Tuesday represented a new phase in Eagles Training Camp with the first day of full pads, a great crowd in full throat, and the temperatures at the NovaCare Complex tipping past 90 degrees. The tempo was fast, the action was crisp and physical, and we again gained a sense, just a sense, of what this revamped defense could be all about in the 2022 season.
Up front, the defense has depth and interchangeable pieces and versatility in the way it lines up. At linebacker, the Eagles have speed and depth and some options to choose personnel. In the secondary, there is experience and attention to detail and a beat-me-if-you-can mentality across the board.
It is still very, very early, and projections at this point don't mean a whole lot, especially for a defense that added a cast of talented veterans in free agency – linebackers Haason Reddick and Kyzir White, cornerback James Bradberry, safety Jaquiski Tartt – and retained the likes of end Derek Barnett and tackle Fletcher Cox, welcomed back end Brandon Graham from injury, and drafted tackle Jordan Davis and linebackers Nakobe Dean and Kyron Johnson. Those names represent a lot of pieces to fit into this puzzle, and it truly will take a few games into the regular season after a few games of chess with offensive coordinators before we truly have a feel for this '22 defense.
But the coaches are excited. How, you ask, could they possibly know much with Training Camp just a week old and no "live" periods to observe?
"Year 2 is phenomenal to see the comfort of guys in the defense not just knowing their assignment within a call, but understanding what the rest of the defense looks like, where are the stress points in this call, and how we can combat those stress points," Linebackers Coach Nick Rallis said on Monday. "I've seen it from every guy in the group and then the two guys that I have new are extremely smart players, so it's almost like they're in Year 2 as well, so there's a huge difference in Year 2.
"It's got me excited, no doubt."
Everyone is excited because, if you've been through this a few times, you can get a feel for what is here. A defense that last year did a nice job limiting points – 10 games with 18 or fewer points – and stifling offense's big plays – the Eagles allowed the fewest big plays in the NFC – showed the promise for Jonathan Gannon's scheme and the personnel on hand. Now, the scheme is going to largely remain the same – there will be some refining, for sure, and some wrinkles added, in all likelihood – and the personnel has been vastly upgraded.
So, yeah, everyone feels it.
"Man, honestly, we can be really good. We've just got to make sure that we put that work in," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "We got some dawgs back there. I'm excited. Young ones at that, too. Hungry. And so I'm just excited to see how they put that together, cause right now, man, on defense, we're looking good. I'm liking what's going on. As you know, we gotta make sure we stay healthy and make sure we're knowing what to do out there. That's the No. 1 thing.
"So far, so good. I think this is the best group I've had since I've been here."
While the identity of this defense will form over the next several weeks, it's not too early to assign some buzzwords to what it is showing on the practice field: Relentless, competitive, fast, deep. Gannon and the position coaches deem it "a work in progress" and they explore the best ways to use Reddick and his pass-rushing skills, White and his ball-chasing skills, Dean and his speed, Bradberry and Tartt in the coverage schemes. What's obvious on a daily basis is how the cornerbacks are challenging the excellent wide receiver corps led by A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith and how the speed and pursuit in the front seven has challenged the offense's ability to stretch the field in the running game.
The early returns are promising. But the warning here is that everything is early. Training Camp's Groundhog Days are here until the Eagles open the preseason against the New York Jets and then travel to Cleveland and Miami for joint practices followed by preseason tilts. We'll know a whole lot more about the defense at that time, and then everything starts anew for the regular season.
It's safe to say this, though, even from a cautiously optimistic perspective: The Eagles have a lot to work with on defense and they're taking it step by step, day by day, building for the season ahead, confident that the promising signs they see now will manifest to a defense taking a full leap forward in Year 2 of a scheme that did a lot of things right in 2021.