'Georgia Philly Dawgs' the answer to replenish Eagles' defensive line?

PHILADELPHIA – Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Nakobe Dean already had eyes toward the 2023 season in the immediate aftermath of February’s stinging 38-35 loss to Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII.

“It fuels me heavy. I’m probably going to take a couple days to get my body right and then I’m at it,” he said at his locker stall inside State Farm Stadium.

“I don’t plan on waiting another seven, eight years before I make another Super Bowl. I’m trying to be the best that I can to get this team to another Super Bowl and win it.”

Philadelphia’s fate lies partly in the hands of Dean and his former Georgia teammates -- a group that includes second-year defensive tackle Jordan Davis and three rookies: defensive lineman Jalen Carter, edge rusher Nolan Smith and cornerback Kelee Ringo. They were all part of the 2021 Georgia defense that allowed just 10.2 points per game en route to the first of two straight national titles.

The Eagles’ defense was legit in its own right last season, leading the league in sacks (70) and finishing tied for third in takeaways (27) to help Philly to a 14-3 regular season record that set up its Super Bowl run.

But the unit experienced significant personnel losses this offseason. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave signed a four-year, $84 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers. The Eagles also lost both of their starting safeties (C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Marcus Epps) and linebackers (T.J. Edwards, Kyzir White) in free agency.

With quarterback Jalen Hurts now making over $50 million per season, Philly needs some of its younger, less expensive players to step into key roles.

That starts with Dean, who is projected to claim one of the starting linebacker spots. The 2021 Butkus Award winner was largely relegated to a special teams role as a rookie. He played only 34 defensive snaps and still managed 13 tackles.

Davis, the Eagles’ first-round pick in 2022, got off to a solid start last season but was sidelined by a high ankle sprain in late October and settled into a supporting role upon return. He’s in line for a big bump in playing time with Hargrave gone and veterans Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph not currently under contract.

“We knew when we were drafting them last year we were drafting them because we thought they were the best players, not necessarily because they were the guys ready to fill spots at a position of need,” general manager Howie Roseman said back in February of his top ’21 picks.

“We even saw it this year when we put young players in spots and how they stepped up. I don't think that's something we're afraid of.”

Carter, taken ninth overall by the Eagles in April, likely would have gone even higher if not for some off-field concerns. He is expected to jump right into the interior line rotation along with veteran Fletcher Cox, Davis and Milton Williams. Smith, selected 30th overall, could slide into the No. 2 SAM linebacker role behind Haason Reddick, while Ringo, a fourth-round pick, will likely start as a reserve behind Darius Slay and James Bradberry.

There are now six former Georgia players on the Eagles, including recently acquired running back D’Andre Swift, and the connection between the group seems to be real. Dean was Smith’s former roommate and was at Smith’s draft party when he got selected by Philadelphia.

During their joint introductory press conference, Smith referred to Carter as his brother. On the field at Georgia, Smith said Carter knew what he was thinking just by a simple shake of the head. Dean and Davis spoke of a similar harmony and friendship when they were drafted last year.

“I'd say it was amazing for me just because not only one of my favorite [teammates in Carter], not only one of my most athletic teammates here, man, we have a lot of boys, a lot of Georgia Philly Dawgs,” Smith said, “and it's going to be great.”

Questions remain about this year’s Eagles defense, including how the change in defensive coordinators from Jonathan Gannon to Sean Desai will impact the group. And it’s to be determined whether the Georgia standouts can replicate their collegiate success. Dean and Davis joined a loaded roster last season, affecting their opportunities to a degree, but it’s safe to say neither exploded onto the NFL scene as rookies. The same could be said for some of the other Georgia standouts from that class including top overall pick Travon Walker and fellow first-round pick Devonte Wyatt. (Others, like receiver George Pickens and linebacker Quay Walker, had more of an immediate impact.)

But the way the Eagles see it, there are worse strategies than taking many of the top players from a historic collegiate defense and reuniting them on the pro level -- a move they hope will help keep the defense championship-caliber in 2023.

“You see those guys play in the biggest games, on the biggest stage against the best competition, and so it's an easier [evaluation],” Roseman said. “You've got guys coming from a college town to the NFL for the first time, don't have classes, they're on their own, all the things that we've talked about before.

“But it takes the part out of the big jump in competition because the guys that they're playing against are the guys that are playing on Sundays.”