PHILADELPHIA — The first day of legal tampering for the NFL’s free agency period certainly exacted a heavy toll on the Philadelphia Eagles.
Philadelphia’s defense lost three starters in middle linebacker TJ Edwards, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, and safety Marcus Epps.
With a massive contract extension on the horizon for quarterback Jalen Hurts, as well as many top-tier contracts already in place for the offensive core, it comes as no surprise that general manager Howie Roseman has been disciplined about how much he is willing to pay certain positions, roles, and players that are closer to the end of their prime than the beginning.
Although Roseman still has free agency and next month’s draft to help replace these players, and others that are expected to depart, the organization will also look to many young, inexpensive pieces already on the team to carry the load.
The likes of 2022 1st round pick Jordan Davis and 2021 3rd round pick Milton Williams to replace Hargrave. 2022 3rd round pick Nakobe Dean to replace Edwards. 2022 undrafted rookie Reed Blankenship to replace Epps.
All four of these first or second year prospects showed flashes of potential in backup roles last season, but are they ready for more?
Are they ready to produce at the level this defense was on in 2022 when they made it to Super Bowl 57?
Can Davis and Williams make up for the production lost with Hargrave leaving? Hargrave was an elite pass-rushing tackle who had a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2022.
Jordan Davis was the top pick Philadelphia traded up for last season so a lot of the pressure falls on his shoulders. Although the second half of the season was a struggle for the rookie due to injuries and a reduced role after the signing of Linval Joseph, Davis certainly flashed through the first eight weeks.
According to Pro Football Focus, through the first six games of the season Davis was the highest graded rookie defensive lineman. He also finished the entire season with the best run defense grade of any rookie tackle.
The question marks are more about his ability to get to the QB like Hargrave and pending free agent Fletcher Cox did so well. Davis looked like he was developing more pass-rush counters after his signature bull-rush as the season progressed, but he didn’t get a single QB hit all year.
Even in his college days at Georgia, Davis was never a consistent threat to get sacks. He never had more than 2.5 sacks in a season. If the Eagles investment in him is going to pay off, he needs to take the leap in this area that Tampa Bay Buccaneers DT Vita Vea and New York Giants DT Dexter Lawrence took in 2022.
Like Davis, Lawrence and Vea were both Day 1 selections that were elite run defenders at nose tackle in college, but had question marks around their ceilings as pass-rushers. It took them a few seasons, but both Lawrence and Vea finally broke out last year with 7.5 and 6.5 sacks.
They were athletic freaks for a player that size and just needed to put it all together. At 6’6 340 lbs and a 4.78 40-time, Davis has the gifts to do the same.
Milton Williams is another unique athlete that has the upside to replace Hargrve and Cox. Despite being caught in a six-man rotation last season, Williams still finished 2022 with 4 sacks. He really came on at the end of the season and in the playoffs, showing off explosive and powerful moves to not only get to the QB, but be one of their better run defenders too.
He has inside and outside versatility on top of a constant motor that can make him an every-down player.
Like Davis, the sample size just needs to be bigger to truly know.
The least amount of panic seems to be around losing Edwards in the middle of the defense because of the belief in Nakobe Dean. Dean was the heartbeat of Georgia’s elite, national championship defense in 2021 and only fell to the 3rd round because of phantom injury concerns. Throughout the majority of last year’s pre-draft process he was seen as a top two LB prospect along with Utah’s Devin Lloyd.
Dean’s rookie season was practically a redshirt campaign due to strong years for Edwards and Kyzir White, but he will be a full-time starter in 2023. In the snaps he did get last year, Dean’s presence was felt. The biggest example of his potential was against the Tennessee Titans when on one drive Dean made an impressive chase-down tackle for no gain, a tackle for a loss, and a one-handed tackle on Derrick Henry while being pushed down by a Titans lineman.
Despite being an undrafted rookie, Reed Blankenship got more work than Dean did, and he flashed too. Blankenship was consistently their best tackler in the secondary while filling in for Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. His interception on Aaron Rodgers also showed he might have better ball skills than previously thought.
This defense likely won’t be able to replicate their elite 2022 season with many starters signing elsewhere and Roseman has a lot of work to do still in bringing in new faces through free agency and the draft. But some of his young pieces already on the team show the future can still be bright. They just need the opportunity to show what they can do.