Defense Philadelphia Eagles' Top Draft Priority After Release of DeSean Jackson

Andrew Kulp@@KulpSaysContributor IApril 11, 2014

New Orleans Saints' Khiry Robinson runs during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke

Was one player—a wide receiver to be exact—so vital to the Philadelphia Eagles that the No. 2 offense in the NFL could completely crumble without him? That seems to be the supposition of fans and pundits who believe the front office must address DeSean Jackson’s release in the first round of May’s draft.

There’s no question Jackson’s departure creates a sense of urgency and adding a wideout or maybe two at some point during the selection process would be wise. But as long as we’re discussing immediate needs, let’s not forget the Birds defense was ranked 29th in the NFL in 2013 and dead last versus the pass.

Resorting to the rankings is fear tactics, of course. Philadelphia’s defense was nowhere near as bad as advertised last season. This is the same unit that held nine consecutive opponents to 21 points or under for one remarkable stretch, yet also faced the highest number of plays from scrimmage. Those rankings reflect volume as much as they do results.

None of which changes the fact that the Eagles need help at every level of the defense, literally every one. No matter where you look, either there isn’t enough depth, a starter could be upgraded due to his advanced age or is plain unsatisfactory, likely some combination of three.

DeSean Jackson vs. New Sources of Production
D. Jackson ('13)821,33216.29
J. Maclin ('12)6985712.47
D. Sproles ('13, NOR)716048.52
Z. Ertz ('13)3646913.04

Jackson’s production can be replaced—if not surpassed—in the aggregate by players who are already on the roster. A healthy Jeremy Maclin could thrive in a No. 1 receiver role, not to mention will benefit from the Chip Kelly rub. Darren Sproles will catch a lot of balls while serving as a safety blanket for the quarterback. Zach Ertz has an opportunity to grow into a star in his second season.

Philadelphia’s offense may not finish second again, but it’s no charity case.

On the other hand, if something isn’t done not only to sustain, but to continue building this defense, coordinator Bill Davis might as well get a head start on updating his resume.

The easiest place to begin is the three veterans who will all be in their 30s, each already showing their age, any one of whom could be cut next offseason.

Michael Perez

For Trent Cole, that conclusion borders on inevitable. The two-time Pro Bowler’s transition from defensive end to outside linebacker in the Eagles’ new 3-4 alignment went remarkably smooth. Yet regardless of what happens in ’14, his salary cap figure, per Spotrac, is set to balloon from $6.6 million to $11.6 million next season.

The organization won’t pay that. A renegotiation (while not impossible) seems unlikely.

And there’s virtually nobody behind Cole, nor Connor Barwin on the opposite side. First-round pick from 2010 Brandon Graham played roughly 25 percent of the defensive snaps in ’13, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and he seems better suited for a different scheme—trade bait. Either the Eagles trade for Dion Jordan, per Bob Grotz of The Mercury, or they have to draft somebody.

The situation is only slightly better on the interior, where DeMeco Ryans is still passing for a three-down linebacker as he turns 30 this summer. Another two-time Pro Bowler, Ryans gets by partially on veteran savvy. He’s a free agent after ’15 though, potentially replaceable earlier as long as he carries a $6.9 million cap hit, per Spotrac.

There are a ton of interior linebackers on Philadelphia’s roster right now. None appears to be a legitimate candidate to replace Ryans. The Eagles should begin grooming a viable replacement sooner rather than later.

Then there is Cary Williams, who frankly the Birds could’ve improved upon during this most recent free agency period and nobody would’ve complained. Williams is here to serve as a stop-gap though, and he was clearly meant to be part of the plan for ’14 given the way his contract was structured.

More than half of Williams’ $6.4 million cap hit this year, per Spotrac, would’ve converted to dead money in the event of his release—a free-agent deal that was signed just this past offseason. For all intents and purposes, the job was his.

But Williams will be 30 by season’s end as well and is limited to begin with. To make matters worse, Bradley Fletcher on the opposite side is scheduled to become a free agent next year.

Who exactly is supposed to play cornerback for the Eagles in 2015 as of right now?

Eagles Starters 30+ or Become UFAs in '15 (Defense)
Age (1/1/15)'14 Cap Hit'15 Cap HitUFA
Nate Allen27$3M-'15
Trent Cole32$6.6M$11.6M'18
Bradley Fletcher28$3.2M-'15
DeMeco Ryans30$6.9M$6.9M'16
Cary Williams30$6.4M$8.1M'16

Those are just three or four players that we know must be replaced, as in during this draft… or else. It’s not as if there are no other fires to put out.

The front office did a good job of restoring some sense of stability to the safety position, signing Malcolm Jenkins to hold down one spot while Nate Allen and Earl Wolff battle it out for the other. That being said, Allen is on a one-year deal, Wolff is an unknown and even Jenkins’ three-year deal with only $8.5 million guaranteed doesn’t scream the franchise is married to the guy.

Safety easily could be on the cards for Philadelphia early in this draft. With so many unknowns, it’s very much a position of need.

As is defensive line, even with three apparent starters or combinations for a 3-4 alignment. Fletcher Cox is strong, the organization holds high hopes for Bennie Logan, while Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry could make for a formidable rotation.

However, there is absolutely zero in the way of depth behind them, at a position that makes heavy use of substitution no less. Cox is about to be due for a large extension, Logan is no sure thing, Thornton is completely one dimensional and Curry isn’t an ideal fit for the scheme.

That’s everyone. Literally every position on defense needs some infusion of talent, some form of backup plan at the very least.

Meanwhile, in what is considered one of the deepest drafts in memory, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman claims he can find a receiver he likes in every round of this draft. Every round! Why must the front office target a wideout in the first round when they could almost certainly land a starting-caliber player as late as the third?

Dec 9, 2012; Tampa FL, USA; Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (18) and wide receiver Riley Cooper (14) during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

After all, Maclin was a first-round pick, so it's not as if the franchise hasn't invested. Jackson was only a second, so where a player is drafted doesn’t dictate success, either.

The Eagles do need a receiver. Maclin is signed to a one-year deal, and his recovery from a torn ACL makes him a question mark. While the fanbase seems to have fallen in love with Riley Cooper, he’s an adequate No. 2 at best. With Jason Avant also released, there is no clear-cut WR3. Let’s not even get into what an injury does to the unit.

Wide receiver may even wind up being addressed in the first round if that person happens to be the best player available. It simply isn’t a necessity or even the prime target. Clearly, there is too much work to be done for the Eagles to restrict themselves to such a narrow-minded point of view.


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