Our post-draft mailbag had a few questions that covered a similar topic that I want to dig a little deeper into: 2023 expectations.
Kjb304: The Defense subtracted and added a lot of parts including DC. What are the realistic expectations for this defense in 2023?
The 2022 defense was special. Their 70 sacks came close to equaling the all-time record, and four players with more than 10 sacks had never happened before. This obviously won’t happen again.
So the regression happens. But how many, and what would it look like?
We can talk about what Sean Desai brings to the table, and we have plenty of time between now and the start of the season to do so. But no matter who the coach is, the Eagles have built their defense to overwhelm the offensive line. Put pressure on the QBs and they play worse, put them on the ground and they can’t do anything. They currently have seven first-round draft picks on the roster and have signed veteran free agent defensive linemen every season since 2017. If the Eagles can’t build pressure and get to QB, then everything collapses.
The 2021 defense was 31st in sack-and-sack rate, 19th in pressure and 21st in pressure rate, and 32nd in completion percentage because the QBs had all day in their pocket to separate them. It’s no coincidence that this team went winless in its seven games with the most passing yards against, giving up at least 27 points in those games, the rest of the season they were 9-2 and have given up more than 18 points only once.
The 2022 Eagles were 1st in sacks and sack rate, 2nd in pressure rate and 3rd in pressures, and 12th in completion percentage because QBs were under duress. In their highest seven passing yards, they were 5-2 and gave up 24 points on average.
Pressure and sacks are the barometer of the Eagles defense. For 2023, it probably won’t be great, but good enough should be, well, good enough.
If Jonathan Gannon had returned (sorry for putting that scary thought in your mind), I’d be setting the benchmarks for the top 10 you can win with that kind of performance. Which for 2022 would have been 44 sacks (Eagles had 70), 7.5% sack rate (Eagles were 11.2%), 152 pressures (Eagles had 168) and pressure rate by 23% (the Eagles had 25.5%).
These are the areas I will be looking for this season. Everything else for defense, their ability to generate turnovers, their ability to keep QBs ineffective, their ability to neutralize WRs, all stem from their ability to get into the backfield. That’s what they’re made to do.
Mofwood: Looking ahead to the season, which will have the bigger negative impact – changing players or changing the coaching staff?
Most returning players on both sides of the ball are coming off their career years or, for older veterans, their best season in years. Some of them are young enough that the ‘career year’ is just ‘the next step in their progression’, especially AJ Brown, Devonta Smith and Josh Sweat, and hopefully Jalen Hurts. But some of them are not. Haason Reddick probably won’t get 16 sacks anymore because it’s really hard to get 16 sacks, there’s only been 10 such seasons in the last five years and only one player has made it more than once (Myles Garrett). And Brandon Graham setting a new career sack total at 35 after setting a new total at 34 isn’t going to happen. At some point in the future, Lane Johnson will drop a bag. AJ Brown will not be able to score 3 TDs against the team that traded him.
Veteran players will regress to their “true” skill level, which is still excellent. Some younger players will have a year of regression as progress is generally inconsistent. And then there are the injuries, I’ll talk about that later. That’s how it goes.
But it makes it harder to win football games, and we care about winning football games. It will therefore be up to the coaches to adapt. Hard break but that’s the job.
CapinCrunches: With all the love the Eagles received in the playoffs, am I right to brace myself for a disappointment? It seems like every year the team that “wins the offseason” fails in the regular season. Obviously there’s a difference between being praised for making shrewd moves and being praised for throwing money at all the big names, but what’s the chance you think this could all blow up in our faces ? (Older veterans fall off a cliff, young DLs are underwhelming, RBs with injury histories get injured…)
As you pointed out, there’s a difference between the “ooh, brilliant” version of the offseason win and the “this team is good” version. The Eagles had the latter, but that doesn’t guarantee them anything. Could relying on older veterans who just played a 20-game season, some of whom played through injury, explode? Yes. Could playing so many young players in defense potentially backfire on you? Of course.
If the Eagles struggle next season, and we’re not talking ’11 wins after winning 14 games last year’, but ‘in danger of missing the playoffs’, it will most likely be for a reason: the wounds. Health is a huge factor in a team’s success or lack thereof. It’s no coincidence that 7 of the 10 healthiest teams in 2022 and 2021 had winning records, while 6 of the 10 least healthy teams in both seasons had none. A key player with a two-week injury is nothing in other sports, in the NFL it could be the difference between winning and missing the playoffs.
The Eagles were one of the healthiest teams last year, and above average in 2021, while in 2020 they’ve been pretty decimated. Surprise surprise, they had a winning record in the healthy years and were really bad in the injured year.
Obviously, a serious injury to Jalen Hurts would be the worst. There are four other areas of concern.
- Secondary. The Eagles could easily be in big, big trouble if either James Bradberry or Darius Slay goes down for a long stretch. We’ve seen him struggle before when Avonte Maddox was out. If Bradberry or Slay fails, who takes over? Zech McPhearson’s only career start was the meaningless Week 18 game last year, and his only extended playing time in 2022 was Week 4 against the Jaguars. He played well in this match, but can they count on him for a long time? Can they count on Greedy Williams, whose game-time record last year with the Browns was his first game back from injury?
- Offensive tackle. Lane Johnson hasn’t played a full season since 2015 and has missed at least two games in each of the past four seasons. Jordan Mailata has never started a full season. The Eagles can get by with one of them, but if they lack time together, they’re in for a really bad time. I talked about it yesterday, but the backup left tackle is a giant question mark, they haven’t actually replaced Andre Dillard.
- Defensive tackle. This one isn’t hard to imagine because it has kind of already happened. Stopping the run was a problem in the first half of the season, especially after Jordan Davis and then Marlon Tuipulotu suffered injuries in consecutive weeks, prompting the Eagles to sign Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh in the street. The Eagles were able to sign them largely because they had the league’s best record at 8-1. Would either have signed had it been 6-3? While the Eagles have high hopes for all the young DT talent they have on the roster, Fletcher Cox is the only one on the roster with starting experience. There’s potentially a lot of growing pains inside even without injuries, if someone misses an extended amount of time that will magnify the problem.
- Pass catcher. The Eagles have three outstanding pass catchers in AJ Brown, Devonta Smith and Dallas Goedert. After that… not much. Last season, WRs and TEs who weren’t that trio combined for just 64 receptions, 33 of which were by Quez Watkins. Olamide Zaccheaus caught 40 last season but would be longer than more than a starter. Freshly signed Dan Arnold, a WR turned TE who has some starting experience could help.
Even worse could be if the Eagles have a low long-term injury count but a high short-term injury count anywhere on the roster. If I was told they would lose 78 games to injury (last year’s median) but had to choose how long players get injured (weird with the heck but what can you do), I would make sure that the bulk of those are focused on a small number of players. Replacing a few players for a long time should be easier than replacing a group of players every week.
Think of the 2017 squad, which had 15 players on offense and 17 defense who played at least 13 games, they were 13th best in games lost adjusted; while the 2018 team had only 12 and 14, respectively, they were 32nd in AGL. Of course, it wasn’t all injuries, but the constant roster changes were certainly a factor in why the 2018 team started 4-6 and needed three straight wins at the end of the season. to qualify for the playoffs. It’s hard to find a rhythm when every two weeks there is a different starting formation. Or think about how in 2020 the team had 10 different offensive line combinations in all of its first 10 games and was 3-6-1 in those games.
That’s what worries me the most about 2023. There’s talent all over the roster, but the cliché is true, the best ability is availability.