuable backup quarterback in the league.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, Foles was able to cash in on his value as an unrestricted free agent this off-season, signing a 4-year, 88 million dollar deal to be the starting quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wentz will need to stay healthy in 2019, as they almost definitely will be much worse with Wentz out of the lineup this time around. The Eagles have 2016 undrafted free agent Nate Sudfeld (25 career pass attempts), ex-Browns and Jaguars starter Cody Kessler (6.35 yards per attempt in 12 career starts), and 5th round rookie Clayton Thorson competing for the backup job. Sudfeld is a favorite of the coaching staff and is experienced in the system, while Kessler has starting experience, so they’re probably the two favorites for the job, with Thorson being more of a developmental prospect.

Whoever wins the backup job, Wentz needs to be in top form in 2019 for the Eagles to get back into Super Bowl contention. Wentz was an MVP candidate in 2017 before the injury and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback, but he fell to 14th in 2018 in a season in which he never looked quite right. He’s developing a concerning injury history, especially with how physically he plays the game, but the 2016 2nd overall pick still has the upside to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. If he stays healthy, he should have a strong 4th season in the league in 2019.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Another key injury for the Eagles was the torn ACL that ended running back Jay Ajayi’s season after 4 games. In his absence, Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood, and Corey Clement all had underwhelming and short lived runs as the lead back and the Eagles finished just 30th in the NFL in yards with carry with 3.94. Ajayi is still unsigned as a free agent as he rehabs from his injury, but the Eagles seem to have moved on, trading for ex-Bears starter Jordan Howard and using a 2nd round pick on Penn State’s Miles Sanders.

As the veteran, Howard will likely get the first crack at the lead back job. Howard had an impressive rookie year in 2016, averaging 5.21 yards per carry on 252 carries, but he dropped to 4.07 yards per carry in 2017 and 3.75 yards per carry in 2018. He’s proven he can carry a load, with 200+ carries in 3 straight seasons, and he’s worth a shot at the price of a 2020 6th round pick and a 2.025 million dollar salary. Perhaps he can find his early career form again in 2019.

Miles Sanders was added through the draft as insurance. Sanders was only a one year starter at Penn State, barely playing behind Saquon Barkley early in his career, but he averaged 5.79 yards per carry and scored 9 times on 220 carries in that one season and the fact that he comes into the NFL without a lot of tread on his tires might be a good thing. With Howard heading into the final year of his rookie deal, Sanders looks likely to be the feature starter and he figures to at least have a passing down role as a rookie. Howard has averaged just 24 catches per season in 3 seasons in the league, while Sanders showed promise as a passing down back on tape at Penn State. With a pair of new additions at running back, the Eagles should run the ball better in 2019.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Eagles also made additions to their receiving corps this off-season. With only two wide receivers topping 300 yards receiving 2018, the Eagles traded for veteran DeSean Jackson from Tampa Bay and used a 2nd round pick on Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Whiteside figures to be the 4th receiver and was drafted more as a long-term replacement for contract year wide receiver Nelson Agholor than as an immediate contributor, but DeSean Jackson looks likely to start with Agholor and Alshon Jeffery in 3 wide receiver sets.

Alshon Jeffery is likely to remain the #1 wide receiver, after posting a 65/843/6 slash line in 13 games in 2018. He’s averaged a 67/969/6 slash line over the past 6 seasons and, though he hasn’t topped 1000 yards since 2014, he’s still in his age 29 season and should have at least a couple more solid seasons left in the tank. Jeffery has been Carson Wentz’s favorite wide receiver target when both have been on the field together, but DeSean Jackson could challenge him for that in 2019.

Jackson is going into his age 33 season and has had injury problems, missing 14 games in the past 5 seasons, but he’s topped 1000 yards in his last 2 seasons with at least 15 games (2014 and 2016) and he was on a 1000+ yard pace last season through 12 games (41/774/4 slash line) before getting injured. He’ll probably miss a couple games again in 2019, but as long as his abilities don’t fall off a cliff he should be a valuable deep threat for this offense. His 17.7 yard per catch average is highest over the past 10 seasons among all pass catchers with at least 100 receptions over that time period.

