Last time out, we took a look at the Philadelphia Eagles offensive starters. Besides a few places like left tackle, it was pretty clear cut. The defense has some similarities, but there are a few more question marks. There are a number of entrenched starters and, in terms of offseason moves, the Eagles haven’t made that many, meaning there aren’t that many new players to consider. So, without further ado, let’s go through the projected 2021 Philadelphia Eagles starting depth chart on defense.
Projected 2021 Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Depth Chart + Starters
Left Defensive End: Derek Barnett
Derek Barnett has been the primary starter for two years now. In 2019 he started 14 games, and in 2020 he started 10 straight from week five to week 15. Of the six games he didn’t start, he was inactive in three of them, showing that when he’s available he’s the guy. Barnett is in the last year of his rookie contract though, and overall has been somewhat disappointing as an Eagle. Barnett hasn’t been bad, but he was the 14th overall pick in his draft and hasn’t really made that type of impact, managing just 19.5 sacks in four years. Barnett’s been a better run defender than pass rusher in his time with the Birds, but that’s not exactly what you want from such a highly picked edge rusher.
That means the door is open for Barnett to be replaced, and Josh Sweat could be the guy to do it. Originally drafted as a highly athletic but very raw piece, Sweat finally put it together in 2020. I say finally, but he’s only 24 years old. He started most of the games that Barnett didn’t and was arguably more effective. Sweat played just 421 snaps to Barnetts 535 and had slightly more sacks despite the lower snap count (six for Sweat vs. 5.5 for Barnett). Sweat’s overall PFF grade was higher due to a much better pass rush grade, but he did have a lower run defense grade.
Sweat is about a year younger than Barnett and he is also on his last year, but is also significantly cheaper, costing one million compared to Barnett’s ten. The Philadelphia Eagles love their platoon defensive line, so there is a place for both, but with Sweat being the superior pass rusher it wouldn’t shock me to see him getting the starting nod. Barnett might not even be on the team in 2021 for the reasons above as well.
Left Defensive Tackle: Javon Hargrave
Hargrave started all but one game he appeared in for the 2020 season, and similar to Barnett was fairly effective. He had 4.5 sacks which isn’t terrible for a DT and beyond his raw numbers he did a good job of getting pressure in general. PFF gave him an elite pass rushing grade that was unfortunately balanced out by an extremely low run defense grade. While not irreplaceable, Hargrave has been good enough that a replacement isn’t required either. He also has less behind him than Barnett.
Hassan Ridgeway, the first backup DT is in the similar mold of solid, not great defensive tackle and is more injury-prone than Hargrave. The only other person that could possibly challenge Hargrave is rookie Milton Williams, who is undersized but incredibly athletic. Then again, unless Williams really is the next Aaron Donald and that’s apparent very quickly there’s not much of a chance of Williams supplanting anyone as a starter.
Right Defensive Tackle: Fletcher Cox
Cox has been one of the best DTs for years now, and while he is getting older he’s still effective when he isn’t out injured. He made his sixth straight Pro Bowl last year, and while that was probably more a name brand selection he still had 6.5 sacks and good PFF grades in both run and pass defense. Cox doesn’t really put up eye-popping sack numbers, but he constantly eats up double teams and still pressures the quarterback which is why he’s the best tackle of his generation besides Aaron Donald. As long as Cox is healthy, he’s the starter on this team.
Right Defensive End: Brandon Graham
Just like Cox, Graham has been an entrenched starter for the Philadelphia Eagles for five or more years now and that’s not likely to change. Even though Graham is 33, he just had one of his best seasons. Graham accrued eight sacks (third most in his career) while chipping in elite run defense which got him into his first Pro Bowl. There’s really no threat to Graham, who is also one of the leaders on the team.
Graham’s current backup is Ryan Kerrigan, who is more of a threat to Barnett than anyone else. Kerrigan was one of the best pass rushers in the game for the team in Washington, but he is getting up there in age and his numbers are beginning to dip. He’s also traditionally played as a 3-4 outside linebacker rather than a 4-3 DE which would be his position now. Kerrigan has played on the right most of his career, but did spend three years on the left as well. Kerrigan has the pass rushing pedigree, but at this point in his career he’s probably a change-of-pace situational rusher rather than a starter.
Weakside Linebacker: Eric Wilson
The first brand new signing that is likely to get a starting nod, Wilson is good at one thing and one thing only, coverage. He sported an absolutely dismal run defense rating per PFF, while posting above-average pass rush and coverage grades. In this day and age of passing though, that’s not really a bad thing. Especially since the defensive line is very good at run stuffing (outside of Hargrave) the need for Wilson to be a tackle machine is much less than it would be on a different team. New defensive coordinator Johnathan Gannon overlapped with Wilson in Minnesota for one year has already said that Wilson will play both the weakside and the middle spots. Wilson in the middle (given his horrible run defense) seems dubious, but the next guy on this list could make it work.
Middle Linebacker: Alex Singleton
Singleton was one of a few pleasant surprises for the Eagles in 2020. Singleton came on strong after the disaster that was Nathan Gerry was banished from the starting lineup in week six and never looked back. He ended up leading the Philadelphia Eagles in tackles by a large margin despite that late start, showing he deserved his place on the squad. Singleton took over for Gerry at the weakside position, but he found himself in the middle on more than a few occasions. His run stuffing strength also suits the middle more than the weakside anyways. Given what was already said about Wilson, it seems likely that Singleton and Wilson will kind of be interchangeable, blending the two roles as necessary and they should be the two primary guys in the nickel.
