Of course, Howie Roseman didn’t wake up Monday and think to sign the two-time All-Pro.
The two sides had been in talks for some time. But Sunday’s result — and the fact that the rival Cowboys (the Eagles’ Week 14 opponent) were also in the mix for Leonard — may have focused the mind.
But was this a smart move or a desperation play to fix an Eagles defense that has allowed 76 points in the last two weeks?
Why the Philadelphia Eagles Signed Shaq Leonard
The Eagles defense has been trending in the wrong direction for some time. Since Week 8, they’re 31st in EPA per play (.137) and dropback EPA (.198), 30th in success rate (47.2%), and 29th in rush EPA (.006).
Contributing to their malaise?
They’re seriously banged up at linebacker, with Nakobe Dean and Zach Cunningham both hurt.
So there’s no doubt they have a problem. But is Leonard — the three-time Pro Bowler who was cut two weeks ago by the Colts after a long and successful run in Indianapolis — the answer?
If somehow he can turn back the clock and become the player he was in 2021, when he led the NFL with eight forced fumbles, then this is a slam dunk.
But that seems awfully ambitious. Leonard has been a shadow of that player since undergoing back surgery in the 2022 offseason.
In the last two seasons, Leonard has appeared in just 12 games, and just two of his 76 tackles have been for loss. He’s been a liability in coverage, allowing 22 of 31 passes thrown in his coverage area to be completed for 203 yards and four touchdowns. His missed tackle rate in 2023 (7.1%) is a career-high.
Still, there’s enough concern with the Eagles’ direction on defense that Roseman and Nick Sirianni view Leonard as an upgrade.
The Eagles have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, but linebacker is their greatest weakness because it has never been a priority under Roseman.
Philosophically, it’s probably the position they invest in the least, as they prefer to build around the trenches defensively. Of all 32 teams, the Eagles are 31st in spending at the linebacker position, according to Over The Cap. Given the NFL’s salary cap, you have to make sacrifices at some positions, and for the Eagles, it starts at linebacker.
The Eagles’ weakness at off-ball linebacker has been a problem all season long, but it was on full display in their 42-19 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Yesterday, 208 of Brock Purdy’s 314 passing yards came from attacking the Eagles’ starting linebackers in Nicholas Morrow and Christian Ellis in coverage.
While they were already thin at the position, their depth had gotten even worse without their Week 1 starters in Dean and Cunningham, with the latter injuring his hamstring in their Week 12 win over the Bills.
Last season, Roseman signed both Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph after their run defense was exposed in their Week 9 loss to the Commanders.
This signing feels really similar, as the Eagles are trying to improve their linebacker unit after it was exposed by the 49ers. While Leonard isn’t the All-Pro player he used to be, he certainly is an immediate upgrade to the position over Morrow and Ellis.
It also doesn’t hurt that Leonard is familiar with Sirianni, dating back to the Eagles coach’s days in Indianapolis. Even though he was the offensive coordinator, Leonard was very defensive of Sirianni after the criticism he received for his opening press conference when he was first introduced as Eagles head coach.
There was a very vocal player that defended Nick Sirianni after his opening press conference for Philly.
Shaq Leonard, "He's a good coach, and I can't wait to see that team go to work."
— Gate City Sports Talk (@HeitterSteve) November 29, 2023
It remains to be seen how much Leonard has left in the tank and if he can make enough of a difference for this defense, but the Eagles had to make a move if they wanted to have any chance of beating the 49ers if they were to meet again in the postseason.
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