NFL News & Analysis

Philadelphia Eagles 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts huddles in th second quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Philadelphia Eagles are in a tough spot this offseason. Their biggest cap hit this season is for a player who isn’t on the team — a $33.8 million payment to the recently traded Carson Wentz. That’s a big contributor to what projects to be one of the worst salary cap situations in the league.

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Beyond the salary cap gymnastics that must take place in the coming months, the Eagles are without a firm answer at quarterback after coming off a four-win season. Staying healthier along the offensive line should go a long way toward picking up a few more wins next season, but there are still real holes on this roster at both receiver and in the secondary. General manager Howie Roseman and company have their work cut out for them this offseason.  

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): –$34,146,468 (third-lowest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 6, 37, 70, 84, 151, 157, 191, 222, 226, 232

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Jalen Hurts N/A $1.4 million
RB Miles Sanders 54 / 70 $1.5 million
WR Jalen Reagor 90 / 127 $3.0 million
WR ?
WR Greg Ward 110 / 127 $0.9 million
TE Dallas Goedert 6 / 71 $1.8 million
LT ?
LG Isaac Seumalo 23 / 39 $5.4 million
C Jason Kelce 10 / 37 $8.4 million
RG Brandon Brooks N/A $14.6 million
RT Lane Johnson 17 / 39 $17.8 million

Even with some of the deficiencies Hurts displayed in his rookie campaign, he gave this offense a boost as a starter. He figures to be the team’s starting quarterback heading into next season, barring a quarterback selection early in the 2021 NFL Draft — an outcome that is certainly within the realm of possibilities. 

Beyond the quarterback position, adding more talent at wide receiver will be paramount for Philadelphia. 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor will look for more success in his second season with what he will hope is better quarterback play, but there are no sure-fire starters beyond him on the depth chart. Travis Fulgham, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Ward could factor in, but the Eagles will also be looking to add talent to the group. 

Zach Ertz seems to be one of the more likely trade candidates on the team, hence his absence from this projected lineup. Goedert is more than capable of handling an every-down role should Philadelphia move Ertz this offseason. The biggest change if Ertz departs may be the frequency with which the Eagles turn to two-tight-end personnel groupings. 

On the offensive line, left guard to right tackle seems set in stone. Philadelphia’s starting left tackle figures to either be Jordan Mailata or Andre Dillard. As the Eagles’ first-round pick in 2019, Dillard was supposed to be the heir apparent, but he struggled some in spot starts as a rookie and missed the entire 2020 season due to injury. Meanwhile, Mailata played well in his opportunity at left tackle last season, producing a 70.3 PFF grade on the year.    

Build around Jalen Hurts, or take another shot at quarterback early in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Hurts' rookie season can be viewed in several different ways. On one hand, Philadelphia’s offense jumped from 30th in expected points added per play across the first 13 weeks of the 2020 season (Wentz’s starts) to 21st over the final four weeks of the season (Hurts’ starts). The “feel” of watching those later games matched the data. Anecdotally, it seemed as if Hurts gave the team more of a chance than Wentz.

However, Hurts' performance was far from one that would make the Eagles undoubtedly confident in him as their starting quarterback moving forward. His 57.5 PFF grade over the final five weeks of the season ranked 29th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Fumbles played a factor in that low grade, but there are still definite areas where Hurts must improve if the Eagles hope to be competitive with him as the starting quarterback in 2021. 

Philadelphia is in a unique position this offseason following the Wentz trade. The team just spent a second-round pick on Hurts. He had his share of struggles in limited action as a rookie but also breathed some life into the offense. The Eagles also have a top-10 pick in a very strong quarterback draft class. 

Do they double up at the position to increase their chance at either Hurts or the draft selection developing into the guy at quarterback, or do they add another piece to help out Hurts in a one-year test run where he goes into next season as the clear starter? It sets up for one of the more interesting decisions at the top of the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Should the Eagles be worried about Jalen Reagor’s production as a rookie?

Young wide receivers are often at the mercy of their surroundings early in their NFL careers. Right now, passing on Justin Jefferson to draft Reagor looks like a massive misstep on Philadelphia's part, but how would we view those two receivers had their landing spots been reversed? 

