2020 was a breakthrough season for linebacker Alex Singleton, who went from a fringe roster player to the defense's leading tackler and a week-in, week-out producer. How did it happen? Why did it happen? And what does it mean for the Eagles' defense moving forward? All good questions. The answers, we'll learn when the 2021 season begins and the defense has Jonathan Gannon as its coordinator and, as could be the case, some significant changes among the defensive personnel.
Singleton represents more than just his accomplishments in 2020 – 114 total tackles (of the 119 in his NFL career), two quarterback sacks, and, of course, the interception and return for a touchdown in that prime-time win over San Francisco that launched Singleton – as he made the most of an opportunity for playing time and changed the course of his career and of the way the Eagles think he fits into the defense.
Now, everything changes with a new scheme here. The approach will, no doubt, be different than what Jim Schwartz employed, and the truth is that the Eagles are going to keep as much about their schemes under wraps until they play in the regular season. If there is any competitive advantage a new head coach has, it's the element of what-is-Nick-Sirianni-and-his-staff thinking.
For a player like Singleton, the prove-it process begins anew when the players report to the NovaCare Complex in the spring. And as cold as it is across the United States and as long away as the offseason conditioning program seems, the truth is that the new NFL business year begins on March 17 and with that is the opening of free agency and then, six weeks later, the NFL Draft begins on April 29.
"I don't think I'm ever going to be in a position of being comfortable in the NFL," Singleton said during the 2020 season. "That's just not in the cards for me and, honestly, that's the way I want it to be. I love the idea of proving myself each and every day."
And that's exactly the mindset every Eagles player must have with a new head coach and a mostly-new coaching staff – only run game coordinator/offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead return as primary position coaches – for the season ahead. Who on this roster has the luxury of taking anything for granted? Wouldn't any approach like that directly counter the idea of competition and urgency that Sirianni wants as a piece of the team's personality?
Singleton, then, represents an ideal role model of sorts. He joined the NFL in 2015 and wasn't able to find stable footing before joining the CFL for three seasons. Singleton joined the Eagles in 2019 and after being promoted from the practice squad became a core member of the special teams. A season later, he took his game to an entirely different level and now will be an interesting player to watch as the Eagles reconfigure the defense in every way. In a linebacker room that seems fairly wide open in terms of penciled-in roles and responsibilities, how do the coaches see Singleton fitting in? And can he play his way into a starting role again by outworking everyone and paying close attention to the fundamentals and details of the scheme?
The new coaching staff is spending its time now learning the scheme and installing it in all three phases, and at the same time is studying the potentially available prospects for free agency and the draft. Singleton is not a name that fans think about as a "key" to what the Eagles are planning on defense, but in many ways, he represents what the Eagles need. For a team that is going to be challenged financially to make an impact in free agency – you know all about how the Eagles are projected to be over the salary cap, but Howie Roseman and Jake Rosenberg always seem to work their magic and keep the Eagles competitive in the process of acquiring veteran players – players like Singleton who come at affordable numbers and who have playing experience are critical to have. At the linebacker position, alone, the Eagles want to see Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley take big steps in the second seasons of their careers – two players on rookie contracts who were draft picks and who have league experience.
As much as the NFL Draft and, to a lesser degree in a projection, free agency, play a part in upgrading the talent level on this roster, so does the on-the-roster improvement of players who are going to have to learn new schemes and win over a new coaching staff. Having the level of urgency and dedication a player like Singleton has demonstrated is a good place for every player to start. Singleton wasn't guaranteed a thing at any stage of his football career, and everything he's made has been earned. That is the kind of mentality Sirianni would love to see from all corners of the roster.
A sense of entitlement? Check that at the door. Sirianni is going to hold his players accountable, so bearing down and locking in and taking nothing for granted as a player like Singleton, for example, is a good base role model for every player to consider.