Nelson Agholor will also have a role as the #3 wide receiver, lining up primarily on the slot. The 2015 1st round pick has shed the bust label, after his career started with just 59 catches in 2 seasons in the league, but his 62/768/8 and 64/736/4 slash lines from the past two seasons are underwhelming for a former first round pick. He’ll struggled to post big numbers in a crowded receiving corps in 2019 and he could be traded if they get a good offer or if Arcega-Whiteside has a strong off-season. His salary (9.387 million) is cost prohibitive for a 3rd receiver and he’s in the final year of his contract.

The Eagles’ tight ends will also be heavily involved in this passing game. Zach Ertz is coming off of a career best 116/1163/8 slash line and though he’s unlikely to match those totals in a more crowded receiving corps, he’s topped at least 700 yards receiving in 5 straight seasons and has been a top-8 overall tight end on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons in the league. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Ertz could easily be the Eagles’ top target again in 2018, but the 156 targets (6th in the NFL) he had in 2018 seems unlikely.

#2 tight end Dallas Goedert will also have a role. He showed a lot of promise as a 2nd round rookie in 2018, posting a 33/334/4 slash line on 44 targets, blocking well, and overall finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked tight end on 523 snaps. It’s hard to see how his role could grow much in 2019 without an injury to Ertz, but he’s arguably the best #2 tight end in the league. This is a very deep receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Not much has changed for the Eagles on the offensive line, as they bring back everyone who made a start for them on the offensive line in 2018. Guard is the only position of uncertainty. At left guard, Stefen Wisniewski (7 starts in 2018) and Isaac Seumalo (9 starts in 2018) will compete for the starting job, while right guard Brandon Brooks is questionable for the start of the season after tearing his achilles in January during the playoffs.

Wisniewski is by far the more experienced of the two competing at left guard, with 101 career starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he struggled last season and is now going into his age 30 season. The Eagles released him this off-season ahead of a non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary and brought him back for 1.5 million, suggesting they don’t view him as a starter. Seumalo, meanwhile, has just 15 career starts since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016, but he outperformed Wisniewski in 2018, earning an average grade from Pro Football Focus on 548 snaps.

If Brooks isn’t ready for the start of the season, it’s very possible Wisniewski and Seumalo could both start week 1, as the Eagles lack a proven backup right guard. Brooks had made 90 starts in the past 6 seasons and has finished in the top-11 among guards on PFF in 5 of those 6 seasons, so the Eagles are obviously hoping he can make it back to full strength by week 1, but that could be tough less than 8 months removed from an injury that can sometimes take a year to recover from fully. He’s also in his age 30 season now, so his best days might be behind him.

The Eagles did draft an offensive lineman in the first round, trading up to take Washington State’s Andre Dillard 22nd overall, but he’s expected to be the swing tackle as a rookie. With left tackle Jason Peters going into an age 37 contract year and dealing with several nagging injuries last season, Dillard’s time will come sooner or later, but the Eagles are hoping that Peters can hold down the fort on the blindside again in 2019. He’s made 182 starts in 15 seasons in the league and was PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle as recently in 2016, but he was noticeably worse in 2018, after missing most of 2017 with a torn ACL.

Lane Johnson remains as the starter on the other side at right tackle. He’s made 80 starts in 6 seasons in the league and should continue playing at a high level in his age 29 season in 2019. He’s finished in the top-23 among offensive tackles on PFF in 5 straight seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 11th. He was originally drafted 4th overall in 2013 to eventually take over for Peters on the left side, but Peters has played longer than expected and the addition of Dillard in the first round suggests they plan on keeping Johnson at right tackle where he’s most comfortable long-term. That’s probably a smart move as moving him to left tackle when Peters is gone is a move that risks downgrading both left and right tackle.

