Are Nakobe Dean, Reed Blankenship, Christian Ellis previewing Eagles' future?

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Are Dean, Blankenship, and Ellis previewing Eagles' future? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

James Bradberry. T.J. Edwards. Marcus Epps. Javon Hargrave. Brandon Graham. Fletcher Cox. Kyzir White. Ndamukong Suh. Linval Joseph. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

That’s a huge chunk of the Eagles’ 2022 defense, and every one of those guys is unsigned beyond this year.

The Eagles are 11-1 and their defense is ranked No. 2 in the NFL, but when you peek ahead to the future it’s a little scary because even Howie Roseman won’t be able to keep all these guys.

MORE: Week 13 Eagles grades by position after statement win vs. Titans

This spring, the Eagles will be able for the first time to negotiate a contract extension with MVP candidate Jalen Hurts, and it’s probably going to be worth somewhere between $250 and $300 million over six years.  The structure and size of the signing bonus will determine his cap figures moving forward, but it’s safe to say the Eagles’ chances of re-signing all their defensive talent while paying Hurts $45 million or so per year are minimal.

When you sign an MVP-caliber quarterback to a long-term market deal you really handicap your ability to build around him. The Eagles won't lose all those guys, and certainly if anybody can find a way to get some key deals done it’s Roseman.

But Bradberry, Edwards, Epps, Hargrave, Graham, Cox, White, Suh, Joseph and Gardner-Johnson? Fair to say it’s going to be a challenging offseason for Roseman.

Which is why the last couple weeks have been so encouraging.

We’re starting to see some of the Eagles’ younger defensive players show up, and these are guys who the Eagles may need to count on as early as next fall.

Safety Reed Blankenship – who had played all of two defensive snaps in his life – was an emergency fill-in for Gardner-Johnson in the Packers game and responded with a huge interception of Aaron Rodgers and some physical play against the run, which he repeated Sunday in his first career start.

Linebacker Nakobe Dean – who had played all of four defensive snaps in his life – was an emergency fill-in for Kyzir White Sunday and responded with some eye-opening play against the run and in coverage.

And linebacker Christian Elliss – who had played all of seven defensive snaps in his life – was a game-day elevation from the practice squad and got 10 reps at the end of the Eagles’ win over the Titans and looked like he belonged with three tackles on top of his outstanding special teams play.

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It’s way too early to anoint any of these guys as 2023 starters, but these were auspicious performances from the 23-year-old Blankenship, 23-year-old Elliss and 21-year-old Dean.

And here are the key numbers for that young trio of defensive prospects: $871,666, $1,182,873 and $870,000. Those are their 2023 cap figures, and if you add them up they’ll equal roughly what Hurts’ weekly cap figure will likely be next year.

All three guys carry the Howie Roseman stamp of creativity. Blankenship was an undrafted rookie. Dean was a 3rd-round pick plunging down the draft that nobody else wanted. Elliss is an undrafted 49ers castoff whose dad Luther was a two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the Lions.

And those are the kind of guys you have to develop if you want to stay competitive while paying a big-ticket quarterback. You can add guys like Zech McPhearson, Josiah Scott, Davion Taylor, Marquise Blair and Josh Jobe to that list. They won't all pan out, but if a handful do, that's a huge win for Roseman and this franchise.

The Eagles are in good shape contract-wise on offense, with all the key guys other than Jason Kelce, Miles Sanders and Isaac Seumalo under contract through at least 2023. And Kelce pretty much decides his own fate each year.

But on defense, they’re most likely going to need guys like Dean, Elliss, Blankenship and McPhearson to become key contributors if they lose, say, White, Edwards, Gardner-Johnson and Bradberry.

It’s not easy finding guys who are inexpensive and cost-controlled but talented. That’s the challenge facing Roseman this offseason, and the early returns say he’s already taken some important steps in that direction.