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Four lingering questions about the Eagles defense before training camp

Olivia Reiner, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Football

Under the guidance of new coordinator Vic Fangio, the Philadelphia Eagles' overhauled defense began to come together during organized team activities and minicamp.

The scheme and its key contributors will continue to take shape when training camp commences in late July. In the meantime, here are four lingering questions about the Eagles defense after minicamp, the second installment of a two-part series that started with some thoughts on the offense:

Will James Bradberry have a role on the team come Week 1?

The veteran cornerback's future with the Eagles grew a layer of intrigue during minicamp.

Before the first practice, coach Nick Sirianni revealed that Bradberry had been cross-training at safety throughout the offseason program and would continue to do so that day. Sirianni saw that plan derailed when the 30-year-old cornerback left practice during individual drills as he dealt with what an NFL source told The Philadelphia Inquirer was an abductor (hip) injury. He never participated in team drills — or any more drills after leaving practice — that week.

Do the Eagles believe that Bradberry can bounce back from his shaky 2023 season as a versatile depth piece? He spent an early stint in the slot last year in place of an injured Avonte Maddox, but general manager Howie Roseman called Bradberry an "outside guy" back in February. Still, when speaking about Bradberry's cross-training opportunity, Sirianni even invoked the name of Charles Woodson, the Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back who started his 18-year NFL career at cornerback before transitioning to safety for his final four seasons.

"You've seen a lot of good corners in this league," Sirianni said. "I guess the first guy that comes to my mind, Charles Woodson. He went from elite corner to being an elite nickel to being an elite safety. And so, I'm excited about that for James, that he's able to do more."

Will the Eagles end up moving on from Bradberry entirely, a move that would come with considerable salary-cap ramifications? At the very least, Sirianni's comments offered further support to the notion that Bradberry is unlikely to return as the starting outside cornerback opposite Darius Slay.

While the Eagles' cornerbacks room is quite crowded, they're lacking depth at safety. Reed Blankenship and C.J. Gardner-Johnson are the clear-cut starting safety candidates for 2024. Sydney Brown is behind them on the depth chart, but he's still rehabbing his way back from an ACL injury and his status is unknown for Week 1. Maddox even played some safety in minicamp as he looks to diversify his role and fill a need for the team.

Who will start at outside cornerback opposite Slay and at slot cornerback?

So, if Bradberry is no longer viewed as a starting outside cornerback, who takes his place opposite Slay?

Minicamp revealed that the Eagles have options. With Bradberry sidelined, Isaiah Rodgers and Kelee Ringo split reps on the outside with the rest of the starters. Rodgers, fresh off a yearlong suspension for violating the league's gambling policy, didn't appear to have lost a step in team drills. Ringo, the 2023 fourth-round pick out of Georgia, made plays on the ball and held his own against top receivers.

Then, there's Quinyon Mitchell, the No. 22 overall pick out of Toledo. Fangio threw a lot at Mitchell and second-round pick Cooper DeJean in terms of alignments, but Mitchell mostly played on the boundary with the second-team defense. While Mitchell should have a chance to win the starting job in training camp once competition ramps up, the Eagles may not need him to be ready right away if Rodgers and Ringo continue to ascend.

The Eagles also have a number of options to contend for the starting role in the slot, a position group that Roseman said he wanted to build out before the start of free agency. Maddox, DeJean, and Tyler Hall, the four-year veteran who signed with the Eagles as a free agent, took the bulk of the reps in the slot in minicamp. Mitchell even got a few looks there, too.

 

Which young members of the defense will take the next step in their development?

The new season will bring new responsibilities for young members of the defensive corps going into their second or third seasons with the team.

Among them is Nolan Smith, the 2023 No. 30 overall pick out of Georgia who posted one sack in 17 games in his rookie season. Last year, the 23-year-old edge rusher nursed a lingering shoulder injury while playing 16.18% of the defensive snaps behind Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, and Brandon Graham.

The Eagles essentially swapped Reddick for Bryce Huff and re-signed Graham, but given Huff's inexperience shouldering an every-down workload and Graham's age, Smith should find himself in a position to assume a greater role in the rotation in 2024. Smith said he's dealing with "no problems health-wise" during OTAs as he reflected on his rookie season.

"A lot of people think you're supposed to come in the league and dominate and do all of this and that," Smith said. "And I've got the same dreams and hopes that everybody has for me. I want to get 10-plus sacks and do all of that. But realistically, it's a learning curve."

Young defensive tackles Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis are also poised to take on more snaps following the retirement of 12-year veteran Fletcher Cox. Last season, Cox led Eagles defensive tackles with 58.86% of the defensive snaps, followed by Carter (48.45%) and Davis (44.66%). Throughout the offseason, coaches such as new defensive line coach Clint Hurtt stressed the importance of Davis' conditioning heading into his third season.

"The No. 1 thing for him is just being in the best shape that he possibly can be in, and he's taken huge strides with that this offseason," Hurtt said. "And it's still always, it's a work in progress, but he's off to a really, really good start. If he's in great condition [ ...] then he's going to be a hard guy to block."

Will Nakobe Dean start at inside linebacker in Week 1?

Throughout the offseason program, the third-year inside linebacker has been working his way back from a foot injury that prematurely ended his 2023 season. Dean increased his workload to the point that he began to participate in seven-on-seven drills in OTAs, which continued into minicamp.

His reps came primarily with the second team, while free-agent additions Devin White and Zack Baun held down the starting roles. Baun's training at inside linebacker was one notable takeaway from the offseason program given his versatility and his affinity for rushing the passer, both of which he discussed during his introductory news conference.

With Dean's injury layoff and recent rehab in mind, it isn't a total surprise that his reintegration to team drills came with the second-stringers. However, it reinforced the idea that Dean — the Week 1 starter last season — will have to earn that role once more in Year 3 among a revamped group. He also figures to compete for playing time against free-agent addition Oren Burks and fifth-round pick Jeremiah Trotter Jr.

"We don't have anybody established as, per se, an Eagle, but we've got guys to work with, and we're happy with the group so far," Fangio said in early May.


(c)2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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