The Philadelphia Eagles are trending upward. Looking to improve on their 7-9 record from a year ago, they continue to build around the best players on both sides of the ball.
There are so many ways to say it, but my favorite version is this one: To reach your pinnacle, surround yourself with the right people.
In this case, the Eagles’ two franchise pieces (QB Carson Wentz and DT Fletcher Cox), cannot choose the players that they are surrounded by. That is the task of GM Howie Roseman, who emphasized his plan in his 2016 exit interview.
He told reporters that the Eagles felt strongly about Wentz and Cox as the franchise players. He stated their goal would be to surround the two with complimentary pieces to help optimize their skills and round out a roster that just barely stayed afloat in 2016. Missing the playoffs is unacceptable, as is a 7-9 record, but you don’t go from good to great overnight. The Eagles spent 2016 searching for an identity, and Roseman believes that they’re closer now than they were a year ago.
There is a clip of Wentz, during the Week 17 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys, telling Cox, “Next year, we go.” Cox affirms the sentiment, but neither of them knew what was in store at the time.
The big moves to build around the quarterback will always outweigh anything else. The headlines will always be about the glamorous pickups — the Alshon Jeffery move being the Madonna of Philadelphia’s offseason. But Roseman stuck to his guns. He built around Cox as well, though it may have been overshadowed by the moves to improve the offense.
The first question is, what does Fletcher Cox do best? Many have looked at his sack numbers and considered his 2016 campaign a “down year”. What most fail to mention is the attention that he draws, which could be his most valuable skill.
Despite the attention, elite players find ways to produce, and that is completely understood. However, complimentary players have a job that could be equally important. If the attention is on Cox, others must pose as threats to take the relief off of Cox. Mostly, the rest of the defensive linemen are seeing a one-on-one matchup. A double team does no good if creating a one-on-one matchup isn’t advantageous.
Roseman gave Cox weapons just like he gave Wentz weapons. His new partner in crime is DT Timmy Jernigan. He has been on the rise, but appeared to be a misfit in Baltimore’s 3-4 and was deemed expendable. In Philadelphia, in an aggressive scheme, he’ll flourish and his skills will be optimized. It is up to him to turn it into production, but he’ll have a big opportunity playing in this defensive front.
While Cox was drawing attention on the inside, the defensive ends were still struggling to win on the outside. The Eagles dropped their own scheme misfit in Connor Barwin, then added Chris Long and Derek Barnett. Both specialize in pass rushing and they’ve been known to give great effort every time they set foot on the field. Long is a tenured vet and Barnett was the Eagles’ top draft pick in 2017, so you’ll get the best of both worlds from these additions.
Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are now familiar with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and they look to grow for another year in this scheme. This is one of the deepest defensive lines in football, and it starts with Cox creating chaos in the middle.
The Eagles’ pass rush was neutralized by quick throws last season. Once offensive coordinators figured out that the cornerbacks were a liability in press coverage (and a liability in general), they designed game plans to expose it. The Eagles refaced their cornerback situation, and while it is still shaky, there is now growth potential there. You won’t see hollow reps given to stopgap vets. The reps will be valuable despite the bumps on the way.
As much as the offense was bolstered, and Wentz was surrounded with pieces to optimize his production, Cox was given a similar treatment on defense. Usually, you don’t hear that a team gave weapons to their defensive tackle. But that is exactly what Roseman and the Eagles did, and it could turn in more production in 2017.