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Five positions we'll see competition on the Eagles' defense at training camp


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Five positions we'll see competition on the Eagles' defense at training camp

Competition will be intense across the board on defense this summer during Eagles training camp

By Reuben Frank, Eagles Insider  Published June 15, 2023


It didn’t take Sean Desai long in his first press conference as Eagles defensive coordinator to use the word "competition.”

It appears Nick Sirianni has indoctrinated Desai very well in his core values.

"I think one of coach (Sirianni’s) central themes – and I believe this is one of the places we connected – is 'compete,'” Desai said. "That's really what it is. Regardless of whatever we all may think of the depth and all that stuff, it's about daily competition, and that starts right now.

"That process of the competition is ongoing, and we're going to continue to nurture that feeling throughout the defense and really the organization because that's what we believe in.”

Which brings us to training camp.

Sirianni and Desai will be thrilled because there should be intense competition across the board on defense this summer.

We know the starting corners. We think we know the starting defensive linemen. We’re pretty sure we know one starting linebacker.

Beyond that? It’s going to be a free-for-all.

Here’s a look at some of the key competitions we expect to see once training camp begins in six weeks.

Starting safeties: Whatever happens, the Eagles will have two new starting safeties for the second year in a row (Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris in 2021, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps last year). Reed Blankenship and Terrell Edmunds were with the first offense at OTAs, but who’s starting in June doesn’t mean a lot. Edmunds is here on a one-year contract with minimal guarantees ($600,000), so the Eagles have no commitment to him as opposed to Sydney Brown, who just turned 23 and is the first d-back the Eagles have drafted in the third round or earlier since 2017.

Depending how quickly Brown picks up the defense, it would make sense for the Eagles to give him reps with the first defense. Edmunds is a solid pro – he’s started 75 games and he’s only 26 – but at some point Brown will be a starter, it’s just a matter of when.

There’s also this: Blankenship was very impressive in 4 ½ games in place of injured C.J.G.J. last year, but can he play at that level over a full season? The jury is still out on Blankenship. He’s very smart and tough but limited athletically, which is why he went undrafted last year. So even though he goes into camp as the starter nothing is etched in stone.

Blankenship is ideally best as a box safety, although he surprised in coverage last year. Edmunds has played both in the box and the post. And Brown was exclusively a box safety at Illinois but showed some skill as a post safety at the Senior Bowl, which was critical to the Eagles’ decision to draft him. So it’s not just who has the best camp but which pieces fit the best. There’s also K’Von Wallace and Justin Evans, who have both started games in the NFL.

Expect to see a lot of combinations with both the 1st- and 2nd-team this summer as Desai tries to figure out what combinations work. Evans is the oldest in the group at 27 and there are a lot of question marks and a lot of reps up for grabs.

Backup nickel: Backup nickel is an intriguing position, mainly because although Avonte Maddox is one of the best slots in the league, he does tend to miss time. He’s missed 22 games with injuries in his first five seasons, including nine last year. He’s just a very tough, very physical, very active guy and at 5-9, 185, and that style of play, it hasn’t been easy to keep him on the field.

The Eagles struggled last year when Maddox was out. Josiah Scott was the backup nickel – 328 of his 369 snaps were in the slot - and his PFF grade of 58.4 ranked 87th out of 120 corners who played at least 300 snaps. Scott is still on the roster and has some ability but really struggled with his consistency last year. He wasn’t at either OTA practice that was open to the media, and with Maddox still rehabbing after offseason toe surgery, we saw 2021 4th-round pick Zech McPhearson as the No. 1 slot at OTAs.

Now, maybe that was simply because Scott and Maddox weren’t practicing or maybe it was because the Eagles don’t see McPhearson as having a future here as an outside corner after signing both James Bradberry and Darius Slay this offseason and drafting Kelee Ringo. Or maybe they genuinely believe he can compete for inside snaps. We’ll find out in August.

McPhearson has played 250 defensive snaps in two seasons with exactly one in the slot. Josh Jobe isn’t suited for the slot. Greedy Williams has played 45 slot snaps out of 1,375 career defensive snaps (just 10 since 2020).

So there’s no clear leader in this competition. All hands on deck.

Third outside corner: McPhearson has been the top backup outside corner the last two years but didn’t play much last year because Slay and Bradberry stayed healthy. He was OK as a rookie in 2021, when he played 179 snaps.

But things have changed. The Eagles drafted Ringo in the fourth round (out of Georgia, of course) and they signed veteran Greedy Williams, who started 21 games the last few years with the Browns. They also still have Josh Jobe, a former Alabama star who they clearly like.

Slay is 32 and Bradberry turns 30 in August, and maybe they’ll both stay healthy again. Last ye4r, they became the first pair of Eagles corners to both play 1,000 snaps since Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher in 2014. But considering Slay and Bradberry’s age and the receivers and quarterbacks the Eagles face this year, they need to look at third outside corner very seriously.

At OTAs, Williams and Jobe were the starters when Slay and Bradberry were absent or sitting out. It looked like Williams was the third outside corner and Jobe was fourth. But this spot will be decided in training camp.

Without knowing whether McPhearson will be part of this competition or if he’ll stay in the slot, it’s all still a little fuzzy. But you know the Eagles would love Ringo to take ownership of the top outside corner spot. Williams has the most experience out of the group, the Eagles liked Jobe enough to keep him on the 53 all last year, and Ringo is a promising rookie. It will be fun to watch this one sort itself out.

Starting off-ball linebacker: Here’s what we know: Nakobe Dean will be a starter and may never leave the field. Here’s what we don‘t know: Everything else.

Nicholas Morrow was the second off-ball backer at OTAs, but with none of his contract guaranteed, he’s no lock to make the 53. Christian Ellis opened some eyes at OTAs, but that’s OTAs. Then there’s guys like Davion Taylor, Kyron Johnson, Shaun Bradley and Ben VanSumeren.

I’d expect Ellis to get some run with the 1’s at camp, and don’t be surprised if Taylor – a starter for a while in 2021 – is in the mix, considering Desai coached him at Colorado. This is the position Howie Roseman is most likely to add somebody during or even after camp – either by a trade or a waiver claim. But for now, it’s Nakobe and let everybody else compete.

Defensive line snaps: The d-line is different than most positions because a ton of guys are going to play, and we have a pretty good idea who’ll be starting. So the real competition is for snaps. Last year, the Eagles had 11 defensive linemen who played at least 150 snaps, and while that probably won’t be the case this year, Sean Desai has made it clear he wants to rotate a lot of bodies on and off the field.

We’ll assume Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis will start inside with Josh Sweat and Haason Reddick on the edge. But if Desai’s rotation is similar to Jonathan Gannon’s – and we expect it to be – there will be somewhere between 700 and 800 edge / SAM snaps available beyond the starters and the same number of interior line snaps.

The competition for those reps will be fierce. Where does Brandon Graham fit in as he begins his 14th season? How much playing time can Georgia rookie Nolan Smith earn? Is there a role for one-time 1st-round pick Derek Barnett? How big a role will Fletcher Cox have in his 12th season? How many snaps will Milton Williams get as the fourth interior guy? Will Tarron Jackson get a shot? Is there still a role for Marlon Tuipulotu, who was getting 26 snaps per game inside before he got hurt?


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