Philadelphia Eagles' Defensive Makeover Can Push Them to Top of NFC East

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 19, 2022

Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) leads out his team before an NFL football game against the Washington Football Team, Sunday, Jan. 02, 2022 in Landover. (AP Photo/Daniel Kucin Jr.)
Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

The Philadelphia Eagles started the 2021 season off in shaky fashion, but after winning just twice over the first seven games of the year, they rode a run-heavy offense and the league's 10th-ranked defense to seven wins in 10 games and a wild-card spot in the postseason.

Still, while the Eagles made the playoffs last year, they finished three games back of the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East. For Philadelphia to take the next step and challenge for the division crown, it needed to make improvements on both sides of the ball in the offseason.

The team did that, adding an impact receiver in veteran Pro Bowler A.J. Brown while revamping the defense at all three levels. Those defensive additions give the Eagles one of the better-looking units in the NFL and make Philly a legitimate threat to dethrone Dallas in the NFC East.

The latest of those defensive additions came on Wednesday. Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Philadelphia agreed to terms on a one-year, $10 million contract with veteran cornerback James Bradberry. The 28-year-old spent the last two seasons with the New York Giants before being released earlier in May in an effort to clear salary-cap space.

Bradberry actually struggled a bit in 2021, allowing the most passing yards (848) and highest passer rating against (93.0) of the past four seasons. However, two years ago Bradberry was a Pro Bowler in New York, and last year was his first campaign with a passer rating against of over 90 over that same four-year span. Bradberry is a lanky (6'1"), physical boundary corner who has eclipsed 50 total tackles in five of six seasons, with 15 career interceptions and 82 passes defensed.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Bradberry was a big get for the Eagles for a couple of reasons, not the least of which was the hole on the roster at the position after Steven Nelson signed a free-agent pact with the Houston Texans. It wasn't a stretch to call the cornerback position the weakest link on the Eagles defense. Now, in pairing Bradberry with four-time Pro Bowler Darius Slay, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has turned that weakness into a strength.

Bradberry isn't the only big name the Eagles added in free agency. After releasing him, the Eagles brought back Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. They signed edge-rusher Haason Reddick, who has piled up 23.5 sacks over the last two seasons with the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals.

The Eagles struggled rushing the passer last year—only the Atlanta Falcons amassed fewer sacks in 2021 than the 29 Philly had. Veteran edge-rusher Brandon Graham thinks that Reddick's arrival will give the team's pass rush a major boost.

"It's all about getting those sacks, affecting the quarterback," Graham told reporters. "He's a great player. I can't wait to work with him, too. We've been training together and doing all that stuff now, but we get in the heat of the moment I can't wait to see how everybody makes plays."

Bradberry and Reddick aren't the only new faces on the Eagles defense in 2022. Roseman also focused on the unit in the early rounds of April's draft.

The trade that brought Brown to the City of Brotherly Love cost the Eagles one of their first-round picks, but they used their other selection in Round 1 in a trade-up to snare Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis at No. 13 overall. A 6'6", 341-pound lineman with ridiculous athleticism for a man his size, Davis was one of the most physically imposing players in his draft class. In Cox, Javon Hargrave and now Davis, the Eagles have maybe the NFL's best trio of interior linemen.

John Locher/Associated Press

As big of an addition as Davis was, the Eagles' third-round pick could wind up being even bigger. In the days and weeks leading up to the draft, Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean was widely regarded as a first-round pick. Bleacher Report's own Derrik Klassen, while pointing out that Dean is a bit undersized, compared the 5'11", 229-pounder to Tampa Bay's Lavonte David and relayed that Dean ranked first among 2022 linebackers by the B/R Scouting Department. 

"Dean's speed, energy and craft for navigating congested areas give him an enticing foundation of traits to build upon. His size may make it difficult for him to ever cover tight ends down the field or blow up blocks the way he wants to, but he still wins in enough other ways to provide value. Dean could play both 'Mike' and 'Will' in the NFL, and he has the potential to be a multi-time Pro Bowler."

However, when draft day arrived, Dean slid down the board. And then slid some more, presumably over concerns about the health of his shoulder and pectoral muscle. Roseman apparently did not share those concerns, and Dean told reporters that he is both healthy and ready to make all the teams who passed on him regret the decision.

"That was the nerve-wracking part about it, the whole thing—you know, listening to things that are not true, and it's costing me a lot of money," Dean said. "And just seeing my mama's face, and for me falling and to hear things like that, that was just the biggest thing. But at the end of the day, I'm blessed. I feel like I got picked by a great organization, and I'm ready to work."

Assuming that Dean is indeed healthy, he offers the Eagles something they have lacked for years. To say that Philly fans have craved having an impact linebacker on the roster for some time is an understatement. In Dean and free-agent addition Kyzir White, the Eagles now possess a pair or rangy and athletic young linebackers well-suited to the NFL in 2022.

All told, it's a defense without many weaknesses. A compelling argument can be made that in totality, it's the best in the division.

Now, having the division's best defense doesn't guarantee an NFC East title. Jalen Hurts and the offense will have to do their part, too. But the Eagles led the NFL in rushing yards per game in 2021. A.J. Brown gives Hurts a true No. 1 receiver. Per Pro Football Focus, the Eagles fielded the fourth-best offensive line in the league last year.

The pieces are there on that side of the ball as well.

Due largely to a precarious salary-cap situation, the Cowboys lost more pieces (wide receiver Amari Cooper, edge-rusher Randy Gregory) than they added in the offseason. The Washington Commanders are fresh off a miserable 7-10 season and breaking in a new quarterback in Carson Wentz. The New York Giants had two picks inside the top 10 in the 2022 draft, but they still feature more questions than answers.

There's a window open for the Eagles right now. The opportunity to take advantage of the relative weakness of their division and the step back Dallas took. A doorway through which they could do some real damage in 2022.

And by remaking the defense to be even better than the top-10 unit of a year ago, Roseman sent Philadelphia charging through that door.