Beyond missing time early in the season with a torn ligament in his thumb, Reagor also dealt with some of the worst quarterback play in the NFL. Philadelphia quarterbacks ended the season with a 61.0 overall grade, which ranked 30th in the league — ahead of only passers for the New York Jets and Denver Broncos

The real killer for Reagor was accuracy. Eagles quarterbacks combined for a league-high 28% uncatchable pass rate, and their accurate pass rate was over five percentage points lower than any other offense in the NFL (47.6%). Reagor is no stranger to those accuracy concerns after what he dealt with at TCU, but that experience doesn’t make it any easier to make an impact at receiver when fewer than 50% of the passes coming your way are on-target. 

It’s much too early to start worrying about Reagor’s production given all those external factors. 

Can this offensive line get back to being one of the best in the NFL next season?

Few offensive lines were impacted more by injury than Philadelphia’s in 2020. The team was seemingly starting a new offensive line combination every week. Dillard and Brooks were lost to injury before the season began, and Seumalo and Johnson both missed time with injury, as well. In all, 11 different offensive linemen played at least 50 offensive snaps for the Eagles. It’s going to be difficult for any offensive line to perform at a high level with that complete lack of continuity. 

There is reason to believe the group can bounce back in 2021, though. A healthy Brooks and Johnson on the right side form one of the best guard-tackle combinations in the NFL. There aren’t really any clear weak links in the projected starting five right now, assuming solid play from either Mailata or Dillard at left tackle. Keeping that group healthy will be massive for whoever ends up behind center.

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall Jr. 

I went with a pair of LSU wide receivers here — one who would require the Eagles’ first-round pick and one who might be available when Philadelphia is on the clock in Round 2. 

Chase will likely be the first wide receiver off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft — and for good reason. He dominated college football as a 19-year-old in 2019 en route to a 91.3 receiving grade, beating legitimate NFL prospects A.J. Terrell and Trevon Diggs with ease. It doesn’t take all that much projection to see his physicality translating to the NFL.

Marshall’s size and speed combination will assuredly interest NFL teams. The former five-star recruit led LSU in receptions (48) and receiving touchdowns (10) in 2020 with the absences of Chase and Jefferson. There is a lot to like from a developmental standpoint if he continues to improve as a route-runner.  

Tackle: N/A

I left the left tackle spot blank because there is no clear starter right now, but it’s not as if the Eagles are lacking for options. Whoever loses the battle between Mailata and Dillard will serve as the team’s top swing tackle, and the Eagles also have Jack Driscoll and Brett Toth, both of whom started games last season, on the roster. Any tackle acquisition would be to add depth more than anything else for Philadelphia.  

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Fletcher Cox 30 / 125 $23.9 million
DI Javon Hargrave 74 / 125 $15.2 million
EDGE Brandon Graham 10 / 110 $17.9 million
EDGE Derek Barnett 46 / 110 $10.1 million
LB Alex Singleton 32 / 83 $0.9 million
LB TJ Edwards 19 / 83 $0.9 million
LB ?
CB Darius Slay 56 / 121 $6.6 million
CB ?
CB ?
S ?
S Rodney McLeod 23 / 94 $5.1 million

The Eagles' defensive line remains arguably the team's biggest strength, but as you can see above, they’re paying for it. All four projected starters along the defensive line are on the books for at least $10 million in 2021, but Philadelphia is looking at a potential extension for Barnett to lower the salary cap hit this season, according to Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Once you get to the linebacker and secondary positions, things become much dicier for Philadelphia. Edwards provided solid play at linebacker when healthy last season, as did Singleton in his first defensive snaps since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2015. The Eagles recently tendered him as an ERFA. Those two, along with 2020 draft selections Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley, should compete for snaps next season, but it’s a group that could use additional talent.

In the secondary, Slay and McLeod will return as starters, but there are no clear starters beyond them. Complicating matters further is McLeod tearing his ACL in a Week 14 game against the New Orleans Saints. That injury could put his start to the 2021 season in jeopardy. Jalen Mills started at strong safety in 2020, but he will be a free agent this offseason. If he isn’t brought back, that could mean more playing time for Marcus Epps and K’Von Wallace

Avonte Maddox could have a role once again, either outside or in the slot, but he was a weak link for the Eagles’ secondary in 2020 with a 37.1 coverage grade across 509 defensive snaps lined up primarily out wide. Nickell Robey-Coleman and Cre’Von LeBlanc will both be free agents at cornerback for the Eagles this offseason. It’s a position Philadelphia should look to add to ahead of the 2021 season.    

Should the Eagles extend Derek Barnett?

The Eagles’ first-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft hasn’t lived up to expectations over the course of his rookie contract. Despite that, Philadelphia exercised Barnett’s fifth-year option, putting the team on the hook for over $10 million in 2021. Recent reports indicate that Barnett could be a candidate for an extension to lower his 2021 cap hit, a much-needed outcome for a team that could use all the savings it can get this offseason.  