Center Jason Kelce rounds out this line. He’s also coming off of a strong year, finishing #1 among centers on PFF and making all 16 starts. That’s pretty impressive, considering he was dealing with knee, elbow, and foot injuries for most of the second half of the season. Kelce hasn’t missed a game since 2014 and has finished in the top-5 of centers on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons, but he’s going into his age 32 season, so he may start to decline and suffer more injuries going forward. Even if that happens, he’ll still be one of the better centers in the league. This should remain one of the top offensive lines in the league.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

The Eagles also have one of the top defensive lines in the league. Veteran defensive ends Michael Bennett (716 snaps) and Chris Long (612 snaps) are no longer with the team, with the former getting sent to New England in a salary dump and the latter opting to retire at age 34, but this is still a deep defensive line. They get defensive end Derek Barnett and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan back from injury and they added defensive end Vinny Curry and defensive tackle Malik Jackson in free agency.

One player many thought the Eagles would lose this off-season was Brandon Graham, but the Eagles got creative, letting other players go and structuring Graham’s 3-year, 40 million dollar deal as a 5-year deal with automatically voiding years to limit his cap hit to 3.5 million in 2019. That cap hit jumps to 13.375 million in 2020 and 16.375 million in 2021 and he’ll have cap hits of 3.375 million in 2022 and 2023 even if he isn’t on the roster anymore, a risky deal for a player going into his age 31 season, but Graham is still playing at a high level and would have been a big loss on this defensive line.

Graham has never had a double digit sack season and has just 39.5 sacks in 7 seasons since 2012, but he gets to the quarterback more than his sack totals suggest, adding 61 hits and 393 hurries on 2,552 pass rush snaps (15.4% pressure rate) over those 7 seasons, and he plays at a high level against the run. Even getting up there in age, Graham was still Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked edge defender in 2018 and even if he starts to decline he should still play at a high level again in 2019.

Coming off of a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the final 10 games and playoffs in 2018, Derek Barnett is expected to be the other starting defensive end opposite Graham. After playing just 33.7 snaps per game as a rookie, the 2017 1st round pick started all 6 games he played in 2018 and averaged 39.0 snaps per game, which is 624 snaps over a 16 game season. If he stays healthy in 2019, he could easily see a snap total similar to or higher than that. Still only in his age 23 season, Barnett has shown a lot of promise thus far in 2 seasons in the league and could easily have a breakout 3rd season.

Free agent addition Vinny Curry will probably be the top reserve and have a significant rotational role. It’s a homecoming for Curry, who spent the first 7 seasons of his career in Philadelphia, before going to Tampa Bay on a 3-year, 23 million dollar deal last off-season. Curry struggled in Tampa Bay, leading to him getting released after just 1 year and 6.5 million, but he could prove to be a steal for the Eagles on a 1-year deal worth just 2.25 million. Curry’s age is a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he has a career 12.2% pressure rate and even in his 3-sack 2017 season he added 17 hits and 27 hurries on 367 pass rush snaps, giving him an impressive 12.8% pressure rate. He was PFF’s 91st ranked edge defender out of 113 qualifying in 2018, but could easily bounce back in a rotational role in 2019.

The Eagles also have high upside reserves in Josh Sweat and Shareef Miller, who were 4th round picks in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Sweat played just 68 snaps as a rookie, so neither has much experience, but there’s opportunity for at least one of them to play a significant role, given how much the Eagles like rotating defensive linemen. This looks like a very deep group, even with Michael Bennett and Chris Long both gone.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Eagles were not nearly as deep at defensive tackle as they were at defensive end last season, with Haloti Ngata, Treyvon Hester, and Destiny Vaeao all forced into playing more than the Eagles would have liked because expected starter Timmy Jernigan missed all but 45 snaps with a back injury. Jernigan’s injury problems led to the Eagles releasing Jernigan just 1 year and 13 million into a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension, but the Eagles eventually brought him back on a one-year deal at a much cheaper salary (11 million vs. 2 million) and if he’s healthy he should compete for a starting role. Prior to his injury plagued 2018 season, Jernigan earned average or better grades from Pro Football Focus in each of the first 4 seasons in the league on an average of 491 snaps per season. Only in his age 27 season, Jernigan has bounce back potential if he’s healthy.

Jernigan will compete for snaps with free agent acquisition Malik Jackson, who signed a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Jackson was once one of the better interior defensive linemen in the league, finishing in the top-32 among interior defenders on PFF in 5 straight seasons through 2017 and earning a 6-year, 85.5 million dollar deal from the Jaguars three off-seasons ago, but he had just an average season in 2018 and was released by the cap strapped Jaguars ahead of a 13 million dollar non-guaranteed salary.

