Success of Eagles Defense Hinges on Prove-It Players

The Eagles should have a host of hungry players looking to prove their worth
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Prove it.

If Eagles rookie defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon is looking for a rallying cry to place on a T-shirt in advance of the 2021 season, he might want to start there.

In many ways, Gannon's first Philadelphia defense will be defined by veterans on a pit stop en route to 2022 free agency, along with a host of home-grown prospects entering their contract years.

The former group includes projected three projected starters at linebacker, Eric Wilson, safety, Anthony Harris, and cornerback in Steven Nelson, as well as veteran edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan, and the latter consists of edge players Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat as well as slot cornerback Avonte Maddox.

LB Eric Wilson signed with the Eagles as a free agent on April 7, 2021

Eric Wilson left the Vikings to join the Eagles this offseason

Nelson, 28, was the latest to join the party after agreeing to terms on Sunday as the presumptive starter outside the numbers opposite of Darius Slay with the domino to that being Maddox to the slot in what should be a better use of his talents.

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A durable player with extensive starting experience in both Kansas City and Pittsburgh, Nelson graded out as the 36th best cornerback in football last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com,

He projects to be a significant upgrade over what Gannon had to choose from on Saturday, the undersized Maddox, or young players who are clearly not ready like rookie Zech McPhearson or former undrafted free agent Mike Jacquet.

There's also the chip-on-the-shoulder effect. Nelson wanted to get as close to the $8.5 million he was set to receive in Pittsburgh before he was released and instead got less than half of that with opportunity as the kicker on the back end.

The same holds true for Harris, once a franchise player and the NFL interception leader in Minnesota, who will be trying to regain his status as one of the better safeties in the game.

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For Wilson, a Harris teammate with the Vikings, it's about proving that his playmaking ability was no fluke while filling in for top-tier linebackers like Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.

At 32, with four Pro Bowls and 95 1/2 sacks in the rear-view mirror, Kerrigan is intent on proving there is gas left in the tank.

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As for the in-house players looking for their second NFL contracts, Barnett has one more opportunity to live up to the billing of being the 14th overall pick in 2017 and Sweat is intent on letting the pitch-count perceptions due to his serious high-school leg injury die with the previous coaching staff.

Maddox, meanwhile, finally gets to settle in at the position he was drafted for - slot CB - after years of filling in where he was needed, most notably at outside CB and free safety.

Prove it time arrives on Wednesday when the whistles will blow for the first time since early June.

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.