We’re less than a week away from the start of Eagles training camp.
The Birds report for camp at the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday with the first practice of the summer scheduled for the next day.
Every year, I go into training camp with a list of players I want to watch extra carefully. That doesn’t necessarily mean the best or most important players, but the players with some added intrigue for various reasons. Yesterday, we looked at 10 offensive players.
Now, here are 10 defensive players to watch this summer:
CB James Bradberry
The Eagles failed to address their CB2 spot until May 18, when they agreed to terms with Bradberry on a one-year deal. The Giants cut Bradberry well after free agency began, which meant any big-money deals he might have gotten were already off the table. So he wanted to sign with a team that ran a scheme that would get the most out of him. Bradberry has excelled in zone coverage and Jonathan Gannon runs an awful lot of zone so this is a good fit. While Steven Nelson was solid in 2021, Bradberry should be an upgrade at that spot and he’ll combine with Darius Slay and Avonte Maddox to form a really formidable trio.
Bradberry, who will turn 29 in early August, had somewhat of a down season in 2021 after going to the Pro Bowl in his first season with the Giants. But even in a down year, he still had a career-high four interceptions and added 17 pass breakups. Playing across from CB1 Slay means that teams will probably challenge Bradberry quite a bit in 2022. That’s why the CB2 job is so important in this defense. We won’t know the whole story but we’ll find out pretty soon if Bradberry can get back to his 2020 form.
DT Jordan Davis
The Eagles traded up a couple spots to draft Davis out of Georgia in the first round. The enormous nose tackle was one of the key players for the National Championship Bulldogs defense and was considered a unicorn in draft circles. While Davis is massive (the Eagles list him at 6-6, 336), he moves exceptionally well for a guy of his size. Davis’ combine results were eye-popping and that athleticism definitely showed up during the Bulldogs’ championship run.
Davis has been working to cut some weight and get in better shape now that he’s in the NFL. That will be an important element for his success at the next level. But it’ll be a treat to watch him move during training camp.
LB Nakobe Dean
As excited as everyone is for Davis, don’t lose sight of Dean. I think there’s a good chance that Dean will end up being the Eagles’ top off-ball linebacker this season and that will start with a strong showing in training camp. As great as the other players were around him at Georgia, Dean was the unquestioned leader of one of the greatest defenses in college football history. He’s undersized at 5-11, 231 pounds, but has all the athleticism and instincts to thrive at the next level.
So why did Dean go in the third round? Well, teams were clearly scared off by his injury history but Dean participated in OTAs and is expected to be a full-go at training camp. If he is and if he ends up being the player the Eagles expect, this could end up being an all-time draft steal.
CB Tay Gowan
I really liked Gowan coming out of UCF last season and so did the Eagles, but they didn’t draft him. The Cardinals took him in the sixth round and he didn’t arrive in Philly until the Zach Ertz trade in October. Gowan played minimally during his rookie season but there could be some talent there. He’s 6-1, 186 pounds (the right build for an outside corner) and seems to be a fix in Gannon’s zone schemes.
Because Gowan didn’t join the Eagles until October, this summer will be our first chance to see him in training camp as he fights for a backup corner job with a bunch of other young cornerbacks on the roster. Last year’s fourth-round pick Zech McPhearson likely has one of those jobs but Gowan is the other outside corner I’ll be watching.
DE Brandon Graham
Graham is 34 and coming off a major Achilles injury but I wouldn’t bet against him. There are going to be some obvious questions about just how well Graham will be able to play in his 13th NFL season but he was playing at a really high level in 2020, when he made his only career Pro Bowl team. While it was a decade ago, the last time Graham came off a serious injury he played in all 16 games in 2012. Still, we don’t really know what to expect from Graham in 2022 and that’s why we’ll be watching him so closely this summer.
