He doesn't count as a draft pick, but defensive tackle Tim Jernigan's return to the Eagles for the 2019 season feels that way. With a big plus, of course, in that he's a proven NFL veteran, knows the team's defensive scheme, and is highly motivated to get his career back on track after an injury-disrupted 2018 campaign. With all of the attention paid to the NFL Draft, the announcement that Jernigan is coming back to Philadelphia is to be noted a no-risk move that could pay significant dividends for the Eagles this season.
A key contributor to the defense in the Super Bowl LII season, Jernigan suffered an offseason injury that limited him to just three regular-season games last year – Jernigan played in just 46 defensive snaps, four percent of the total defensive snaps – and his absence hurt the defense. All of a sudden, the Eagles weren't able to play the rotation they wanted to employ at defensive tackle. Fletcher Cox had different players lining up next to him all year – Haloti Ngata, Destiny Vaeao, Treyvon Hester, Bruce Hector, T.Y. McGill, Jernigan for a spell – and offensive blocking schemes were able to focus on Cox with constant double- and triple-team blocking.
Cox had success – he's just that dominating – but the lack of depth contributed to a run defense that dropped from first in the NFL in 2017 to sixth in 2018, giving up 15 rushing yards per game more the season after winning the Super Bowl. A deeper dive into the numbers shows that the Eagles' run defense had a strong finish in the final three regular-season games against the Rams, Texans, and Redskins after allowing offenses to gain 100-plus yards on the ground in seven of the previous eight games. A more revealing statistic is that the Eagles allowed 4.7 yards per rushing attempt in 2018 as opposed to 3.8 yards per attempt in 2017.
Now, the picture is considerably improved. The Eagles pulled off a huge move prior to the start of free agency, adding veteran Malik Jackson as a sidekick to Cox. Now they've brought back Jernigan, who has the kind of strength, quickness, and nastiness to thrive inside. Given everything the Eagles have done to bolster the defensive line in these months prior to the draft – adding Jackson and re-signing Jernigan to go along with the retention of end Brandon Graham and bringing back defensive end Vinny Curry – and it's fair to say that coordinator Jim Schwartz and defensive line coach Phillip Daniels are going to enjoy rotating the extremely talented group, keeping everybody fresh, and dominating at the line of scrimmage.
Just how it's all going to play out as far as the rotation and snaps and who starts and all of that remains to be seen, of course. There is a vision, and that is to accumulate as many selfless players as possible who are going to contribute, who are going to stay fresh, and who are going to be as relentless and disruptive as possible in every phase of the game. The Eagles are now in terrific shape with the NFL Draft on tap – a not-official depth chart that includes Graham, Curry, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long – and an tackle group that is as formidable as any in the league with the All-Pro Cox heading the list with a rejuvenated Jackson and a hungry Jernigan all playing off of each other's strengths.
Offensive lines can't overly commit to Cox with an excellent pass rusher like Jackson in the fold. And while Jernigan has quickness off the ball and can rush the quarterback and collapse the pocket, he's also outstanding as a run stopper. He showed that in 2017 as the Eagles clamped down against the run and he and Cox proved an in-sync tandem inside, giving the team's edge rushers room to operate and move quarterbacks off of their spots.
Jernigan's return is something not many – if any – saw coming when free agency opened way back in mid-March. Jernigan tested the free agent market and made his way back to Philadelphia and a scheme and a locker room with which he is familiar, and the Eagles get themselves a bonus addition at a most unexpected time.
This is why Howie Roseman and the Eagles keep the lines of communication open with agents and players and never burn bridges. You just never know how things are going to play out, and in this instance, the Eagles were able to bring back Jernigan – now completely healthy and highly motivated to get back on the field and play his kind of attacking, snarling game. It's a great bit of news, kind of a cherry-on-the-top feeling to what has been an active and creative free agency period for the Eagles. By working the free agent route, the trade game, and using patience in the case of Jernigan, the Eagles have given themselves enviable depth – with an entire NFL Draft still to go.
It's all shaping up so very nicely for the Eagles and now we'll see what the team has in mind for the draft weekend ahead. A strong offseason continues to bear fruit, with Jernigan's return the latest piece of very good news for a stacked Eagles roster that will only get better in the three days to come.