Eagles Should Have Top-10 Defense With Derek Barnett, Improved Cornerback Play

The scene at the Art Museum was insane. The noise, the energy, the enthusiasm. Electrifying.

When the Cards picked Temple's Haason Reddick at No. 13, the reality hit everybody that the Eagles could snag an elite cornerback like Marlon Humphrey, Tre'Davious White or Gareon Conley. They could get a stud tight end like O.J. Howard. They could even grab a projected top-10 pick like linebacker Reuben Foster or defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who were plummeting through the first round.

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They were going to get a stud.

The minutes wound down, and then commissioner Roger Goodell walked to the podium and announced the name "Derek Barnett," and … it wasn't like people booed, but the reaction sure was muted.

It was just like ... "OK then."

I don't know why Eagles fans wouldn't be thrilled with this pick (see debate for/against Barnett at No. 14).

Barnett is not Jerome McDougle, Jon Harris or Marcus Smith. He's not another Eagles first-round defensive end bust.

He's a 20-year-old kid with boundless upside who played at a high level against the best competition in college football and his speed and relentless effort fits perfectly into defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme.

And he just happens to fill a crucial need on a defense that desperately needs pass rush help.

He's exactly what the Eagles needed.

I think pass rush was just as big a need for this team as cornerback, and this draft is so deep at corner that going defensive end in the first round and corner in the second or third round made perfect sense.

So let's look at what Schwartz has to work with as he enters Year 2.

Up front, he has Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan and Beau Allen inside and Barnett with Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Chris Long outside. The Eagles will miss Bennie Logan, but on paper, that's a very good defensive line.

At linebacker, budding star Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham will get the lion's share of the snaps. Mychal Kendricks is still a de facto starter, but I still don't think he'll be here by opening day. And even if he is, he'll only play 15 to 20 snaps per game.

You have two very good safeties in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, and that really leaves cornerback as the one big giant question mark on defense.

But whoever the Eagles run out there - I would guess Jalen Mills and whoever they draft on Friday, with Ron Brooks back in the slot if he's healthy- will be an upgrade over Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin. Anything would be an upgrade over Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin.

When I look at this group, I see a top-10 defense.

And if you think that's crazy, consider this: The Eagles were only three yards per game away from being a top-10 defense last year, in their first year in Schwartz's scheme, with Connor Barwin playing out of position, a terrible set of cornerbacks and huge issues getting to the quarterback.

Consider this: The 2016 Eagles limited opposing QBs to the fifth-lowest completion percentage in the NFL, allowed the fifth-fewest first downs, allowed the eighth-fewest TDs and ranked third in the red zone.

This was a better defense a year ago than people realized.

What was its biggest issue? Allowing big pass plays.

The Eagles allowed a ridiculous 27 pass plays of 30 yards or more, second-worst in the NFL (one fewer than the Raiders).

Big plays killed this team a year ago, and that's a combination of a lack of pass pressure and terrible cornerback play.

Greatly reduce those big plays and this is a playoff defense.

The Eagles have already jettisoned their starting cornerbacks, and Mills and a rookie will be an upgrade. And now they've addressed their pass rush.

How much difference will Barnett make in Year 1? No way to tell yet. But I have to think a rotation of Graham, Barnett, Curry and Long will be more productive than Graham, Barwin, Curry and Marcus Smith.

The Eagles haven't had an elite defense since Jim Johnson's last season, when they ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed and third in yards allowed.

That team won a couple playoff games, reached the NFC Championship Game, and was one fourth-quarter, fourth-down stop on Tim Hightower away from Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

That was 2008. That was nine years ago.

It's no coincidence that the last time the Eagles had an elite defense was the last time they won a playoff game.

It's been a long, sad eight years since. Years filled with coaching changes, a lack of stability at quarterback and defensive play that Eagles fans had to be largely embarrassed by.

How do you go from Brian Dawkins, Trent Cole, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown celebrating playoff wins to Nnamdi Asomugha waving his arms at Kurt Coleman after allowing yet another touchdown bomb just a few short years later?

Sad. This is a city that loves offense but loves defense even more.

I'm not sure this is ready to be an elite defense yet, but drafting Barnett is going to help the Eagles continue becoming a pretty darn good one.

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