Build from the lines out. It is the way the Philadelphia Eagles do business and as the team played late into the 2022 season and it became apparent that the year could end in Super Bowl LVII, leaving little time to prepare for 2023, forward thinking went into high gear: How would the defensive tackle position look if, as expected, Javon Hargrave became one of the most highly sought-after players in the free agency market that was set to open in mid-March?
The Eagles have long invested in their defensive line, of course, and 2022 was no exception. The personnel department, headed by Howie Roseman, looks at the roster in a years-long window and, with that in mind, directed some valuable resources into the defensive tackle position last season. The Eagles used their first-round pick in the NFL Draft on Georgia's Jordan Davis, re-signed standout veteran Fletcher Cox, and midway through the season added veterans Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh to the mix.
Defensive tackle, once again, was a position of strength.
The Eagles knew that Hargrave, a premier inside pass rusher who was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2021 and then became one of four Eagles to reach double digits in quarterback sacks in 2022 (he had 11), would be tough to retain once free agency hit. So, what to do, especially after Hargrave signed a deal with San Francisco at the onset of free agency?
"We were strong at defensive tackle last year," Assistant General Manager Alec Halaby said as the team's Organized Team Activities at the NovaCare Complex wrapped up in June. "We really liked our group, but we knew that we were going to have to reshape it a little bit, that we might lose Javon, who was a great player for us. We had Suh and Linval playing a lot for us at the end of the year as well (after Davis suffered an ankle injury that forced him to Injured Reserve for four games). It is a position that we want to have a surplus at, right? It's a bad feeling when your defense has a weakness on the interior. It can distort a lot of different parts of your defense.
"We knew going into both free agency and the NFL Draft that we had those two pathways to improve. And we had guys on the roster that we felt really good about. When you're trying to replace a great player like Javon and his level of production, it's not necessarily a one-for-one swap. Do we expect Jordan Davis to become a force as a pass rusher? Yeah, we do. Do we expect Milton (Williams) to continue to grow? Yeah, we do. Marlon (Tuipulotu) showed some really good things last year. So, there is internal growth. Then you look outside at the pro and college crop."
The Eagles started the process of rebuilding the defensive tackle group after Hargrave's departure by signing Cox for his 12th season in Philadelphia. They added young veteran Kentavius Street in free agency, and, as Halaby explained, they had been aware of him for some time.
"We monitored him going back to college. He tore his ACL prior to the draft in 2018. He's had three solid years here in a row for both San Francisco and New Orleans," Halaby said. "He's a dynamic interior rusher, and I'd describe that as more of an opportunistic signing where free agency is ongoing, you're looking at options, you're talking about prices, you're looking at who is available. There is a little bit of a dislocation in the defensive tackle market this year as prices really escalated, but we feel good about Kentavius as a player and a person."
The Eagles weren't finished, of course. They entered the 2023 NFL Draft with two picks in Round 1, numbers 10 and 30 overall, with four other picks throughout the seven rounds. There would be an opportunity there, perhaps.
And, as we know, there was. Georgia's Jalen Carter, previewed as one of the very top talents in the draft, stayed on the board as the early picks came off. He was there after Houston selected Will Anderson, Jr. at third overall, was still on the board after Seattle chose cornerback Devon Witherspoon at No. 5. At seventh overall, Las Vegas picked edge player Tyree Wilson and then Atlanta jumped on running back Bijan Robinson and the Eagles decided to take no chances, trading up one spot to the ninth position.
Georgia's Jalen Carter was the easy decision.
"Going into the draft, we did not feel like we were done," Halaby said. "Fletcher and Kentavius are both on one-year deals. We thought it could really behoove us to add another foundational piece next to Jordan. Jalen Carter, special talent. We monitored him throughout the process and, as he started to fall a little bit, we thought we would have the opportunity to select him and have two foundational pieces inside."
The Eagles added versatile defensive lineman Moro Ojomo in Round 7, welcome back Tuipulotu and second-year prospect Noah Elliss back from injury, and feel like they are well stocked with talent and depth at the all-important defensive tackle position heading into Training Camp.
"As a group, I think we feel really good," Halaby said. "We've got veteran talent, we've got young talent, we've got different types of players, different body types, different styles. It's a unique situation where we feel really good about the group even after a significant loss like that."