Breaking down 2023 Eagles’ defense after initial free agency flurry

Breaking down 2023 Eagles’ defense after initial free agency flurry originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Free agency isn’t over, the NFL draft won’t happen for another month and the Eagles aren’t done building their roster for the 2023 season.

But after the initial flurry of free agency, it’s time to take a step back and look at what the Eagles have on their roster heading into draft season.

We’re looking at the Eagles’ roster position-by-position. We started with the offense yesterday. Today, we’ll look at the defense.

Defensive line: Haason Reddick, Fletcher Cox, Jordan Davis, Milton Williams, Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Janarius Robinson, Marlon Tuipulotu, Marvin Wilson, Patrick Johnson, Kyron Johnson, Tarron Jackson, Matt Leo, Noah Elliss

Additions: None
Subtractions: Javon Hargrave, Linval Joseph, Ndamukong Suh, Robert Quinn
Staying: Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham

Outlook: They Eagles probably wanted to bring Hargrave back but he got a four-year, $84 million deal from the 49ers and the Eagles just couldn’t do that. They entered free agency knowing it was very likely Hargrave would move on. That’s a big loss. Hargrave is one of the best pass rushing interior defensive linemen in the NFL and even at 30 years old is still in his prime.

But the two biggest moves the Eagles made were retaining Cox and Graham on one-year deals. Both are over 30 but played well in 2022. Cox’s one-year deal for $10 million might seem like an overpay but after losing Hargrave, it makes some sense. That’s pretty much the going rate for defensive tackles these days and it actually leaves Cox out of the top 20 in the NFL at his position. Graham is also being paid less than market value. He had 11 sacks last season and is back on a one-year deal worth $5 million. Cox is projected as a starter in 2023, while Graham is an important rotational piece.

Joseph, Suh and Quinn remain unsigned. All three veteran free agents might be done playing but when you look at those three names and Hargrave, you realize the Eagles are going to be lacking some depth entering this next season. One of their top rotational players from 2022, Milton Williams, now projects as a starter. The Eagles will also get Barnett back from an ACL tear but we’ll have to wait and see how much he’ll help.

Are they done at the position?

Never. We said the same thing for offensive line because the Eagles build through the trenches unapologetically. But defensive line is even more of a need. Like we just mentioned, the Eagles need depth. They have more of a need on the interior but drafting either a tackle or an edge player in an early round next month wouldn’t just make sense … it would fit the philosophy of the team.

Linebacker: Nakobe Dean, Nicholas Morrow, Christian Elliss, Shaun Bradley, Davion Taylor

Additions: Nicholas Morrow
Subtractions: T.J. Edwards, Kyzir White

Outlook: Edwards went to Chicago and White went to Arizona, leaving the Eagles without their two starting off-ball linebackers from the 2022 season. Those are losses but it would have been more surprising if the Eagles used their money to extend good-not-great linebackers. But now they will have to replace them.

The top replacement is Dean, the third-round pick from 2022. While the Eagles might still be very bullish on the Georgia linebacker, we didn’t see him play very much as a rookie. This position group really hinges on Dean’s readiness to be an NFL starter. Right now, it looks like the starters would be Dean at the MIKE and the newcomer Morrow at the WILL. The Eagles could probably sneak by with that but there’s a reason the Bears moved on from Morrow and signed two outside free agents.

Are they done at the position?

Probably not. Like we just mentioned, the Eagles could get by with Dean and Morrow. But even if they do, that leaves some shaky depth behind them. At least in 2022, the Eagles had Dean as a backup. But now that he’s likely promoted to a starting role, it leaves Elliss, Bradley and Taylor on the bench. At the very least, the Eagles will need some more bodies to compete for jobs at training camp. The Eagles can grab a linebacker in the draft or sign a couple undrafted prospects. There are some presumably cheap options in free agency still remaining too.

Cornerback: Darius Slay, James Bradberry, Avonte Maddox, Greedy Williams, Zech McPhearson, Josh Jobe, Mario Goodrich, Tristin McCollum

Additions: Greedy Williams
Subtractions: None
Staying: James Bradberry, Darius Slay

Outlook: For a while, it looked like the Eagles might lose Slay and Bradberry. Instead, they figured out a way to keep both of them on three-year deals that can really turn into two-year deals. The Eagles still have Maddox as their nickel. So the Eagles have their really strong starting trio for at least the next two seasons.

They also added Williams on a really cheap low-risk, high-reward move. The former second-rounder will likely battle it out against Zech McPhearson for that top backup corner position behind Slay and Bradberry.

Are they done at the position?

We’ll see. While the Eagles are in a really good spot for 2023, both of their starting outside cornerbacks are over 30 and it’s probably time to start thinking about replacements. And as well as Maddox has performed as the nickel, he suffered several injuries last year and missed significant time. The Eagles haven’t drafted a cornerback in the first round since 2002 and maybe that won’t change this year. But they might have some intriguing options in a draft class that is supposedly very good at that position.

Safety: Terrell Edmunds, Reed Blankenship, K’Von Wallace, Justin Evans, Andre Chachere

Additions: Terrell Edmunds, Justin Evans
Subtractions: C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Marcus Epps

Outlook: Like linebacker, the Eagles lost both of their starters in free agency. Epps went to the Raiders and CJGJ went to the Lions. The loss of Gardner-Johnson was the significant one because it looked like the Eagles initially prioritized bringing him back and it ended up not working out. That would have left the Eagles with a starting duo of Blankenship and Wallace.

But then on Friday, the Birds agreed to terms with Edmunds, who is a former first-round pick from Pittsburgh who has started 75 games in his five-year career. So we could be looking at a starting duo of Edmunds and Blankenship in 2023.

Are they done at the position?

Before the Edmunds signing, my answer to this question was "heck no." But adding Edmunds fills the biggest glaring hole on the roster. The Eagles are likely done adding in free agency (at least major pieces) but there's a chance they use a draft pick on a safety and could sign one after the draft too.

Specialists: Jake Elliott, Arryn Siposs, Rick Lovato

Outlook: The Eagles have all three specialists under contract for the 2023 season. There were some lists out there that put Lovato in the free agent category but he’s entering the final year of the three-year deal he signed in 2021. There are generally no complaints about Lovato or Elliott, who has been one of the better kickers in the NFL. Elliott last season made 20 of 23 field goal attempts and 5 of 6 from 50+ and then he made 4 of 4 in the playoffs. Elliott is 15 for 15 in his postseason career.

Are they done at these positions?

It depends. Siposs definitely improved in 2022, his second as the Eagles’ starter. His yards-per-punt went from 43.9 to 45.6 and his net average went from 38.7 to 39.5. And he was clearly better than Brett Kern, whom the Eagles signed to fill in for Siposs when he was out with injury.

But Siposs ranked 26th in the NFL in average and 30th in net average in 2022. And his 38-yard punt in the Super Bowl was returned 65 yards to lead to a Chiefs touchdown in the fourth quarter. Some fans are clamoring for a replacement and it’s possible. But the Eagles also elected to bring back Siposs after a worse year in 2021, citing the importance of continuity with the three specialists. So we’ll see which direction they go.

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