T.J. Edwards was the nominal starter at the middle linebacker spot last year, but he’s in a contract year and there hasn’t been much buzz about re-signing him. He also only played 44% of defensive snaps compared to Singleton’s 68% (remember again that Singleton basically didn’t play until week six). Edwards has the experience but doesn’t seem to have the proper athletic tools to man the middle and he may be the biggest casualty of Wilson’s signing.
Strongside Linebacker: Genard Avery?
This is easily the most nebulous position on the team. It’s also probably the least important, with more and more teams using the nickel as their base formation anyways. Genard Avery has made the switch to a standup linebacker this season and may have a claim for the SAM spot. His primary experience is as a pass rusher, which he can do from the strongside. There are a couple of other alternatives. One of the young guys like Shaun Bradley or Davion Taylor could nab the starting role although we’ve yet to see anything from them. It’s also possible Edwards stays in the middle and Singleton moves out to the strongside, which would probably be the best three linebackers not counting fit.
Left Cornerback: Darius Slay
With a guy like Slay left and right don’t mean much as Slay prefers to shadow receivers around. Slay was good last year outside of two games against D.K. Metcalf and Davante Adams where he got torched pretty badly. Other than that though, Slay generally locked up whoever was across from him, which includes names like Terry McLaurin and Jarvis Landry. Slay is the guaranteed CB 1, but the guy across from him is a much different story.
Slot Cornerback: Avonte Maddox
As the years go by, the slot cornerback is becoming a more and more permanent fixture, with many teams starting in nickel rather than a base 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Maddox played both outside and slot for the Eagles, but he’s been much more effective in the slot and something of a liability on the outside.
Right Cornerback: Zech McPhearson
Even though the first reps for CB 2 went to Michael Jacquet, I cannot imagine that stays the case by the time the actual season rolls around. Jacquet was absolutely horrid last year. To be fair to him, he was thrown into the deep end without much time or practice with the team and had to go up against the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and the plethora of weapons on the Dallas Cowboys, but it was brutal to watch last year.
There isn’t much behind Jacquet, and if the Philadelphia Eagles don’t start in nickel or whenever they aren’t playing it it’s very possible Maddox goes outside. McPhearson was the Eagles’ fourth-round pick this year, and was a PFF darling with experience playing outside and in the slot. I’ve put him as the starter not because I think McPhearson will do great, I just can’t imagine him being worse than Jacquet. It’s also possible McPhearson and Maddox switch, but Maddox hasn’t shown anything that indicates he can be an NFL-caliber outside corner.
Strong Safety: Rodney McLeod
McLeod has been the no-doubt starter ever since joining the Eagles in 2016, starting every single game he has been healthy for. He’s been good or better since, posting a 70+ PFF grade every year except in 2019. His 77.3 coverage grade was 9th in the league in 2020, one spot below first team All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick. Obviously McLeod isn’t close to Fitzpatrick and in this case I think McLeod is overrated by PFF, but at the very least it shows McLeod isn’t someone that needs to be replaced.
Behind McLeod is Marcus Epps. Epps filled in for McLeod when he went down with an injury and performed fine. Similar to McLeod he had a very high PFF grade (75.1 overall which would have put him 13th amongst all safeties) that seems a little inflated for what he actually was, but again he’s a solid piece that could definitely take over once McLeod (who will be entering his age 31 season) is no longer on the team.
Free Safety: Anthony Harris
Another former Viking that shared a lot of time with Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon (three years this time, and Gannon was the assistant defensive backs coach), Harris is an aging vet that still has star potential. He wasn’t great in 2020, but PFF graded him straight up the best safety in 2019 and the third best in 2018. If Harris can bounce back to the form he was in just two or three years ago, his one year five million dollar deal is a major steal. No one else on the team has Harris’ level of ability or experience playing the free safety spot, and the last FS (Jalen Mills) is no longer on the team.
Philadelphia Eagles Defense as a Whole
In the last article I thought the offense had some serious talent, with an elite line and good skill positions if DeVonta Smith lives up to his potential. It’s not the same case on the defensive end. Besides the defensive line that features two elite guys and two pretty good guys, the rest of the defense is pretty meh. The linebacker unit as a whole is suspect and the strongside spot is essentially nonexistent. Singleton was a nice story, but you have to wonder if any of the Philadelphia Eagles linebackers would start on a different team. The secondary outside of Slay is also questionable. The second CB is currently a disaster waiting to happen, Maddox is a guy that’s fine for a fourth round pick and nothing more and the two safeties are on the older side and are coming off less than ideal seasons.
There are much more unknowns on this side of the ball, and there isn’t that much room for someone to really break out and surprise you in a good way like there is on the offense. The defensive coordinator is also inexperienced, with this being his first coordinator gig. Depending on Jalen Hurts’ development, the Philadelphia Eagles offense could actually be elite or close to it in 2021. The defense can make no such claims. Anything above middling with this group will be a massive win.