While the Eagles added Haason Reddick to rush the passer, they didn’t really address the defensive end position. The Eagles have Josh Sweat coming off a Pro Bowl and re-signed Derek Barnett, but they didn’t add anyone else. So it kind of tells you they’ll still be relying on Graham heavily in 2022. Training camp will give us a good indication of whether or not that’s a good idea.
SAM Kyron Johnson
The Eagles did not address the defensive end spot but they did improve the SAM linebacker position. We’ll get to the marquee free agent signing soon but Johnson, the sixth-round pick of Kansas should be fun to watch too. Now, it’s only right to temper expectations for Day 3 picks but Johnson will be competing with last year’s seventh-round pick Patrick Johnson for the backup SAM position. And Kyron Johnson has some juice.
We saw that juice down at the Senior Bowl this offseason. Johnson was a late addition to the Senior Bowl roster but his performance in Mobile turned some heads. He was really fun to watch in 1-on-1 battles, where he was besting tackles who outweighed him by a great deal. If he can do that in an NFL training camp, he’ll get plenty of buzz over the next few weeks.
Sam Haasson Reddick
You can argue that AJ Brown was the Eagles’ biggest offseason acquisition but Reddick is right there with him. The Eagles finished last season with a paltry 29 sacks. While the Eagles will tell you sacks aren’t everything — and they’re right — that number is far too low. So they brought in Reddick, who is fifth in the NFL in sacks over the last two years with 23 1/2. The Eagles are listing him as a linebacker (he’ll play the SAM) but his job will be to get after the QB.
The presence of Reddick alone suggests a slight shift in defensive scheme in Year 2 under Gannon. While the Eagles won’t simply be switching to a 3-4, their personnel moves this offseason indicate a more hybrid defense than the one we saw in 2021. Reddick is going to be a big part of that shift. It’ll be up to Gannon to maximize the very talented pass rusher.
S Jaquiski Tartt
The Eagles went after some big-name free agent safeties this offseason — Marcus Williams, Justin Reid, Tyrann Mathieu — but didn’t land one. They let Rodney McLeod walk and re-signed Anthony Harris. The Eagles did not agree to terms with Tartt until June, so he is a late addition to a group that includes Harris, Marcus Epps, K’Von Wallace, Andre Chachere and Jared Mayden. Tartt’s one-year deal is worth $1.12 million with $500,000 guaranteed, according to a league source. So it’s not like the Eagles broke the bank to bring him in.
But Tartt is a 30-year-old eight-year pro with plenty of starting experience in the NFL. He was a pretty good player during his seven seasons with the 49ers and will push for playing time with the Eagles. It’ll be fun to see how those safety spots shake out this summer.
LB Davion Taylor
Because of a couple notable offseason acquisitions, Taylor is the forgotten player in the Eagles’ linebacker room. And that’s a shame because the former third-round pick started to show some promise during his second NFL season before another injury shut him down for the year. Taylor is healthy now and I’m curious to see how he looks at training camp this summer. Will he continue to show the progression we saw during the 2021 season? It was a shame when he got hurt, because he really needed those game reps and now he’s buried on the depth chart.
But Taylor is just one injury away from again having a big role with the Eagles. I saw enough from him last year to be very intrigued so I want to keep an eye on him this summer.
LB Kyzir White
Yes, there are three off-ball linebackers on this list. We talked about Dean earlier but don’t lose sight of White, who signed with the Eagles on a one-year deal as a free agent. White, 26, is a former college safety who converted to linebacker after the Chargers drafted him in the fourth round in 2018. So he has the type of coverage skills the Eagles have been missing from the position. And he’s coming off a career year. White last season started all 17 games and had 144 tackles with 7 TFLs.
But why was he available? And why was he available for so cheap? I think White is a better player than the other failed free agent linebackers the Eagles have brought in over the last several years, but it’s hard to forget about Eric Wilson and Corey Nelson and Zach Brown and others. White can prove he’s not the latest in that line over the next few weeks.
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