Chris Long had an 11-year NFL career that was, truly, a celebration of doing things the right way. A first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2008, Long never sniffed the postseason until season No. 9, and then he won Super Bowls in New England and with the Eagles and as his career emerged from relative obscurity, the entire world recognized a man who all along not only cared deeply for others, but put his money and his time where his heart was.
Long announced his retirement on Saturday night in a Tweet, acknowledging the “highs and lows” of his time in the league, the “perspective” he gained and showered those who “lifted me up” with “gratitude and love.” It was a classic Chris Long message: Short, sweet, honest, caring, and inclusive. That’s the way he lives his life and that’s the way he carried himself in the two seasons he played as an Eagle, helping the team win Super Bowl LII, showing great leadership in the locker room, providing an example for every person with his off-field compassion. That he was named the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year following the 2018 campaign was an appropriate send-off for a man who is destined to expand his vision of a better world.
Loved throughout the Eagles organization, Long went out on his terms. Fitting. Perfect. The task for the Eagles is to replace Long’s production and fill his leadership void. This is the cycle of life in the NFL. The Eagles weren’t caught off guard by Long’s decision; it had been long discussed since the end of the ’18 campaign that Long was wavering on playing in 2019. As Howie Roseman has said many times, the Eagles’ plan looks two and three years into the future of the roster, and defensive end was part of that crystal ball.
Who replaces Long? Let’s take a look at the defensive end group, one altered significantly since March – bolstered in the offseason by the re-signing of Brandon Graham prior to free agency, the signing of Vinny Curry, who returns to the Eagles after one season in Tampa Bay, and the selection of Shareef Miller in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and changed by the trade of Michael Bennett to New England as the new league year opened. Long played 614 snaps last season, behind only Fletcher Cox (830), Graham (753), and Bennett (716) among Eagles defensive linemen. Long registered 6.5 quarterback sacks (third-highest total on the team behind Cox and Bennett), his most since 2013, and had a combined 37 quarterback pressures/hits, fourth most on the defense.
BRINGING BACK EXPERIENCE
There is no depth chart, understood, but the Eagles have a sense of who is going to line up and get snaps. Graham, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2010, battled the effects of offseason ankle surgery following the Super Bowl LII victory and didn’t round into top form until midway through the 2018 season. He’s got plenty of gas in the tank after signing his deal, and he leads the way in the defensive end room. Third-year man Derek Barnett had his ’18 season end with a shoulder injury, but he’s healthy and poised for another season of good production, high effort, and speed.
Curry comes to Philadelphia in a great frame of mind and intent on being a wrecking ball working under new line coach Phillip Daniels. A strong, physical end who sets the edge against the run, Curry also has some pep in his pass-rushing get-off, and the Eagles are going to need that as they look to replace Long’s contributions, particularly the energy he brought on third downs.
A PROMISING TRIO OF YOUNG VETERANS
You might not be too familiar with the name of Daeshon Hall, but it’s time to get to know him. A third-round pick of Carolina in 2017 out of Texas A&M, where Hall played in all 52 games with 39 starts and strong production, Hall played nine defensive snaps in his Week 1, 2017 NFL debut but suffered a knee injury in a later practice session that ultimately sent him to Injured Reserve and ended his rookie season. Hall was released by the Panthers as the team reached its 53-man roster limit last September, a surprising move to give up on a third-round draft pick just one year later. Hall then joined San Francisco’s practice squad for three weeks, then played on Houston’s 53-man roster for a few weeks, and then was cut by the Texans and signed to Houston’s practice squad in October.
The Eagles, thin at defensive end due to a rash of injuries, added Hall from the Texans’ practice squad on December 11 and he played 16 snaps in the remainder of the regular season, and had half a quarterback sack against Houston, and seven snaps in the two playoff games. Hall, a lanky 6-5, 265-pounder, impressed the Eagles with his athleticism and his burst off the ball, as well as his size and speed running down the field on kickoff coverage. As he reported to the team’s offseason program, Hall’s work between the end of the 2018 season and April was noted by Howie Roseman.
“Daeshon Hall is a guy we got last year who was a third-round pick and he's really taken a step in the offseason here, just with his body,” Roseman said.
Also very much in the mix is Josh Sweat, a fourth-round draft pick last year whose ankle injury landed him on IR and paved the way for Hall to join the Eagles. Sweat played in nine games for the Eagles as a rookie, with five total tackles in 68 defensive snaps. A former standout high school player who had his career compromised by a serious knee injury, Sweat played three seasons at Florida State and then stood out with his athletic ability in the pre-draft process in 2018. Sweat is in position to take a large step forward in his second season.
So is Joe Ostman, who spent last season on the team’s practice squad. Ostman, a workout maniac, added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame in the offseason and has burst off the edge and terrific energy. He won’t be outworked, that’s for sure. Ostman will challenge for a roster spot and playing time.
DEVELOPING ROOKIE SHAREEF MILLER
The Eagles used a fourth-round draft pick in April to select Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller, who has the kind of “tools in his body,” said Roseman after the draft, that stand out and that the Eagles hope fits into what defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wants from his ends. Miller may need some time to develop, as most young defensive ends do, but he showed in college a good burst off the ball and natural skills as a pass rusher.
It's way early to make any kind of projections with Miller. He’s learning the defense from the ground up. But he’s one of the prospects who the Eagles are counting on to fill the void that Long’s retirement creates. From a leadership standpoint, it’s a natural progression in a locker room filled with veterans who have been here long enough to step in. The chemistry and camaraderie in the locker room has been a strength in the Doug Pederson Era. It’s part of his culture and he fosters a strong dynamic in the locker room and on the sidelines.
The natural order of life in the NFL is that when one career ends, another is born. The Eagles understand the process, and they understand that Long leaves behind a remarkable legacy. But the game moves on and the challenge is right there for the Eagles to see who takes advantage of Long’s departure to create a positive opportunity in a defense that relies on its front four to set the tone for the back seven success in Schwartz’s scheme.