Eagles analysis

Eagles mailbag: Thoughts on Nakobe Dean entering 2023

In the latest Eagles mailbag, Dave Zangaro answers questions about Nakobe Dean, Jordan Davis and more.

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It’s officially game week and that’s pretty exciting.

The Eagles will be on the road in Week 1 to face the Patriots in the 2023 season opener on Sunday and we’ll have plenty of coverage leading up to that game. But let’s clean out the rest of the mailbag first.

Part 1.

Part 2.

And here’s Part 3:

Well, that would be very bad. The Eagles don’t have a ton of options. So if Dean doesn’t play well (or if he suffers an injury) you’d see Zach Cunningham and Christian Elliss on the field together. The Eagles also brought back Nicholas Morrow to the practice squad so he’s an option too. Maybe we’d see Nolan Smith get some more snaps at off-ball linebacker but that’s probably not going to be his biggest strength. If Smith can get to the quarterback as an edge player, that’s where his value is.

That’s honestly the easiest part of the question. The Eagles will probably play just two off-ball linebackers most of the time and they have just three on the roster, barring a move.

But let’s talk about Dean a little bit. Because I get it. The 22-year-old basically had a redshirt season in 2022 as a third-round pick. He played just 34 defensive snaps. The Eagles simply rolled with T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White last season, which made some sense. The Eagles were pretty good with those two on the field. But I am still a bit surprised Jonathan Gannon never made a concerted effort to get Dean on the field in any type of role.

And now a year after sitting him on the bench for an entire season, the Eagles never questioned whether or not Dean was ready to become a starting linebacker in Year 2? A bit strange.

But with all that said, I’m not too worried about Dean. Maybe that’s some pre-draft bias in there. I liked him as a prospect coming out of Georgia and I shared the sentiment of many, that he was a heck of a draft steal at No. 83 overall. I mean, this guy was the leader of the best defense in college football.

This summer, Dean missed some time with an ankle injury but returned to play 17 snaps against the Browns in the second preseason game and looked the part. That forced fumble was a great moment and that next week of practice was the best week I have seen from Dean since he’s been here. Not saying Dean is going to be a Pro Bowler in 2023, but I have confidence he’ll be at least a serviceable linebacker this season running that side of the ball.

This speaks to the bigger issue of the Eagles’ defense and it’s a fair question. The Eagles lost some key players from the 2022 defense and they’re all up the middle of that unit. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, linebackers Edwards and White and safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps all left in free agency.

At defensive tackle, the Eagles drafted Hargrave’s replacement in Jalen Carter. It’s unfair to expect Carter to come in and be a Pro Bowler from Day 1 but he was the No. 9 overall pick for a reason.

Part of the weaknesses at linebacker and safety are by design. If the Eagles have to pick and choose where to be stronger and where to be weaker, they’d prefer it like this. The Eagles’ defense still has elite pass rushers and cornerbacks. So if they’re a little weaker at linebacker and safety, it’s not ideal but it’s better than the alternative of being weaker at more premier positions.

At linebacker, I already told you I’m still bullish on Dean. Adding Cunningham in August was a sneaky good move by Howie Roseman. Cunningham came in and earned that starting job, although it’s fair to have some reservations. Cunningham was on the street for a reason. And there’s really not much depth there, even if you love Elliss.

At safety, Reed Blankenship was one of the stars of training camp, which might alleviate some fears. He was legitimately very good all summer. That other spot? We’ll see who’s out there in Week 1 but eventually it’ll belong to Sydney Brown. Very curious to see how long it takes him to earn that gig. With that said, Brown is going to be a fun player but there are likely to be some bumps along the way if he plays early.

One of the biggest fears facing a team coming off a Super Bowl loss is about how they’re going to respond after the physical and mental toll it takes getting that far and losing.

We’ve talked about it a bunch but the thing you have to fight against if you’re Nick Sirianni is anyone who wants to skip steps. There’s a natural inclination to lose the Super Bowl and just want to fast forward to the playoffs. You obviously can’t do that.

Which is why I found it so notable that early in training camp, Sirianni seemed even more animated than usual. On the very first day of practice this summer, there was a period late in the day when the Eagles had several pre-snap penalties and Sirianni snapped. He yelled into his bullhorn and told the Eagles that’s how teams lose games. There were a few blowups like that early in camp.

A couple days later, I asked Sirianni if those early-camp outbursts were a calculated measure.

“No. You know, I’m not doing anything I don’t normally do,” Sirianni said. “Sometimes a correction is made with a smack on the butt, and sometimes a correction is made with getting after them. The art of coaching is figuring out when to do one and when to do the other one. So, I don’t believe I’m any more animated than I normally am. You would have to ask the guys that.”

Yeah … not buying it. This seemed very calculated and it made sense. The No. 1 thing Sirianni should have wanted to fight against was any complacency and he let it be known early that it wouldn’t stand.

Sure, Barnett could still theoretically be traded. But as long as he doesn’t become a problem in the locker room because he wants more playing time, I’m not sure the return would be worth it. Remember, the Eagles traded for Robert Quinn during last season to bolster their pass rush after Barnett was lost for the season. This is a position they care about a ton so having a viable pass rusher with experience already in the building might have more value than whatever Day 3 pick Barnett would bring back. And it’s also worth noting that coming into this season, Haason Reddick is getting over thumb surgery and Nolan Smith has been dealing with a shoulder injury.

I have somehow become the defender of Barnett in recent years because he’s not as bad as many have made him out to be. Not saying he’s a star or even a starting caliber player in the NFL, but he is an NFL player. As for drafting him in a do-over, I’m not sure about that. I get your point about Super Bowl LII. Barnett did recover the fumble after Brandon Graham knocked it free from Tom Brady.

But here’s a reminder of some notable defensive players who went in the first round after Barnett in 2017: Marlon Humphrey, Jonathan Allen, Adoree’ Jackson, Tre’Davious White and T.J. Watt. I mean, we don’t think Watt would have fallen on that ball?

This is a really tricky one. Based on how snaps were divvied up late in training camp, things were trending toward Justin Evans. Eventually, I think the Eagles would like Brown to be a starter but they might feel more comfortable going with a veteran early in the season.

I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization of Jordan Davis’s preseason. Although, it is fair to wonder how much development he’ll show in Year 2. That’s absolutely a fair question. Davis did some nice things early in his rookie season but that high ankle sprain really derailed it. 

The team seemed impressed by Davis’s conditioning this summer and that’s a good sign. The Eagles will expect him to be an elite run-stuffing defensive tackle but I have a hard time imagining he’ll blossom into a great pass rusher in Year 2. There’s still a learning curve there. The good news is that we saw him in more four-man fronts this summer than he played as a rookie. But in pure pass-rushing situations, the Eagles are still going to opt for Fletcher Cox, Jalen Carter and Milton Williams.

If I’m being honest, I’ll probably never forget the brawl against the Colts. Seeing Jason Kelce, in what could have been the last training camp practice of his life, losing his temper and taking out a Colts linebacker from Philly and starting a massive fight is going to be hard to forget. And then Kelce understanding that he screwed up and taking ownership afterward is something I won’t forget either.

Aside from that, it was great to see Rodney McLeod in town with the Browns. Got to catch up with him a bit. One of the more underrated members of the Doug Pederson Era Eagles.

As far as on-field play, this was the best training camp I have ever seen a quarterback have. Jalen Hurts looked every bit like an MVP caliber player all summer. Seeing him work with A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert was special.

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