Examining the NFC East: The Defensive Line

The Eagles have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL but it's still not the best in the division
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PHILADELPHIA - Our annual series examining the NFC East from a positional perspective with the help of league personnel sources continues with the defensive line, inarguably the strength of what is considered a weak division overall.

In 2020 you could argue that Washington, the New York Giants, and Philadelphia - despite only four wins - had top 10-level units.

Heading into 2021, the WFT is in the discussion for the top defensive line in the entire league and the Eagles could rank in the top five. 

The Giants took a bit of a step back after losing the underrated Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency and, while Dallas remains the runt of the litter, there is still DeMarcus Lawrence and some young talent.

The Eagles' best players - defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and left end Brandon Graham - are aging with Cox joining BG on the other side of 30.

With the additions of third-round pick Milton Williams and veteran edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan, along with the comfort factor of Javon Hargrave being in Year 2 moving from the 3-4 in Pittsburgh to the 4-3 in Philadelphia, the group as a whole should only be better under first-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker.

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The Eagles are at least four deep on the edge with Graham, Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, and Kerrigan and, at a minimum, three deep inside with the explosive Williams figuring in as a nice complement to the double-teams Cox consistently sees. The oft-injured Hassan Ridgeway can also play when he's on the field and there's even a safety net for him in sixth-round pick Marlon Tuipulotu.

Even some of the developmental prospects Philadelphia has like Joe Ostman and Tarron Jackson on the edge and Raequan Williams belong in the league so the depth is impressive as well.

As a whole, the defensive line will be expected to help the back seven which is not nearly as talented or deep for Gannon.

"It's one of the best groups in football," a former AFC personnel executive said. "Cox and Graham are still extremely tough to block. I like Barnett, Sweat, and Hargrave as well.

"What's not to like? That's the strength of their defense."

Here's how the NFC East shapes up on the defensive line:

No. 4 - Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys seem to be hoping that Randy Gregory will put it together as the second pass-rushing piece to Lawrence, whose reputation has outpaced his production in recent seasons.

Gregory's admitted addiction to marijuana that derailed his career early is now no longer the stigma it once was so perhaps a talented player can finally put things together at 28.

Jalen Hurts gets sacked by Randy Gregory

Randy Gregory sacks Jalen Hurts in 2020

As Howie Roseman says hope isn't a strategy, though.

There's at least potential outside, but the interior isn't very good and the group was the worst in the NFL last season against the run, allowing 2.3 rushing yards before contact per attempt in 2020 per ProFootballFocus.com, a half-yard more than any other defense. (Hint: that's awful).

Rookie third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa and free-agent pickup Carlos Watkins will try to help Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore establish some kind of interior presence.

"Unless they figure out a way to stop the run it's going to be tough again," a former AFC scout said. "I would have liked to see them get a two-down run stopper just to sure that up."

No. 3 - New York Giants: Dalvin Tomlinson was a big loss, both literally and figuratively, for the Giants but New York had to pay Leonard Williams and felt it couldn't afford both.

The trio of Williams, Tomlinson, and Dexter Lawrence was one of the NFL's best. Austin Johnson and/or Danny Shelton will need to step in and make sure the drop is not precipitous from Tomlinson.

The edge has been the problem for the Giants and they drafted the talented Azeez Ojulari in the second round and signed Ryan Anderson and Ifeadi Odenigbo to help the in-house options like Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines.

"I had a high grade on Ojulari," an AFC scout said. "He's a better player than their first-rounder [receiver Kadarius Toney]. They will need [Ojulari] to help early and Williams' presence should help that."

No. 2 - Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles go at least seven deep and could be eight or nine strong by the end of training camp. The group was consistently one of the best in the NFL at generating pressure without help under Jim Schwartz and Gannon's expected use of A-gap and overload blitzes that Mike Zimmer likes should only make Cox and Graham look more effective to the casual fan.

The overall efficacy is the key, though, and one thing is certain: the Philadelphia front will need to carry the back seven.

"If anything I think [the Eagles' defensive line] is underrated," a former AFC personnel executive said. "Jim [Schwartz] is big on a disciplined rush and isn't worried about chasing sack numbers so I think there's a lot of people who don't understand how good Cox and Graham are."

Brandon Graham notches his seventh sack of season on the first half against the Cowboys

Eagles DE Brandon Graham

Rocker is planning on stressing situational awareness moving forward.

“The thing is understanding we're going to be an attacking defense. But I think you have to also understand - you have 1000 words I hear - we got to read and react, we got disruptive, we got this, well, what about situational football, situational awareness?” Rocker asked rhetorically.

"You know, you're not gonna run the red light. Sometimes it's just about playing a play, understanding where you're located on the field. Hey, we're backed up, you know, do you think we need to be disruptive or do you think we need to key the ball?

“So those are the things that are important to me as a coach and I feel like us being understanding, there is a time and place for everything.”

No. 1 - Washington Football Team: When you use four consecutive first-round picks on the defensive front and hit on all of them you get the WFT defensive line.

It's not quite "The Steel Curtain," "The Purple People Eaters," or "The Fearsome Foursome" just yet, but Jonathan Allen, Da'Ron Payne, Montez Sweat, and Chase Young have the potential to get there as a group.

Young is probably the biggest name to the casual fan and most personnel people in the league believe he will be a superstar but Sweat and Allen were the best of the bunch last season.

"Sweat was one of the most disruptive defenders in the league," a former Eagles scout said, "Almost a J.J. Watt-like presence to affect throws with his length, Allen is one of the best interior rushers in the league. He kills people when matched up one-on-one."

The depth is there for Ron Rivera as well with former Temple star Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle being disruptive interior options. The one aspect where Washinton could improve is a little more depth on the outside.

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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.