Philadelphia Eagles

What can we expect from Eagles' reconstructed defense?

The Eagles have new starters at six spots this year

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The starting linebackers were Kyzir White and T.J. Edwards. Gone.

The starting safeties were Marcus Epps and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Gone.

The starting interior linemen were Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox. One gone, one now a rotational piece.

The Eagles have new starters at six spots this year, with only corners Darius Slay, James Bradberry and Avonte Maddox and edge rushers Josh Sweat and Haason Reddick still among the projected starters from last year’s opening-day lineup.

Factor in Linval Joseph, who started eight games, and Josiah Scott, who started four, and seven of the 15 guys who started at least four games for the NFL’s No. 2 defense a year ago are no longer on the roster (or practice squad).

Add in a new defensive coordinator in Sean Desai, a new secondary coach in D.K. McDonald and a new linebackers coach in D.J. Elliott – and a few other new defensive coaches (Matt Patricia, Taver Johnson, Ronell Williams) – and you’ve got truly wholesale changes on the defensive side of the ball.

How will it all come together? We’ll see in two days. But the players and coaches seem confident that the time they’ve spent together since the spring and the work they’ve put in will pay off as they try to mold all these new parts into a single cohesive unit.

“The key was really harping on the connection piece,” Nakobe Dean said. “Coach Desai last week, he had set something up before we went on a little extended weekend break where we all went out and played Ping-Pong together. So doing little things like that, that helps build the connection with each other. That kind of thing 100 percent helps.”

Jalen Carter is the one new piece up front, but the real changes are in the back seven, where communication is critical and one breakdown can wreck a play.

Reed Blankenship is one new safety and the second new safety will be either Terrell Edmunds or Justin Evans or a combination of both. Dean isn’t new here, but he only played 34 defensive snaps last year, and the other starting linebacker, Zach Cunningham, didn’t even get here until two weeks into training camp.

“Yeah, we lost some guys here and there, but we're the type of team that we accept anybody with open arms,” Blankenship said. “It was good seeing all these new guys just come together and just letting their personality show. They don't have to change who they are. 

“I pretty much love everybody that came in here. They're great players, they came in ready to work, and I'm ready to roll with them. Obviously you're going to have stuff come up here and there, but overall I feel like it came together pretty easy. It goes back to them, their personalities, and the way they love football.”

Avonte Maddox, who goes into his sixth year with the Eagles, pointed out that the type of wholesale changes like the Eagles are going through on defense only work with smart players who know how to study and learn and have a genuine understanding of the game.

“Howie's always been good at bringing in smart guys,” Maddox said. “I think that really makes a big difference.  

“You look around and everyone's talented. Everyone's fast. Everyone's big, for the most part, but what separates yourself is the mental part and how much you know and how much you can recognize things and how fast you can react. He does a great job of bringing you guys who are able to react and play fast.

“We’ve got a lot of smart players. So therefore, I mean, Nakobe, he's been at it since last year. So he's stepping in, he was always smart, he knew where to be. Zach coming in, he’s played a lot of football, he just knew how to be with the line members. We got ‘rell (Edmunds) and Justin, they’ve played a lot of ball, they came in and picked it up. And Reed was here last year, he was doing it from the get-go.” 

Adding to the equation was the addition of Desai, who had to come in and learn the personnel and then start teaching them his scheme.

Last season may not have ended the way the Eagles wanted, but the Eagles had an exceptional defense - No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense, No. 1 in sacks, No. 2 in scoring defense, No. 6 in interceptions per pass attempt, No. 4 in takeaways and No. 1 in yards allowed per play.

The heart of this defense is the defensive line, and although the Eagles lost Hargrave, they added Jalen Carter and return Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, Haason Reddick, Milton Williams and Jordan Davis, although Cox and Graham will presumably be in lesser roles.

The changes were in the back end and we’ll start to learn Sunday how well this newly constructed group will hold up. 

“I'm really proud of the way we've jelled and we've connected really well and put all those pieces together,” Desai said. “Really, we've been working to overcome all those challenges for the last six months, through the offseason and through training camp. So we feel like we're in a good spot and have a really good foundation that we're going to keep building off of.” 

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