Examining the NFC East: Defensive Lines

One personnel source said "It could be special" in Washington along the defensive front
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In the first of a series that will look at the talent in the NFC East from a positional perspective and rate the units with the help of league personnel sources, SI.com’s EagleMaven starts with a perennial strength for Philadelphia, the defensive line.

The guard might be changing in the division, however, with the Eagles aging a bit, Dallas experiencing some significant turnover, and the Giants taking a back seat due to scheme.

Washington, meanwhile, understands it’s an election year and might have found the final piece to a very talented puzzle:

No. 4 New York Giants - The Giants are the only team in the NFC East that will be using a 3-4 front as its default setting so that reveals a mentality of tying up blockers to let others make the splash plays.

Leonard Williams was franchised and is certainly a talented five-technique who could do much more than just that. Dexter Lawrence and Dalvin Tomlinson should have little trouble living up to the job description of keeping opposing offensive linemen busy while B.J. Hill shapes up as a more than competent rotational option.

“They have guys who fit what they want to do but I’m not sure they have the linebackers to accomplish the ultimate goal,” a former NFC scout told SI.com.

No. 3 Dallas Cowboys - There is some significant change in Dallas but still plenty of talent starting with DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge. Inside big-name veterans Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe were signed to provide presence and competency but the reputation is greater than the reality there. Tyrone Crawford remains to provide some inside/outside versatility but reproducing the speed Robert Quinn gave off the edge last season will be difficult.

The depth is lacking a bit as well and a number of young players - 2019 second-round pick Trysten Hill, and 2020 picks Neville Gallimore (third round) and Bradley Anae([fifth) might need to ramp up quickly. Two super-talented suspended players - Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory - could change the narrative quickly on the outside.

“Tank (Lawrence) needs to have a big year,” said an AFC scout “I don’t know how you can count on Gregory never mind Smith but if all of that hits, look out.”

No. 2 Philadelphia Eagles - Maybe it’s not as strong as it once was but the “engine” of Jim Schwartz’s defense remains the deepest and most accomplished group in the division which should be no surprise considering the Eagles’ belief in building up front on both sides of the football.

The interior is now the strength with big-money free-agent pickup Javon Hargrave joining All-Pro Fletcher Cox. Malik Jackson is set to return from a Lisfranc injury that robbed him of nearly all of the 2019 season and Hassan Ridgeway returns on a one-year deal to give new defensive line coach Matt Burke one of the deepest DT tackle groups in the NFL.

The edges aren’t quite as daunting on paper but Brandon Graham remains one of the more well-rounded defensive ends in the NFL at 32 and Derek Barnett still has double-digit sack potential if he stays healthy. 

Josh Sweat also has plenty of upside as he’s penciled in to take the next step in the No. 3 rotational role while Burke will be looking for some situational pass-rushing out of either Genard Avery, Shareef Miller, Joe Ostman, or athletic rookie Casey Toohill.

“Prioritizing the lines has been the Eagles’ deal since Andy was there and it shows,” a former AFC Personnel executive told SI.com. “The tackles should be as good as anyone’s and Graham is one of the more underappreciated players in football. He’s not a 15-sack guy but he whips people.”

No. 1 Washington Redskins - “Who is going to block those guys?” a former AFC scout rhetorically asked SI.com.

Chase Young, the No. 2 overall pick, is the fifth first-round pick new coach Ron Rivera and DC Jack Del Rio will have at their disposal.

Young, almost universally regarded as the best pure football player in the 2020 draft, joins Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan on the outside while Jonathan Allen and run-stuffing nose tackle Da’Ron Payne on the interior. That doesn’t even factor in former Temple star Matt Ioannidis, who led the Redskins with 8.5 sacks last season.

“Young is more complete coming in than Nick Bosa last year and you saw what he did for the 49ers,” the former AFC personnel executive said. “You have to factor in Rivera and Del Rio as well, Those guys will get the most of that group.

“It could be special.”

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Monday and Friday on SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, and every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on SBNation Radio. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen