The Eagles’ defensive line is right there with the offensive line as the presumed strength of the 2021 team, something that should come as no surprise considering the DNA of the organization has been building up on both sides of the line of scrimmage for over two decades now.
Franchise foundation Brandon Graham leads a talented group on the edge that now also includes former Eagles killer Ryan Kerrigan, 32, who signed a one-year, cost-effective deal in the offseason after making four Pro Bowls in Washington.
Maybe the biggest shift, however, is on the sideline where Jim Schwartz, the former defensive coordinator who always called the D-Line “the engine" of his defense, has moved back to Tennessee as a senior defensive assistant after briefly contemplating retirement and has been replaced by Jonathan Gannon, 38, a rising star in the coaching ranks whose background is more secondary-based.
Gannon wants to employ a deep rotation that keeps everyone fresh for those all-important fourth-quarter snaps.
“One of those things is we're going to ask these guys to play extremely hard,” Gannon said. “... To do that, those big guys, you have to rotate them. So, everybody that's up on game day, we feel like we want all those guys to play.
“You never wanted three or four guys to be at 65 snaps and then two or three guys at 10 snaps, and I really learned that from Coach [Matt] Eberflus, [the Colts’ DC]. He would say, ‘Get the horses fresh.’ He wanted those guys that were up. He wanted them rotated. He wanted them fresh. And depending on certain situations, you're going to have some certain guys in there because you're utilizing their strengths, but whoever's up on game day is going to play.”
RDE1 - Derek Barnett, RDE2 Josh Sweat; RDE3 Joe Ostman; RDE 4 Tarron Jackson
LDE1 - Brandon Graham; LDE2 Ryan Kerrigan; LDE3 Matt Leo; LDE4 JaQuan Bailey
Stand-up Rusher: Ryan Kerrigan; Genard Avery; Joe Ostman; Patrick Johnson
WHAT’S CHANGED: From a personnel perspective adding a veteran edge rusher like Kerrigan gives the Eagles a formidable rotation that runs at least four deep with Graham, Derek Barnett, and Josh Sweat.
From a scheme perspective, Gannon and new position coach Tracy Rocker arrive in the stead of Schwartz and Matt Burke. That means you can expect fewer Wide-9 looks replaced with the occasional stand-up rusher, be it over the A-Gaps or on overload looks to one side, something similar to what Gannon’s mentor, Mike Zimmer, likes to employ.
It’s also expected to be a more situationally aware system per Rocker.
“The thing is, is understanding we're going to be an attacking defense. But I think you have to also understand - you have 1,000 words I hear - we got to read and react, we got disruptive, we got this. Well, what about situational football, situational awareness?” the D-Line coach asked rhetorically. “You know, you're not gonna run the red light, you know? Sometimes it's about just about playing a play, understanding where you're located on the field."
The group of Kerrigan, Genard Avery, Joe Ostman, and rookie Patrick Johnson, who was an edge rusher in college at Tulane but listed as a linebacker by the Eagles, were seen at OTAs working together in what would be described as Joker or Leo positions.
“I wanted to get Ryan here a lot,” said Gannon. “The number one reason is the person that he is. … the versatility that he brings and the production that he brings. He's got, what, 95, 96, 97 sacks, I think, in his career. He's a hard guy to block. He's extremely intelligent. I'm looking forward to getting our hands on him and working with him.”
HIGHLIGHT REEL: Graham is now 33 and has somehow morphed from perceived first-round bust to franchise great.
When you talk to opposing offensive coaches the first names they mention when game-planning is either Fletcher Cox or Graham.
Even during a four-win season, Graham still graded out as the 10th best edge rusher in the NFL by ProFootballFocus.com. Over the past nine seasons, Graham has never dropped out of the top 20 edge defenders per PFF and topped out as No. 2 overall in both 2012 and 2016 with seven top 10 grades, an amazing level of consistency.
Those obsessed with sack numbers seem to have no idea how good Graham really is and how much he’s revered around the league. He’s an amazing player who should be a no-brainer for the Eagles’ Hall of Fame.
It’s fair to question how much longer Graham can continue to play at an elite level, however.
"I'm excited," said Graham when talking about the new era. "I think that Gannon comes with, just like Coach [Nick] Sirianni, comes with the high, high level of energy. I mean you know that's right up my alley."
The talent drops off pretty quickly after the top four options with rookie sixth-round pick Tarron Jackson likely hitting training camp with the advantage over practice star Joe Ostman if the Eagles plan to keep five edge rushers.
Also, it’s not much of a battle, but with Barnett and Sweat both entering contract years it’s possible the Eagles will only be able to afford one at a highly-valued position if both play well which is obviously the goal.
ROCKY: THE LONGSHOT
Ostman is revered for his work ethic and practice habits and will be trying to crack the 53 for the fourth year. He was on the verge in 2019 when a torn ACL in August derailed things. With a new coaching staff seemingly open to utilizing the strengths of undersized players a little bit more this could be Ostman’s last real opportunity in Philadelphia.
WHO STAYS ON THE 53?
You can put Graham, Barnett, Sweat, and Kerrigan in ink and pencil in Jackson from there.
Undrafted rookie JaQuan Bailey got $40,000 to sign with the Eagles so he’ll likely be earmarked for the practice squad. Matt Leo has an Internation Player Pathway Program exemption for a second year as a native of Australia so he will be around for another year. Time is running out on Avery, who could also factor in at linebacker, and Ostman.
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 email@example.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.