Eagles analysis

Biggest Eagles questions by position: Defense

Looking at the biggest Eagles questions by position on the defensive side of the ball in 2024.

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As we continue to march through the dead period of the NFL schedule, we’re going over the biggest questions the Eagles are facing at each position.

Yesterday, we went through the positions on offense.

Today, we’ll take a look at Vic Fangio’s defense:

Defensive tackle: Are the Georgia guys ready to step up?

The Eagles lost two all-timers this offseason when Jason Kelce and Fletcher Cox retired. While Kelce’s retirement stole most of the headlines, losing Cox won’t be easy for the Eagles to get over either. And it’s going to put a ton of pressure on Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis.

The Eagles traded up to draft Davis with the No. 13 pick in the 2022 draft and traded up to draft Carter with the No. 9 pick in the 2023 draft. Now it’s time for the Georgie Bulldogs teammates to hold down the middle of the Eagles’ defense in 2024 and beyond.

Both players started off last season hot but fell off in the second half. As Davis said during the spring, no one is coming to save them this year. It’s on these young Bulldogs to make something happen in 2024. And it’ll start with both of them being in incredible shape this summer. They need to then carry that conditioning level through the regular season as well.

Aside from Davis and Carter, the Eagles also bring back Milton Williams, Marlon Tuipulotu and Moro Ojomo in 2024. That’s not a bad group but the Eagles aren’t as deep at DT as they have bee in past years. This is a position where a late-stage veteran addition might make some sense.

Edge rusher: Are Eagles ready to replace Haason Reddick’s production?

The Eagles have talent and depth on the edge but also face a bunch of questions with this group that includes Josh Sweat, Bryce Huff, Brandon Graham and Nolan Smith. It won’t be easy to replace Haason Reddick’s production over the last two years. He was a proven player on the edge.

Sweat and Graham have been mainstays of the Eagles’ defensive line for years but Sweat is coming off a terrible second half of 2023 and Graham is 36 and entering Year 15 in the NFL. Sweat is going to be a starter and has a lot to prove entering a contract season; he has the chance to earn a big pay day from the Eagles or someone else. Meanwhile, Graham shouldn’t be asked to play that much but can still be a solid contributor.

Huff and Smith have to prove it. Huff has been an effective pass rusher with the Jets the past few years but didn’t have a breakout season in terms of traditional production until his 10-sack season in 2023. Now, he’ll be asked to play way more snaps as a presumed starter in the Eagles’ defense. The Eagles signed him a three-year, $51.1 million deal this offseason and there will be some pressure to live up to that. And Smith had a disappointing rookie season but will hopefully make a jump in Year 2. He showed some flashes as a rookie in training camp but we’ll hopefully see an improved player this summer.

Linebacker: Who is the starter next to Devin White?

While the Eagles didn’t exactly break the bank to sign Devin White, his one-year contract was significant enough that we can mark him down as one of the starters at the linebacker position. White had a pretty good spring and his athleticism showed. Perhaps the Eagles will be able to help him turn around his career after a bad 2023 season in Tampa.

As for that other spot? During the spring, the guy taking most of the first-team reps next to White was Zack Baun, who is more of an off-ball/edge rusher hybrid. When the Eagles signed him, most thought he was going to be a situational edge rusher, not an every-down linebacker. But he didn’t look completely out of place there during minicamp.

Of course, the guy everyone is curious about is Nakobe Dean. The third-year linebacker was supposed to be the Eagles’ MIKE linebacker last season after what was basically a redshirt rookie season but injuries derailed that. This spring, Dean was just getting back on the field and ended up running with the second team. Aside from Baun and Dean, the Eagles also have Oren Burks, Ben VanSumeren and rookie Jeremiah Trotter Jr. all fighting for playing time.

Cornerback: Who wins the CB2 and NCB jobs?

The biggest storyline during spring practices was the play of the Eagles’ cornerback group. This offseason, the Eagles turned a weakness into a strength. While Darius Slay will be a starter on one side, the other outside corner position is open and there are really three candidates who seem to be fighting for that job: Quinyon Mitchell, Kelee Ringo and Isaiah Rodgers.

Mitchell is the No. 22 overall pick and was the top cornerback in the draft but the Eagles aren’t going to let him cut the line. If he’s going to be the starter, Mitchell is going to have to earn it. Ringo had a promising end to his rookie season and seems to have all the tools to be a starter in the league a year after he was drafted in the fourth round. And Rodgers showed no signs of rust this spring after serving a year-long suspension in 2023. He seemed like a long shot before the spring but he’s now firmly in this competition.

And at the nickel corner spot, it’ll likely come down to Avonte Maddox, Cooper DeJean and Tyler Hall. Maddox is the incumbent starter in that spot but injuries have really hampered him throughout his career. Maddox also took reps at safety this spring. DeJean was the No. 40 overall pick and while he has some position versatility, it seems like his best chance to see the field is at nickel. And don’t completely sleep on Hall, who has flown under the radar as a free agent signing but has some experience under his belt over the last few years with the Raiders.

Safety: Will CJGJ be the spark they were missing?

One of the Eagles’ biggest free agent moves this offseason was to bring back C.J. Gardner-Johnson after one year away in Detroit. The Eagles’ defense was missing a lot of elements last season but two big ones were playmaking and swagger. CJGJ figures to bring back both of those.

Remember, Gardner-Johnson didn’t join the Eagles until just before the 2022 season so we haven’t seen him in a training camp practice yet. From what we’ve heard, Gardner-Johnson really brings juice to practice sessions and we started to see that in minicamp.

Special teams: Who are the return men?

The Eagles don’t have any questions with their specialists. Those three — kicker Jake Elliott, punter Braden Mann and long snapper Rick Lovato — are firmly entrenched. And that’s a good thing.

But there are some questions about the returner spots. The top incumbent punt returner is Britain Covey, who was excellent last season. Some have questioned whether or not it’s worth keeping Covey on the roster for just this purpose but it probably is.

It’ll be fascinating to see how the Eagles handle the new kickoff rules. They tried a bunch of different combinations back there this spring and that will likely continue this summer. With the new kickoff rules, the return is more like an offensive play these days and strategies will differ across the league.

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