The Eagles planned ahead.
This season, we’ll see that plan come to life.
Because in the first week of free agency, the Eagles lost several key starters. That’s going to hurt. But they also have some key replacements waiting in the wings.
Among those leaving: Javon Hargrave is going to the 49ers on a four-year contract worth $84 million. T.J. Edwards is going to the Bears on a three-year contract worth $19.5 million. And Isaac Seumalo is going to the Steelers on a three-year contract worth $24 million.
The Eagles will miss all three. No doubt.
But their top three picks from the 2022 draft will go a long way in replacing them. Because first-rounder Jordan Davis, second-rounder Cam Jurgens and third-rounder Nakobe Dean didn’t play an awful lot as rookies but they’ll be important pieces of the team moving forward and that starts this coming season.
It’s probably safe to pencil in all three as starters in 2023.
“I think that's part of the exciting thing,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said at this year’s NFL Combine. “When you look at our first three picks last year, Jordan played the most of those guys. Missed some time with injury but those guys are ready to play and they are ready to contribute. We knew when we were drafting them last year we were drafting them because we thought they were the best players, not necessarily because they were the guys ready to fill spots at a position of need.
“So, as we look at our team this year, knowing that those guys can take a step forward and be part of it, and being comfortable with the young players playing and young players that have talent and that have work ethic and get put in that spot. We even saw it this year when we put young players in spots and how they stepped up. I don't think that's something we're afraid of.”
Of course, given the Eagles cap situation and given their long list of pending free agents, it’s not like they really had much of an alternative. They weren’t going to be able to pay all their free agents and knew they were going to rely on younger players going forward.
That will become increasingly important once the Eagles lock up Jalen Hurts to a contract extension we all assume will be massive. Once a quarterback is making that kind of money — we’re talking in the $45-$50+ million per year range — the construction of the roster will be more dependent on cheaper players on rookie contracts.
That starts with Davis, Jurgens and Dean.
Davis, 23, played the most of the trio as a rookie. He ended up playing in 13 games with five starts. Those five starts came consecutively before he suffered a high ankle sprain that sent him to IR in mid-November. That was a shame because it really seemed like Davis was coming on strong before that injury.
During Davis’s stint on IR, the Eagles signed Linval Joseph, who ended up starting at nose tackle in the second half of the season. And even as Davis returned from IR, his ankle injury lingered and his play suffered because of it. But eventually, Davis played more and better down the stretch, setting up an important Year 2 in his NFL career.
It seemed extremely likely that Davis was going to be a starter at nose tackle in 2023 regardless of whether or not Hargrave or Fletcher Cox returned in free agency. The young player with the most to gain from Hargrave’s departure is probably Milton Williams, who will enter Year 3 in 2023 and is in line to start next to Davis in the middle of the Eagles’ defense. But without Hargrave on that line, Davis’s role is more important too.
For now, it looks like Cox (who is back on a one-year deal), Davis and Williams are in line to be starters this season. That’s a solid interior with Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham returning on the edge — and there’s still the draft coming in April.
There were really two outcomes for Jurgens in 2023. Either replace Jason Kelce or play next to him. It looks like the latter.
Because Kelce is returning to the Eagles for his 13th season in 2023. But Seumalo is gone and that leaves a void at the right guard position. While Jurgens was drafted to eventually replace Kelce and played only center on the offensive line at Nebraska, he still seems like the most likely replacement for Seumalo.
Jurgens, 23, was a high school tight end but converted to center early in his time at Nebraska. His last college bio listed him at 290 pounds but he was up to 303 at the Combine last year and the Eagles list him at 6-3, 303. While that weight put him in the 20th percentile among offensive linemen last year, the Eagles require athleticism from their offensive linemen and Jurgens has that. And for those wondering, Seumalo was listed at 6-4, 303.
The initial plan last summer was to have Jurgens cross-train at guard during training camp but that plan was altered when Kelce had a minor elbow surgery and missed a month. Because of that, Jurgens became the first-team center all summer. That was great experience but it did delay his learning guard. But when the season began, Jurgens cross-trained in practice. Although just one of his 35 offensive snaps as a rookie came at right guard.
But the Eagles think Jurgens can play guard in the NFL and having him between Kelce and Lane Johnson seems like an ideal situation.
Then there’s Nakobe Dean. The fact that Edwards is gone seemingly opens the door for Dean to become a starter in the middle of the Eagles’ defense in 2023. The Eagles will have to figure out the other starting spot too after learning that Kyzir White is heading to Arizona as a free agent. But this position starts with Dean.
Dean, 22, played just 34 defensive snaps last year because Edwards and White stayed healthy. But he would have been the next guy in and the Eagles would have felt really comfortable had that happened. It’s just that both of those veterans earned their jobs in training camp and never gave them up.
There’s a reason many people considered Dean to be the steal of the 2022 draft. While he’s undersized at 5-11, 231 pounds, that didn’t seem to matter when he led the vaunted Georgia defense. And with Edwards gone, expect Dean to have that green dot in 2023. It’s a role he seems destined to have.
After watching the Eagles operate in the first week of free agency, they’re definitely trying to run it back to an extent. They have re-signed Kelce and Graham and Cox and James Bradberry and figured out a way to keep Darius Slay. But they just can’t completely run it back. This roster is going to look different.
That’s where these second-year players come in. And the team’s success might hinge on their readiness.
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