Eagles Post-OTA Competition Update: The Defensive Edition

There are plenty of question marks for Jonathan Gannon, especially in the back seven
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PHILADELPHIA - If there is one thing Nick Sirianni has built his foundation on as a rookie head coach, it's been competition and now that the Eagles' on-field spring work is complete this seems like a good time to update you on the positions which haven't been locked down.

On Wednesday we took a look at the offensive side of the football and now it's time for the defense:

HYBRID RUSHER: Ryan Kerrigan vs. Genard Avery vs. Joe Ostman vs. Patrick Johnson

Leader in the clubhouse: Kerrigan

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

That question is a time-tested philosophical experiment to raise questions about observation and perception. How does it relate to football and the Eagles?

Technically, we don't even know if a hybrid rusher competition exists but there's ample evidence that Jonathan Gannon wants that kind of player for his defense.

The circumstantial evidence is the murkiness with Genard Avery, who claimed the new defensive coaching staff was moving him to linebacker, though the official roster still lists him as a defensive end.

Then there was the drafting of Patrick Johnson in the seventh round, an edge rusher at Tulane who was drafted as an OLB.

Meanwhile, in the short periods of OTAs open to the media, the LBs would split into two groups, the off-ball guys like Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton and what certainly seemed like a hybrid rush group with Avery, Johnson, and Joe Ostman.

The final piece of the puzzle is Ryan Kerrigan, the veteran edge rusher who was signed late in the process.

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Kerrigan was vague to the local media about his potential role but opened up a bit to Chris Russell, a long-time reporter who has covered Kerrigan and the Washington Football Team for its flagship radio station, 106.7 The Fan.

"I just had [Kerrigan] on my radio show a couple of weeks ago right after he signed with Philadelphia and he told me he was really intrigued by what the new defensive coordinator and system that they're setting up there in Philadelphia," Russell told SI.com's Eagle Maven on BIRDS 365.

Kerrigan is going to be used in multiple roles, according to Russell.

"[The scheme] is going to allow him to not only be a 4-3 end at times but also maybe work in some principles of the 3-4 edge and maybe kick down inside in nickel like closer to the football, over the center," Kerrigan told Russell.

LB2: Alex Singleton vs. the field

Leader in the clubhouse: Singleton

-The Eagles' base defense under Gannon is expected to be a 4-2-5 with two linebackers being close to three-down players. Free-agent signing Eric Wilson is expected to be the guy in the room due to both his history with Gannon and LB coach Nick Rallis as well as his emergence as a playmaker with the Vikings last season when he was an injury replacement for Anthony Barr.

After that ,Singleton is trying to hold off a host of younger but more athletic options like second-year players Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley as well as rookie-hybrid JaCoby Stevens.

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The Eagles would likely prefer more athletic options, which would probably pigeonhole T.J. Edwards to the MIKE LB in 4-3 looks and short-yardage work.

"You add Eric Wilson whether I worked with him or not, he adds value to your team because he’s talented, he loves football, he works hard, and I’ve seen Eric really project into a great leader since being here," said Rallis. "Back in Minnesota, he was in a room where he had some older guys with him and he definitely led by example, but he was the younger guy.

Eagles LB Eric Wilson

Eagles LB Eric Wilson

"So, now coming in he’s actually one of our older linebackers. He’s done a phenomenal job of taking guys along and helping lead and showing them, hey this is how we work, this is how we study, and so on. He’s been huge outside of what he’s been able to do on the field just from a leadership standpoint. He’s always in the building, he’s working hard, he just sets the tone not just for the linebackers, not just the defense, but the entire team."

CB2: Avonte Maddox vs. Zech McPhearson vs. Mike Jacquet

Leader in the clubhouse: Someone not yet in the clubhouse

-If the Eagles were forced to play a game on June 17 and fortunately they will not be, Avonte Maddox would likely be the starter outside after failing at that very opportunity last season.

When Gannon is in what's expected to be his base defense of the nickel Maddox would then slide inside with either Jacquet or McPhearson, a fourth-round draft pick out of Texas Tech, stepping in. The other option would be trade-pickup Josiah Scott stepping into the slot with Maddox staying outside.

Avonte Maddox on May 25, 2021

Eagles DB Avonte Maddox

"He’s tough, he plays fast, he’s physical. He loves to compete," secondary coach Dennard Wilson said of Maddox. "He’s had success playing out at corner, playing safety, playing nickel position. For us, going forward, as we start developing and go out on the field, we’re going to put him in the best position to help us win. So whatever position that turns out to be, it’s our job to get him to play at a high level at that position and try to keep it consistent."

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The assumption is that the Eagles will bring in a veteran outside CB to help out at some point and Steven Nelson is still on the open market as the Eagles play the waiting game.

For what it's worth, the Jacquet, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Louisiana in 2020 who was a former WR, seemed to have a leg up in OTAs.

FS: Rodney McLeod vs. ACL surgery vs. Avonte Maddox vs. K'Von Wallace vs. Marcus Epps

Leader in the clubhouse: Epps

There is no competition here if McLeod is healthy and the veteran was on the field doing some light work in the spring buy you also have to be realistic and understand the graft from ACL surgery needs a certain amount of time to heal.

McLeod injured his knee on Dec. 13 against New Orleans and had surgery shortly thereafter. Week 1 would be at right about nine months, the recommended timeframe for an ACL recovery but one that would also likely mean McLeod will not be cleared for contact throughout training camp and preseason, making that goal at least somewhat tenuous.

"[Week 1] is my goal," said McLeod. "I want to be available for my team. Not only for a game but for all 17. That's my motivation. I have all intentions to be there Week 1."

If McLeod can't reach his goal a fill-in will be needed for the short term. Considering that Gannon is expected to utilize a lot of Cover-2 and Cover-3 to protect his cornerbacks, that fill-in gig should be Epps' job to lose in August.

Maddox is probably the best option but he will be needed at cornerback while Epps has a history with Mike Zimmer's defense that is sort of the template for Gannon and is a center fielder when compared with Wallace, whose theoretical strength is in the box.

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John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.