After significant changes from last year, defense will have very little time and a lot of catching up to do before preseason.
By Dave Spadaro
When the Eagles report to the NovaCare Complex on July 25 for the start of their 2018 training camp, they’re going to be two weeks away from their first preseason game and a scant six weeks away from opening the NFL season against the Atlanta Falcons. That Sept. 6 date is circled as the Eagles begin defense of their Super Bowl championship.
And the defense, one with significant changes from a season ago, is going to have very little time to do a lot of catching up before the Falcons come to town.
It didn’t get any easier for coordinator Jim Schwartz’s group when the NFL announced last week that linebacker Nigel Bradham was suspended for that Atlanta game as punishment for an off-the-field incident involving Bradham from the offseason prior to the 2016 campaign.
It’s more than just a one-game suspension for Bradham that is concerning for the Eagles defense. Injuries to end Brandon Graham (ankle), tackle Tim Jernigan (back) and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks (Achilles tendon) kept them off the field the entire spring. Veteran tackle Haloti Ngata, signed in free agency, barely practiced in the spring. New end Michael Bennett missed most of the spring until he showed for the team’s mandatory minicamp and Bennett has a lot to learn in the defense. Cornerback Sidney Jones, in his second year after taking the NFL’s version of a redshirt rookie season as he recovered from a pre-draft torn Achilles tendon, missed the latter part of the spring practices, including the mandatory minicamp, with lower-body soreness.
“We know that when we’re all together,” Graham said, “we’re gonna have something special. We added some veterans who know how to get after the quarterback. They know how to get it done. We’re going to have time to put the pieces in place. I’m not even worried about it.”
While it’s true that many of the things that happen in the spring in the NFL tend to vanish by late August, the Eagles have reason to be on guard with the defense. Losing Bradham for the opener takes off the field a physical, intelligent and playmaking linebacker who will be very difficult to replace. The defensive line, projected to be a strength of the defense, has those medical concerns throughout. Jones is expected to be a key contributor in the secondary and must show he can be durable.
And what about Hicks? He has been hurt in two of his three NFL seasons, and the Eagles need him to anchor an already-thin corps at linebacker. Like, immediately. Against an Atlanta offense that has great balance and explosive playmakers and one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Matt Ryan.
The test will be a considerable one, made that much harder with the absence of Bradham.
If you expect the defense to lead the way for the Eagles in 2018, understand just how much work has to be done to get that side of the ball squared away. Key players recovering from injuries is enough of an issue. Losing Bradham for a game was a stinger.
In a very short period of time, the Eagles defense has to come together to prepare for an opening-game, “statement” kind of outing. If you thought this was all going to be easy, that the Eagles would waltz to a second Super Bowl, a quick peek at the state of the Eagles defense is a reminder of just how difficult repeating is in this league. The defense has so little time and so much to do to get to where it wants to be as the season opens. ••