Jackson is only going into his age 29 season, so he has a good chance to bounce back in 2019 and could be a good value for the Eagles at a cheaper rate. Even in his down 2018 season, he was still an effective pass rusher, with 3.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 38 hurries on 413 pass rush snaps (12.2% pressure rate). Rushing the passer will likely be his primary role with the Eagles, as Jernigan is a better run stuffer than pass rusher. Both players are capable of playing every down though and regardless of who ends up starting both should see a significant role.

As much as the Eagles like rotating their defensive linemen, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is a true every down player because he’s just too good to take off the field. He played 79.8% of the Eagles’ defensive snaps in 2018 (51.9 snaps per game). With more talent at the position, the Eagles may scale his snaps back closer to the 46.0 snaps per game he averaged from 2016-2017, but he’s one of the best defensive linemen in the entire league and he’s shown he can hold up on a huge snap count, so he won’t be getting too many breathers.

Cox has finished in the top-7 among interior defenders on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons and is coming off of a dominant 2018 season in which he was arguably the best defensive lineman in the league other than Aaron Donald. He had 10.5 sacks, 24 hits, and 60 hurries on 598 pass rush snaps, a ridiculous 15.8% pressure rate that only trailed Aaron Donald (18.2%) among interior defenders. Still only in his age 29 season with just 3 games missed to injury in his 8-year career, I see no reason to expect a drop off from him in 2019. He’ll have a lot more help inside this year too.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Eagles’ biggest off-season loss was middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked off ball linebacker in 2018. Hicks was one of many Eagles to miss time with injury last season, missing 4 games with a calf injury, and he’s missed a total of 21 games in 4 seasons in the league, so the cap strapped Eagles let him sign with the Cardinals on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal. His likely replacement will be ex-Redskin Zach Brown, who comes over on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal.

At that price, Brown could prove to be a steal, given his run stopping ability (6th among off ball linebackers on PFF in run stopping grade in 2018 and 13th in 2017), but he’s not nearly the same player Hicks is in coverage and would be best as a pure base package player, especially now that he’s going into his age 30 season. His main competition will be fellow free agent signing LJ Fort, who comes from Pittsburgh on a 3-year, 5.5 million dollar deal. Fort was primarily a special teams player before 2018, when he was forced into action on defense and flashed on a career high 305 snaps. Fort is already in his age 29 season, but could prove to be a late bloomer. He could also struggle in a larger role and the 2012 undrafted free agent is highly unproven, but his contract suggests he’ll compete for a role on defense.

Fort could also see action at one of the outside linebacker spots in base packages. Kamu Grugier-Hill played that base package linebacker role last season (330 snaps) and the 2016 6th round pick played well enough in the first significant action of his career in 2018 that he could easily keep that job in 2019. Nathan Gerry, a 2017 5th round pick, could also be in the mix, but he’s played just 157 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and is not a lock for the final roster.

Nigel Bradham remains as an every down player, after playing 920 snaps in 15 games last season. Bradham has earned average or better grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons (46 starts) and is equally good against the run as he is in coverage. Even going into his age 30 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue being a useful every down outside linebacker for at least another couple seasons. He’s now their top linebacker without Jordan Hicks, whose absence will be felt.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The group on this team that was hit hardest by injury in 2018 was the secondary, especially at cornerback. The Eagles had 6 players that played more than 321 snaps at cornerback, but none of them played more than 543 snaps and only Rasul Douglas, who began the season 5th on the depth chart, played more than 10 games. Ronald Darby was their top cornerback, but he tore his ACL and missed the final 7 games of the regular season and the post-season. The one good thing about that for the Eagles is that Darby’s injury limited his market in free agency, which allowed them to keep him on a relatively inexpensive one-year, 6.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season.

