Much has been written about the Eagles offensive outlook for next season, and whether or not Jalen Hurts is a franchise quarterback moving forward. Unfortunately we don’t have those answers yet, and we probably won’t until we see how next year plays out. But aside from the lack of offensive weapons this team is lacking, there’s another area that needs to be improved before the end of the offseason: The defenseThe Eagles ranked near the middle of the pack against the pass this season, which isn’t a cause for concern, but a lot of that production and lockdown corner play came from Darius Slay. Avonte Maddox and Steven Nelson did a good enough job as #2 and #3 cornerbacks but nothing special. 

The safety rotation of Rodney McLeod, K’Von Wallace, Marcus Epps, and Anthony Harris was serviceable, but once again, nothing too exciting outside of the development of Epps as the year went on. With McLeod and Harris expected to test the free agency market the Eagles will most likely be replacing one if not both of them.

The Eagles will address these defensive positions of concern in the draft, but outside of the draft, how the Eagles do in free agency will end up determining whether or not this team can go up a level next season. While reviewing the names of the defensive players that are set to be free agents in 2022, I picked out three realistic options that I think would make a huge impact on the Eagles defense heading into the 2022 season.

1.) Marcus Williams 

PFF has Williams ranked as their #1 free agent safety for 2022 and for good reason. Over 16 games this season, Williams had 74 tackles, 57 of which were solo, along with one forced fumble and two interceptions. In his 4 years in the league with the Saints, he’s established himself as one of the league’s better safeties. Williams will most likely be looking for a new team this offseason with the recent news of Sean Payton’s retirement and the Saints being in cap hell heading into this season. 

They’re currently 74 million over the cap, and will most likely not be able to afford Williams as he looks for a new contract. Reports have said that Williams will be looking to be one of the games highest paid safeties at around 16.4 million per year over a 4 year stretch.

While Williams might be a little out of the Eagles’ price range, it’s definitely something the Eagles should heavily consider. With Brandon Brooks’ retirement and contract re-negotiation, the Eagles were able to free up about 12.5 million, which currently has them sitting at about 27.8 million in cap room. Williams, while expensive, could transform this defense on the back end, and is definitely at the top of my list of defensive free agents for the Eagles.

2.) Jessie Bates III 

Bates is one of the most underrated safeties in the league, and would be a great addition to the Eagles secondary. With the Bengals heading to LA for the Super Bowl after their 21-3 comeback in the AFC Championship, Bates will have an opportunity to showcase his talents on the biggest stage there is. He made the biggest defensive play of the game in overtime, fighting with Tyreek Hill to poke the ball out and secure what would be the game winning interception by Vonn Bell.

He’s an elite deep coverage safety with the ability to play in the middle of the field and make plays on the ball. He finished 2021 with 88 tackles (67 solo) in 15 games played and an interception. Before this season Bates was unable to come to an agreement with the Bengals for an extension, so he will hit the free agent market looking for a larger annual salary than his current 1.2 million per year one. If the Eagles end up missing out on Marcus Williams, Bates is the next best thing at the safety position.

3.) J.C. Jackson 

After playing second fiddle to Stephon Gilmore for most of his career, J.C. Jackson was given the opportunity to be the #1 cornerback in 2021 and he did not disappoint. Jackson was already one of the best man coverage corners in the league, posting 25 interceptions in 4 years, including 8 just in 2021. He also had 58 total tackles this year to go along with a forced fumble. 

Jackson at only 25 will be looking for a new contract this offseason, and while he’ll most likely try and return to New England, there’s no promise that’s what the Patriots will want to do. Stephon Gilmore was already one of the league’s most established and respected cornerbacks before winning 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, but when he wanted a new deal in 2021, the Patriots declined and thought it was best to part ways with Gilmore.

While Gilmore is 6 years older and was coming off injury, Jackson could become available and in that case, I think he would be a perfect fit in Jon Gannon’s scheme. His ability to chase receivers down and create turnovers with his receiver-like ball skills is something that any defense would be lucky to have. 

 

All in all, the Eagles will have ample opportunities to improve their defense this offseason. With those three first round draft selections, names like  CB Ahmad Gardner, CB Derek Stingley Jr., LB Devin Lloyd, and LB Nakobe Dean are all intriguing to think about. But the draft is hard, and inevitably some of those top tier guys will be gone by the time the Eagles pick at 15. I really think this year’s draft (specifically the first round) will tell the story of how the next few years play out for the Eagles.

But with Brook’s contract relief, and other factors, the Eagles will head into 2022 with more cap space than all but 3 teams in the NFC. Other than picking up a receiver or two, the Eagles focus in free agency should be getting deeper and more talented in the secondary.

 

Featured Image: (John Amis, Associated Press)

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