Eagles defense hit hard by free-agency departures. How will they reload?

The Philadelphia Eagles knew the purge was coming and they knew it was going to hurt them. They understood that their defense would unravel in free agency and that they would be virtually powerless to stop it.

Its biggest problem is that putting it all together will probably take some time.

The dismantling of the NFL’s second-best defense began Monday, the first day NFL teams were allowed to trade free agents. The Eagles lost two key starters in the first two hours, when linebacker TJ Edwards agreed to a three-year, $19.5 million deal with the Chicago Bears, according to multiple sources, and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave got a four-year-old monster. , $84 million contract from the San Francisco 49ers. And just hours later, a source said, safety Marcus Epps received a two-year, $12 million deal from the Las Vegas Raiders.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, this is just the beginning, as they still have four other defensive starters who will officially become free agents Wednesday at 4:00 PM ET. That includes defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, cornerback James Bradberry, safety CJ Gardner-Johnson and linebacker Kyzir White. They could also lose cornerback Darius Slay, who was given permission to seek a trade when he would not agree to renegotiate the final year of his current contract.

[2023 NFL free-agency tracker: Signings, best players available]

It is quite possible that they cannot afford to carry one. And by the way, they had also lost defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, the new head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

How are they supposed to recover from all this?

“Are we going to get all the free agents back? We’re just not. We’re not capable of getting all these guys back,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said two weeks ago at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “But we also understand that we’re in a good position for the picks going forward. We’ve got a lot of guys under contract, not just for this year, but going forward. We’re not going to make excuses for the position we’re in.”

Maybe not, but they sure could, because the truth is they don’t have the resources to quickly restock the defense under new coordinator Sean Desai. They entered free agency with only about $6.6 million in salary cap space. They could restructure some contracts to create more cap space, but it’s probably worth noting that free agency is already underway and many top players are already off the market.

It looks like their plan is to rebuild through the draft, but that’s not exactly a winning strategy right now. Also, they only have six picks in this April’s draft, albeit two in the first round, including the 10th overall pick. The real payoff comes in the 2024 draft, where they have what Roseman called “a lot of picks” — eight right now, including an extra second rounder, and maybe 3-4 more when the compensatory picks are handed out in the spring coming thanks to the mass exodus of free agents this year.

But the 2024 draft is a long way off. When the Eagles lost Super Bowl LVII, 38-35 to the Kansas City Chiefs, they were defiant to return to the Super Bowl again next February. To do this, they will need reinforcements much earlier.

Hargrave heads to SF

Hargrave heads to SF

Javon Hargrave signed a four-year, $84 million contract with the 49ers after a Super Bowl appearance with the Eagles.

And despite what Roseman said, it’s not like they have a lot of great options on their roster, not when they could have as many as seven huge holes to fill. They brought back defensive end Brandon Graham, who had 11 sacks as a part-timer last season but will turn 35 in April, and that will certainly help on the defensive line. They also have defensive tackle Jordan Davis, their first-round pick from a year ago, but he’s still looking for his first NFL trade, so he’s not the pass-rushing interior presence that Hargrave is. And at linebacker they have up-and-comer Nakobe Dean, who could easily fill Edwards’ spot.

The secondary, however, could be a big problem. They still have Avonte Maddox at corner, but that’s really about it, and he’s not in the Slay-Bradberry class. And while safety Reed Blankenship was a pleasant surprise as an undrafted rookie last season, he can’t replace Gardner-Johnson and Epps on his own.

In an increasingly pass-happy league, that’s cause for concern, especially when the Eagles just lost 11 sacks from their defensive line. Maybe they can fill two or three of those holes with a draft in April, but there’s no guarantee it will work. And the 2024 pick won’t mean anything if the Eagles regress this season, unless Roseman can somehow use it to acquire players or perhaps more draft picks now.

The good news, of course, is that the Eagles will return nearly their entire offense, which even got a boost Monday when center Jason Kelce announced he would not be retiring. And a strong offense, led by an MVP-caliber quarterback in Jalen Hurts, can certainly go a long way.

But there’s a reason why “defense wins championships” became an overblown cliché. That’s because it very often turns out to be true. That defense, as much as anything else, is the reason the Eagles cruised to the NFC Championship last season.

Now, with all of these expected offseason losses from this defense, it will look like they’re starting all over again. And it could take much more than an offseason to get back to where they were.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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