A Barnett extension would be done in the hopes that he is finally able to put it all together. Barnett won’t turn 25 until June, and he does have a respectable 11.3% pressure rate across his first four years in the NFL. 

The concern with a potential extension is that Barnett’s grading profile doesn’t show that he’s improving year over year. His overall grades are 67.8, 67.5, 59.2 (his largest workload as a pro in 2019) and 67.9 across his four years in the NFL. 

As things stand right now, he’s a solid option on the edge — but not necessarily one who Philadelphia should be overly eager to lock up to a long-term deal. The better option may be to part ways with Barnett and see what Josh Sweat can accomplish in a larger role after coming off a career-high 70.2 PFF grade in 2020. Sweat is in the final year of his rookie contract this season.    

Which young player on Philadelphia’s defense is most likely to break out in 2021?

The aforementioned Sweat at defensive end is a candidate if Barnett isn’t on the roster heading into Week 1, but I’ll look instead to safety K’Von Wallace

Wallace appeared to be good value when the Eagles selected him in the fourth round. He didn’t get many opportunities until McLeod’s injury late in the season, but Wallace ended the year with 203 snaps split across time deeper at free safety, in the box and in the slot.

I wrote during the 2020 offseason that Wallace has everything you want in a slot cornerback. His physicality, quickness and instincts shone in his time at Clemson, and there’s reason to want to see what he can do in a box/slot role in the NFL. Both Nickell Robey-Coleman (nickel) and Jalen Mills (strong safety) are set to be unrestricted free agents, opening the door for Wallace to take on a larger role in 2021. If he gets that opportunity, I like his chances to produce. 

Will we see less man coverage from the Eagles under the new coaching staff next season?

During the 2020 regular season, the Eagles ran man coverage concepts at the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts — where new head coach Nick Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon are coming over from — were on the other end of the spectrum with the fifth-lowest rate of man coverage in the league. 

Though Philadelphia does have a No. 1 cornerback with plenty of man coverage experience, they’re not particularly deep or skilled in the secondary beyond Slay. It’s difficult to run that much man coverage without defensive backs you can trust to stick with receivers one-on-one. Those personnel concerns, combined with the new coaching staff, should mean more zone coverage for the Eagles in 2021. 

Potential targets at open spots

Linebacker: Micah Parsons, Nick Bolton

If the Eagles do add to their defense early in the 2021 NFL Draft, there’s a decent chance it's at the linebacker position. 

PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner recently put together a list of the top 50 NFL draft prospects since 2015, and Parsons was the top-ranked linebacker on that big board (18th overall player). He has prototypical linebacker size and athleticism to go along with elite production for the position at Penn State, both as a run defender and a pass rusher. Positional value might make it tough to stomach selecting him sixth overall, but he is likely the most talented defensive prospect in this year’s draft. 

The Eagles could potentially look at Bolton in the second round if they go receiver or quarterback in Round 1. He doesn't match up with Parsons athletically, but his instincts and downhill play make him a first-round-caliber talent nonetheless. Bolton followed up a 91.1 overall grade in 2019 with a 74.9 grade this past season at Missouri. 

Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes, Asante Samuel Jr.

Rhodes would project to start opposite Slay if Philadelphia can find the cash to offer him a competitive contract after a bounce-back season with the Colts. He ended the 2020 season with a 77.3 overall grade, and he has familiarity with new Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon both from his time with the Colts last season and prior to that from 2014 to 2017 in Minnesota. 

Samuel is an alternative option in the 2020 NFL Draft to slot in across from Slay outside. He would fit right into what will likely be a shift toward more zone coverage in Philadelphia, and he would add welcome playmaking ability in the secondary with his instincts. Samuel intercepted or broke up 25% of the passes thrown his way this past season at Florida State.   

Safety: Jalen Mills, Jevon Holland

Mills produced the highest PFF grade of his five-year career following his position change to safety in 2020. Philadelphia had its issues in coverage last season, but Mills certainly wasn’t the weakest link. The Eagles could opt to give a young player like Wallace increased snaps in 2020 or find a replacement in the draft, but they also could look to bring back Mills on a reasonable deal to keep some continuity at the position.  

Holland could fit into safety or cornerback for his work in the slot. He started at safety in 2018 and the slot in 2019 at Oregon before opting out of the 2020 season. He earned 80.0-plus PFF grades in both seasons, and the Eagles could certainly find use with his versatility. 

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