Jim Schwartz did it his way, and that is to say he coordinated an Eagles defense for five seasons by employing an aggressive front four that led the way with a downhill, attacking style and then he played chess behind the mayhem. His was a defense that sometimes bent, broke only when the personnel couldn't support the scheme, and, in the glorious World Championship run in the 2017 postseason, dominated Atlanta, turned the NFC Championship Game around on a series of big plays against Minnesota, and made just enough plays to hold off the torrid Tom Brady-led Patriots to help bring the Lombardi Trophy to Philadelphia.
Schwartz announced on Thursday that he would not return to the Eagles for the 2021 season and that his plan is to "step back from the day-to-day of coaching for the time being." Everyone wishes Schwartz, a lifetime football guy, the best of luck. As is the nature in the NFL, the focus now turns to what's next for the Eagles on defense.
That Schwartz had this in mind was no surprise to the Eagles, so in theory, management has been gameplanning a bit for the future. There are quality candidates out there and the Eagles, surely, will consider all of their options. The defense is in a transition stage from a personnel standpoint; that is hardly a secret. The front four that fought so hard in 2020 and that had periods of success – the Eagles had 49 quarterback sacks, third in the NFL, with 40 of them produced by the defensive line – remains the strength of the defense looking forward. While another year older, end Brandon Graham and tackle Fletcher Cox are Pro Bowl players. Tackle Javon Hargrave recovered from a torn pectoral muscle to display his prowess in this attacking scheme. End Josh Sweat took another step in the right direction with six sacks in rotational duty.
No doubt, there is talent to work with up front. But there are also questions. End Derek Barnett, the team's first-round draft pick in 2017, had his fifth-year option picked up by the Eagles in the summer and then played through injuries and compiled 5.5 sacks, playing 49 percent of the snaps. Where does he fit into the picture? Same with veteran tackle Malik Jackson and end Vinny Curry and some experienced players the Eagles are evaluating as they look into the future.
As the Eagles parse through the game tape during this end-of-season evaluation period, do they feel they have enough in the trenches?
At linebacker, one of the bright stories of 2020 was the emergence of Alex Singleton, who went from fringe roster player to the leading tackler on the team. He seemed to be in the right position almost all the time, and he tackled well and he was tough and he probably showed that he can be a starter in this defense. What else did the Eagles learn about their linebacker corps, one that by the end of the season was down to backups to backups. Rookies Davion Taylor (32 snaps) and Shaun Bradley (76 snaps) played very little, and they will look forward to a full offseason of development. Who else do the Eagles know they can count on at linebacker for 2021?
The secondary isn't all that much more locked in for next season. Cornerback Darius Slay is a starter and a very fine one at that. He battled to the end and never backed down from a challenge. Had the Eagles been more successful – good health would have helped – at the other cornerback positions, Slay's contributions would have been fairly recognized. He went out and had his win-some, lose-some moments against Seattle's D.K. Metcalf and Green Bay's Davante Adams, but doesn't every cornerback have those kinds of games against those elite receivers? Yes, is the answer. For much of the season, opposing quarterbacks didn't look Slay's way. No need. There were other options available.
As the Eagles evaluate for 2021, what do they have in the secondary? Avonte Maddox should be healthy and the Eagles need to find out where he is most successful – nickel cornerback? Outside cornerback? Safety? – and pray he stays on the field – his snap count and games played have decreased in each of his three seasons. Nickell Robey-Coleman signed a one-year contract in the 2020 free agency period. So did safety/cornerback/hybrid Jalen Mills. Are they back for 2021? What about safety Rodney McLeod, who suffered the torn ACL late in the season? Can the Eagles count on him for 2021?
As a whole, then, the defense offers so many questions. The first step is to find the right coordinator and decide what scheme is best for the personnel here. Or, given all the questions, what is the best defense for the coordinator and bring in the right personnel to fit the scheme. This is a big project, one that includes all three levels of the defense. It is not a plug-and-play situation.
A new day is coming for the Philadelphia Eagles defense, a new era for sure. Along with a new coordinator, the Eagles have to fill in some holes. As you look at the personnel on the current roster, the biggest question is: What do the Eagles know they can count on for 2021?