Darby should be back for week 1 and could cash in on a multi-year deal as a free agent next off-season if he continues playing like he has when healthy. He’s earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, with his best seasons coming in 2015 (13th among cornerbacks on PFF) and 2017 (17th), but he’s also missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons. He’ll probably give them more in 2019 than he did 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Despite starting the season 5th on the depth chart, Rasul Douglas finished with the 2nd highest PFF grade by an Eagles cornerback in 2018. Douglas has played just 967 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he’s played pretty well and the 2017 3rd round pick has plenty of upside. He’ll compete for a role outside and could have a breakout 3rd season in the league if he can lock down a starting role. Douglas will have plenty of competition for a starting role though, with his biggest competition being Jalen Mills and Avonte Maddox.

Mills made 24 straight starts outside before missing the final 8 games of last season with a foot injury and was a capable starter in 2017, but he struggled in 2018 before going down and also had a terrible rookie season in 2016. This defense was better down the stretch with Douglas starting over Mills, so the Eagles might opt to keep Douglas as a starter ahead of Mills. Maddox also played pretty well down the stretch at cornerback, after the 2018 4th round pick struggled out of position at safety earlier in the season. Maddox has the versatility to play the slot as well, so he’ll probably have a role on this defense even if he doesn’t win the starting outside cornerback job.

Sidney Jones is also in the mix to be the slot cornerback. Jones likely would have been a top-15 pick in 2017 if he didn’t tear his achilles in the pre-draft process and the Eagles took him 43rd overall hoping to get a steal if he could get healthy and stay healthy. That hasn’t been the case thus far. He was limited to just 43 snaps as a rookie, which was predictable given the achilles tear, but the Eagles had high expectations for him in his 2nd season in the league in 2018 and he disappointed.

Jones dealt with a hamstring injury for most of the season, playing 321 snaps in 9 games and finishing as PFF’s 127th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifying. Still only going into his age 23 season, Jones still has upside if he can stay healthy and he can play outside in addition to the slot, but, given the Eagles’ depth at the cornerback position, he’ll likely need a strong off-season to get back into the good graces of the coaching staff. Cre’Von LeBlanc is also in the mix for the slot job after he flashed on 352 snaps in that role down the stretch last season, but the 2016 undrafted free agent and career journeyman isn’t a lock for the final roster in a deep group.

Safety is a deep group too. The Eagles had depth problems at safety in 2018 when Rodney McLeod and replacement Corey Graham missed 13 games and 3 games to injury respectively, but McLeod is expected to return healthy for 2019 and will return to his starting role opposite Malcolm Jenkins and the Eagles added veteran Andrew Sendejo in free agency to be an upgrade over Graham as the 3rd safety. Sendejo has been a capable starter in recent years, making 58 starts in the past 6 seasons, so he’s good insurance to have. The Eagles could also use 3 safeties frequently in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at linebacker. Both Sendejo and Malcolm Jenkins have experience lining up in the linebacker spot in obvious passing situations.

The only concern with Sendejo is his age (going into his age 32 season) and his injury history (19 games missed in the past 4 seasons). Otherwise, he should be an excellent addition as the 3rd safety on 1-year, 1.3 million dollar deal. Jenkins is also getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season as well, but he’s been very durable in recent years, not missing a game in 5 seasons. He’s also finished in the top-28 among safeties on PFF in all 5 of those seasons, so even if he starts to decline in 2019 he should have another couple solid seasons left in the tank at the very least.

With Jenkins and Sendejo working closer to the line of scrimmage, McLeod will reprise his role as the deep safety, after a knee injury cost him the final 13 games of the 2018 season. McLeod earned above average grades from PFF in 4 straight seasons prior to last year’s injury and he’s still only in his age 29 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential if healthy. As long as this secondary stays healthier than they did in 2018, which they should be able to do by default, this is a deep group with a lot of upside.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Eagles’ chances to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2018 were derailed by injury, but this is still one of the strongest rosters in the NFL and has a lot of the same starters and key contributors as their Super Bowl team in 2017. If we assume an average amount of injuries for them in 2019, they should be right back in contention, although that obviously assumes those injuries don’t knock out key players like quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles have gone on playoff runs without Wentz in the past two seasons, but backup quarterback Nick Foles is now in Jacksonville and any of his potential replacements would be a steep downgrade from Wentz if forced into action.

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in NFC East