The one unit that may be getting overlooked a bit for the Philadelphia Eagles is their defense. The offense should be epic, legendary — they should be putting points on the board at will if you believe all the hype. That remains to be seen. What about the defense?
The Eagles defense was a sieve, at least in terms of yardage, in 2018. They were 10th-worst in the NFL after giving up 5,589 yards, or 366.2 yards per game. Not good. However, they were able to adopt late-great defensive coordinator Jim Johnson’s “bend-but-don’t-break” mentality in the red zone. The Eagles allowed 21.8 points per game, while terrorizing opposing quarterbacks with 40.0 sacks.
Their biggest problem last season was forcing turnovers, especially interceptions. It’s a disturbing trend they hope to rectify with a promising, young stable of cornerbacks and linebackers. Newcomers Orlando Scandrick and Johnathan Cyprien should get long looks tonight against Tennessee as two veterans that can hopefully bring some stability to the secondary. And band-aid a few early injuries.
“I mean, they are older players that have to contribute both ways. You know, defensively and on special teams,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said of Scandrick and Cyprien. “It will be good for them to get out there, too, with a new set of guys, new team and just again execute the defense.”
Top 5 Players to Watch on Defense
1. Josh Sweat, DE
The buzz around the former fourth-round pick has been palpable. Josh Sweat, selected with the 130th overall pick in 2018, has been imposing his will at Eagles training camp. He bulked about 20 pounds in the offseason, from 245 pounds to 265 pounds, and appears fully recovered from the ankle and knee injuries that hindered him in high school and college. Remember, Sweat ran the fastest 40-yard dash and had the highest vertical jump out of all the defensive linemen coming out of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Sweat has consistently gotten insane pressure on quarterbacks during summer practices, driving back the Eagles veteran tackles and guards with his long arms and reach. He has earned snaps with the first-team defense and won praise from the likes of Brandon Graham and Lane Johnson. In fact, Johnson predicted “big fu–ing things from him.” The Eagles need a fourth edge rusher to replace Michael Bennett and Chris Long. Sweat might be the guy.
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2. Sidney Jones, CB
Another guy who has been a superstar at training camp. Sidney Jones was once considered the top cornerback in the country coming out of the University of Washington, but he suffered a left leg injury at his pro day and was carted off the field. He hasn’t been the same since — until now. Jones, a second-round pick by the Eagles in 2017, has been stuck to receivers like Krazy Glue this summer. Jones has picked off Carson Wentz a few times, too.
Jones can fly around and crowd receivers all day at practice — what did Allen Iverson say? — but it’s another thing to do it in live-action. The Titans have a formidable receiving corps, including Corey Davis and Adam Humphries and Taywan Taylor, so let’s see how he reacts in a more competitive environment. Jones should see looks at both the outside cornerback position and in nickel packages tonight. He’s fighting for a starting spot. And Avonte Maddox is breathing down his neck.
3. Nathan Gerry, LB
No one expected to be talking about the third-year linebacker this much, but injuries will do that. Nathan Gerry, a fifth-round pick out of Nebraska, is a converted safety now getting first-team reps. He’s undersized — standing at 6-foot-2 — but he did add 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Gerry has been getting huge accolades from defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz for his ability to make the “verbal calls” and play both middle and outside linebacker.
When starter Kamu Grugier-Hill went down, the thinking around town was Eagles GM Howie Roseman might make a phone call and force a trade. That hasn’t happened. Gerry finds himself in an enviable position to win a starting spot with a solid preseason. His past experience as a safety makes him terrific in coverage, but can he stop the run? The extra weight should go a long way in helping him.
4. Johnathan Cyprien, S
Johnathan Cyprien was signed off the street, literally six days ago. The six-year veteran has enjoyed success in the league and recorded 126 tackles in Jacksonville three years ago. How much does he have left in the tank? That’s the question everyone wants answered. Cyprien, who endured season-ending knee surgery at Titans camp last year has a chance to play himself into a job in Philadelphia.
Cyprien, a former second-round pick, will be fighting for snaps at the free safety spot with Andrew Sendejo and Tre Sullivan. With starter Rodney McLeod still healing up from a torn Achilles, there is potential to make an impact. It’ll be curious to see how the Eagles use him tonight. Will they just drop him back in coverage? Or unleash him on the safety blitz as a pass-rusher? He has three career sacks.
5. Orlando Scandrick, CB
Why does anyone care about a journeyman cornerback from Dallas? It’s a fair point to bring up. But the Eagles had big plans for 25-year-old Cre’Von LeBlanc before he rolled his ankle and got a walking boot. He may be out until November, according to reports. The Eagles are also holding their breath for the return of starting corners Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby. Enter Orlando Scandrick.
Scandrick, who may be better known for dating Draya Michele, gives the Eagles both depth and leadership in the secondary. The 32-year-old has been seen chatting up guys like Darby and Avonte Maddox during individual drills and may need to serve as a placeholder until the unit is healthy. He does have nine career interceptions.