Philadelphia Eagles: Identifying Jonathan Gannon’s preferred secondary

When news broke that the Philadelphia Eagles were planning on hiring first-year head coach Nick Sirianni to replace Doug Pederson as their head coach, it created more questions than answers.

‘Which quarterback better fits his scheme? What is his scheme? Who will be his coordinators? What will happen to Duce?”

But for me at least, one question rose above all others: Who would serve as Sirianni’s defensive coordinator?

As important as the offensive side of the ball is, the Eagles wouldn’t have made it to the Super Bowl in 2017 without Jim Schwartz‘s exemplary defensive efforts. That particular defensive unit ranked fourth in yards allowed, fourth in interceptions, and first in rushing yards allowed, all the while keeping games close with an average of 18.4 points per game allowed – the fourth-lowest mark of any team in the league.

Needless to say, when your offense scored an average of 28.6 ppg versus 18.4 surrendered, you’re going to win a lot of games.

So what would the Philadelphia Eagles do? Would they stick with the tried and true philosophy of pairing a young offensive head coach with a veteran coordinator like Romeo Cranel? Or would they buck the trend and hire another ascending ‘guru’ to pair with their 39-year-old signal-caller moving forward?

Well, according to Sports Illustrated’s Michael Lombardi, we may have our answer.

If you didn’t know the name Jonathan Gannon before today, you wouldn’t be alone.

Despite entering his 14th year in the NFL – six as a quality control coach, two as a cornerbacks coach, and three as a scout – the Louisville grad has never called a play, hasn’t been particularly involved in crafting a scheme, and has only two years of hands-on experience coaching up a position grouping as the top dog.

Assuming Lombardi is correct and Gannon does get the job, we can’t say with complete certainty what defensive front the Eagles will opt to run, how they will opt to use their linebackers, or even which of the team’s current players are “safe.” However, what we do know is the kind of defensive backs Gannon has had success with as a coordinator and can use that information to get an idea of what kind of secondary the Eagles may be deploying in 2021.

Jonathan Gannon could add length to the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary.

Whether running a 3-4 defensive front in 2016-17 or a 4-3 from 2018-on under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, the Indianapolis Colts have relied on taller, longer man-press cornerbacks who like to get physical at the line of scrimmage on the outside, deep zone safeties who split the field in half in a two-high look, and a nickel cornerback who can split the difference as a dynamic man/zone/rush jack-of-all-trades.

Even if the Eagles opt to run a 4-3 like they did under Schwartz – albeit one that doesn’t solely rely on a four-rushing wide-9 front – the introduction of a two-deep safety secondary could change things up considerably versus what we’ve seen around these parts in some time.

Under Schwartz, and even his predecessor, Billy Davis, the Eagles predominantly played a single-high safety defense with a player like Rodney McLeod, Nate Allen, or Walter Thurmond (remember him?) deployed deep and a bigger, more physically imposing safety like Malcolm Jenkins, Jalen Mills, or Patrick Chung (remember him?) playing in the box with the linebackers.

Is that scheme flawless? No. Despite providing more versatility around the line of scrimmage, and more optionality from a blitzing perspective – if Schwartz ever actually opted to blitz – the look also limited the amount of help cornerbacks received over the top and thus contributed to many of the deep ball touchdowns the Eagles surrendered over the past decade.

If Gannon just brings that look over from the Colts – presumably using Rodney McLeod and K’Vonn Wallace at free and strong safety – it will be a massive improvement over arguably the Eagles’ biggest weakness.

But what about what Gannon – and his former employer – like at the cornerback position?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

Over his three-year tenure as the team’s defensive backs coach, the Colts didn’t draft a single cornerback/safety in the first round and didn’t sign a single marquee player at either position in free agency – unless, of course, you count a 30-year-old Xavier Rhodes.

Gannon did, however, consistently find ways to make the most out of the players he was tasked with coaching, turning Temple second-round pick Rock-Ya Sin into a legitimate starter on the outside, Rhodes into a serviceable option across from him a year removed from looking washed in Minnesota, and Kenny Moore into one of the best nickels in the entire NFL.

What do Sin, Rhodes, and other outside cornerbacks Gannon has coached like Pierre Desir and Quincy Wilson have in common? Well, they are all quicker than fast, have long arms, and measure in at 6-foot-1 or taller. Assuming the Eagles opt to run the same scheme, it’s not hard to imagine Darius Slay absolutely eating as a man-press corner deployed on the line. Heck, with some additional help over the top, Slay may be able to play more aggressively and attack the ball more frequently than he was able to in 2020.

And as for the other cornerback spot? Well, assuming he’s back, Jalen Mills is actually a near-prototypical cornerback for a Cover 2 look, as he’s tall and aggressive but lacks the deep speed needed to hold up against the pass without help coming from over the top.

Sidebar: Do you know who would really be a perfect fit across from Darius Slay? Rasul Douglas. Boy, it’s too bad Howie Roseman just cut him for nothing before his breakout season with the Panthers.

Deploy Avonte Maddox out of the slot in a Kenny Morre-esque role, and just like that, the Eagles’ secondary looks way, way better without so much as adding a single external player, all by leaning into players to their strengths and limiting their issues. While the front seven would still surely need to be addressed, as trotting out the same linebacking unit without some major upgrades would be borderline neglectful, the Eagles secondary has unquestionably been their weakness over the past few seasons, and getting that right would go leaps and bounds toward fielding another championship-caliber D.

Though things are very much still up in the air, and the Philadelphia Eagles are not out of the woods yet, the decision to hire Jonathan Gannon as a first-year defensive coordinator to pair up with a rookie head coach like Nick Sirianni feels like a move in the right direction, and could potentially be even more impactful on the overall product on the field than whatever changes are made to the offense – even without major personnel changes in the defensive secondary.