With Gardner-Johnson and Epps gone, the Birds could use help at Safety.

Veteran safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps are gone; they both left the Birds in free agency this past offseason. The voids they leave behind will be very difficult to fill, no matter the diligent efforts made by the Eagles’ front office to acquire potential suitors. 

Gardner-Johnson led the Eagles’ defense and co-led the NFL in the 2022-23 regular season with six interceptions. Despite missing five games to injury, Gardner-Johnson pulled through in some of the Birds’ biggest games. 

In the Eagles’ first 2022-23 regular season game against the Cowboys on October 16th, 2022, Gardner-Johnson picked off two of Cowboys’ QB Cooper Rush’s 38 pass attempts. Gardner-Johnson’s success against the Cowboys led NBC to award him Sunday Night Football’s co-player of the game honors along with Jalen Hurts. Gardner-Johnson pulled down an interception in each of the Eagles’ next three games following his breakout performance against the Cowboys before lacerating his kidney in week 12 against the Packers and missing weeks 13-17. 

As if Gardner-Johnson’s departure was not enough, veteran strong safety Marcus Epps also departed this offseason. Epps, an unrestricted free agent after the 2022-2023 NFL season, decided to take his talents to the Las Vegas Raiders. Epps, unlike Gardner-Johnson, did not intercept a single pass last season. Throughout his five-year career in the National Football League, Epps has intercepted just three passes.

Despite not pulling down a high number of interceptions, Epps improved in each of his three-and-a-half seasons in Philly. Epps started in all seventeen games this past season, totaling a career-high 92 solo tackles and 6 passes defended. Epps also greatly contributed to the Eagles’ 2022-2023 playoff run. He started in all three playoff games, totaling 9 solo tackles and 13 total tackles. 

Five-Year Veteran, Safety Terrell Edmunds, Picked Up in Free Agency

To fill the vacancy left by Gardner-Johnson and Epps, the Eagles acquired veteran safety Terrell Edmunds via free agency in the offseason. Over the course of his five-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Edmunds totaled 5 interceptions, 5 sacks, and 410 combined tackles.

Aside from his statistical success, Edmunds has also appeared in two playoff games, bringing much-needed experience to the Birds. 

Free Safety Justin Evans Also Picked Up in Free Agency, Despite Injury-Ridden History

Justin Evans, currently listed as the #3 free safety on the Eagles’ depth chart, was also acquired via free agency. Evans has been in the NFL for five seasons, most recently with the New Orleans Saints; he picked off four passes in his career, including three in his rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in 2017.

In between his stints with the Bucs and Saints, Evans was sidelined for a period of two seasons due to injury. 

Illinois Safety Sydney Brown Selected By Birds in Round 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft

In addition to adding experience to the DB room, the Eagles have also added youth. With the 66th overall pick in round three of the 2023 NFL Draft, the Birds selected Illinois safety, Sydney Brown. Over the course of his five-year career as a Fighting Illini, Brown picked off 10 passes, including 6 in his fifth-year season.

In addition to these impressive numbers, Brown totaled 4 forced fumbles, 1 fumble returned, 26 passes defended, 319 total tackles, and 2 sacks while at Illinois. Brown is listed as the number two free safety on the Eagles’ depth chart behind Reed Blankenship.

Eagles’ Free Safety Reed Blankenship Hopes to Pick Up Where He Left Off in the 2022-23 NFL Season

Blankenship showed great promise in his first season with the Birds. After playing college football for Middle Tennessee State, Blankenship went undrafted. The Eagles ultimately signed him to a 3-year, $2.57 million contract in May 2022. Blankenship stepped up big in the 2022-23 season. He played in 1o games, starting in 4. In the games in which he played, Blankenship registered 32 total tackles, 2 passes defended, and 1 interception. 

Edmunds, Brown, and Blankenship Have Shown Great Promise Thus Far During OTAs

Edmunds, Brown, and Blankenship have all been impressive thus far during OTAs. As Edmunds said, “We have a great group of guys in the DB room“.

The Eagles certainly have a mix of veterans and young guns in their DB room, though they are still in the running to acquire Cardinals’ safety Budda Baker. And if they can, they certainly should. 

Despite the Early Success of Edmunds, Brown, and Blankenship, the Birds Should Still Go After Budda Baker

Baker requested a trade from the Cardinals back in February. Despite Baker’s trade request, he still attended the mandatory minicamp at the beginning of this week. His attendance, though, is no indicator that he will actually play.

On June 13th, Cardinals’ head coach Jonathan Gannon revealed that Baker was not practicing with the team because he was “working through some things.”

Gannon revealed that these “things” are related to Baker’s current contract dispute with the Cardinals organization. 

Baker still has 2 years remaining on the contract he signed with the Cardinals back in 2020, a contract which is set to pay out $13 million in base salary to Baker this season and $14.2 million in 2024. The back end of the contract Baker signed in 2020 is set to make him the seventh-highest-paid safety annually. 

The Eagles may have to pay Baker more than what remains on his contract. Baker essentially told the Cardinals to trade him or make him the highest-paid safety in the National Football League. With $12.7 million available in cap space, the Eagles would not have to maneuver much to free up space to acquire Baker. 

Baker’s production as of late is emblematic of the pay he seeks out. Since 2017, Baker has led all qualifying safeties with 632 tackles. Baker earned a fifth Pro Bowl appearance in 2022. In his six-year NFL career, Baker has recorded four 100-plus tackle seasons, including this past season, a season in which Baker had to battle through injuries. 

In addition to the strong play Baker would bring to Philly, he would also be the most experienced safety on the Eagles’ roster. Though the Eagles acquired Edmunds and Evans in the offseason, Baker would be an upgrade even from recently departed CJ Gardner-Johnson. Sydney Brown, whom the Eagles drafted, will certainly need time to develop, and who better to learn from than Baker?

The Eagles fell just short of winning the Super Bowl last season. Some defensive blunders were key to that loss.
Baker could certainly be the missing piece and bring Philly another Vince Lombardi trophy. 

Photo: Michael Owens/Getty Images

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