The Eagles' defense was fourth in the NFL in both points and yards allowed in 2017. Philadelphia also had the league's best run defense. That was the best performance by an Eagles defense since 2008 when Jim Johnson's final unit was fourth in points allowed and third in yards allowed. That should give you an idea of how impressive Jim Schwartz and his players were last year. It isn't easy to perform at that level.
As crazy as it might sound, the defense can be even better this year. There were a lot of things going on last year.
Ronald Darby got hurt in the season opener and missed the next eight games. Jaylen Watkins took over for him initially but got injured the next week. That threw the secondary into a bit of chaos. Rookie Rasul Douglas was used at times. Free agent addition Patrick Robinson mostly played in the slot. Second-year corner Jalen Mills offered stability and held down one of the outside positions.
It didn't help that Rodney McLeod got hurt in Week 2 and then missed the Chargers game. The deep middle was vulnerable. Corey Graham eventually became a key role player for the Eagles, but he signed in August and was up and down for the first month of the season.
You had guys learning new roles and lots of new faces. The pass defense was vulnerable early on. The Giants, Chargers, and Cardinals all had success throwing the ball.
You can make up for coverage issues with a strong pass rush. There were issues up front as well. Fletcher Cox got hurt in the Giants game and then was out for the Chargers and Cardinals games. Derek Barnett was a rookie just trying to adjust to the NFL, and he played better as the season progressed.
The big blow to the defense came in Week 7.
Jordan Hicks ruptured his Achilles tendon and was out for the rest of the year. Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham played well in the nickel defense, but the team was vulnerable in three-linebacker sets. The Vikings' only touchdown in the NFC title game came against the base defense when they burned Najee Goode. If Hicks were on the field for that play, it would have been a lot more difficult for the Vikings to score.
While Kendricks played well overall, he was erratic in coverage. Hicks is at his best in coverage. Think back to the Seattle game. The Seahawks ran a play that got Kendricks out in space against a running back. This was a specific design to attack Kendricks. The running back released on a slant-and-go route. Kendricks bit on the fake and the back was wide open for an easy touchdown that put the game away.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the 2018 defense. The biggest might be the return of Hicks at middle linebacker. He is smart and an excellent leader, both critical traits for playing in the middle.
Hicks excels in coverage. He has the movement skills to hang with pass catchers, but just as important, he has terrific instincts. He understands pass routes and what the receiver is trying to do. In 31 career games, Hicks has seven interceptions and 14 pass deflections.
The Eagles aren't just getting a linebacker back. They are adding a weapon to the lineup. Hicks tackles well, is a good blitzer, and he's got five career fumble recoveries. He has a nose for the ball. This is a guy you want on the field. Good things happen when he's out there.
Corey Nelson and Nathan Gerry will compete for Kendricks' spot as the weakside linebacker. Nelson is more experienced and has the kind of cover skills the Eagles want from that position.
Tim Jernigan's injury is cause for some concern up front, but the Eagles still have a talented defensive line. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are difference-makers. Michael Bennett played like that for Seattle and could be a crucial addition. Haloti Ngata can be a capable starter until Jernigan returns.
Chris Long and Derek Barnett are both in their second season with the Eagles. They know the scheme inside-out at this point and should be key players the whole year. Rookie Josh Sweat has big-time potential. He will push for playing time, but there won't be pressure for him to get on the field right away.
Elijah Qualls and Destiny Vaeao are in crucial seasons for personal reasons. They need to show the Eagles they can contribute and are worth keeping around. The Eagles need to see more than occasional flashes out of them. Both players should be highly motivated this year.
The secondary should be more stable this year. It is deeper and more talented than last season. It is also more experienced.
Darby and Mills are projected to start outside. Sidney Jones might be in the lead to play in the slot. He got to practice for part of last year and then played in the season finale. That hardly makes Jones a veteran, but he's far from a rookie. A trio of Darby, Mills, and Jones could be outstanding.
Douglas is back and has a year under his belt. He is better prepared for when he plays. Rookie Avonte Maddox will push Jones in the slot. Maddox is the kind of driven, highly competitive player who won't care that he's a rookie. He wants to be on the field right away and will do everything he can to win a job.
Doug Pederson has mentioned corners D.J. Killings and De'Vante Bausby multiple times in the offseason. These guys were with the Eagles last year and did enough to get the coaching staff's attention. The challenge for them is to win roster spots. That won't be easy with so much talent ahead of them.
Depth at safety is still a question mark. Chris Maragos is back, and that will help. Tre Sullivan spent last year on the practice squad. We'll see if he can push for a roster spot this time out. The team could still add a free agent if they want as Corey Graham is still on the market.
The Eagles were aggressive in adding undrafted players at safety. Jeremy Reaves was a priority signing. Ryan Neal and Stephen Roberts were also added. All three of them have NFL potential.
Schwartz has a lot of talent at his disposal. He's got good depth up front and at corner. He has playmakers at every level of the defense. This unit has a chance to be the best Eagles defense since 2002, when the team was second in the NFL in points allowed and fourth in yards allowed.
It feels good once again having the Eagles play outstanding defense. That has been a hallmark of this franchise going back for decades. Let's hope the 2018 defense can have a tremendous season and help the Eagles make a run at winning another Super Bowl.