A year after first eyeing him for the position, the Eagles have finally secured their man, bringing Vic Fangio back to Philadelphia as Nick Sirianni’s new defensive coordinator. The team made it official Saturday. The former Broncos head coach marks the Eagles’ first major addition since a late-season collapse, signed to revitalize what became one of the NFL’s worst defenses in 2023.
Fangio, 65, is no stranger to Philly. He was born and raised in Dunsmore, Pennsylvania, about two hours from the city. He also worked alongside Sirianni in 2022, when he quietly served as a consultant to Jonathan Gannon’s NFC-champion defense. In many ways, then, this pairing was always inevitable; even after becoming the Dolphins’ DC last offseason, Fangio hinted heif not for Gannon’s delayed departure to become the Cardinals’ head coach.
But what, exactly, does Fangio’s arrival mean for the Eagles defense? How might his entrance affect the way the team plays, and/or which kinds of players it prioritizes in offseason roster-building?
Just as Fangio’s now been tied to the organization for years, his influence on the Eagles’ strategy has been apparent for a while. The former Broncos coach is best known for maximizing and/or popularizing a two-high-safety scheme, which essentially prioritizes prevention of the big play: Always have back-end help in place, and keep everything in front of you. It’s precisely the kind of defense the Eagles ran under Gannon in 2022, and again, to a different degree, under Sean Desai and Matt Patricia in 2023.
So why would they double-down on an approach that gradually got worse from 2022-2023, leaving them with one of the most porous units in all of football? To start, it’s one thing to imitate a Fangio defense, and another to employ Fangio himself. This is a man who’s overseen 10 different top-10 defensive finishes at five different stops as a DC or head coach, including with Miami this year. His personnel has varied. His staffs have varied. But his results as head of a defense have been remarkably consistent.
Fangio, remember, spent much of 2022 advising the Eagles, so he’s familiar with some of the best talent already on their defensive roster, chiefly pass rushers Haason Reddick and Josh Sweat, who helped the club log a franchise-record 70 sacks that year. This season, while Desai showcased some more creative looks before his polarizing reassignment in December, the Eagles effectively still banked on their front four to do the heavy lifting, and when Reddick and Sweat couldn’t replicate their 2022 dominance, everything fell apart. It didn’t help that the aging secondary was beset by injuries, enabling opponents to get the ball off quicker.
Now, with Fangio in full control, the Eagles figure to transition to a more blatant 3-4 scheme. Under both Gannon and Desai, the team technically deployed a 4-3 base but with ever-changing pass-rush groupings, often letting Reddick work as a stand-up rusher, the same way he might in a 3-4 design. Veteran defensive linemen like Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox have rotated both inside and outside for years, but if they return under Fangio, they’re virtual locks to see more time as 3-4 ends, with someone like Jordan Davis (6-6, 335) bumped into the middle as a gap-plugging nose tackle.
Fans shouldn’t expect the blitz rate to change much. Enticing as a pressure-heavy approach might be, it’s just not Fangio’s calling card. Again, the motto with his defense has traditionally been to contain and control. Make the offense work harder and longer to put points on the board. The X factor here is talent. Making the offense play dink-and-dunk can be a brilliant strategy if you have the personnel to simply win matchups over the long haul, but if, say, you’ve got a gaping hole at linebacker and you’re up against smart pocket passers, you’re liable to give opponents full control of the ball and clock, as Gannon’s “D” infamously did against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII.
There is no one position that matters exceedingly more than another in a Fangio defense; this is still a team game, and a defense that contains rather than aggressively strives for big plays requires steady production from front to back. But if we presume that Reddick and Sweat return as the Eagles’ top edge rushers, and project 2023 rookie Jalen Carter as a potential difference-maker at 3-4 end, the clear priorities for general manager Howie Roseman this offseason would seem to be linebacker and safety.
Cornerback is another major area of focus, with both Darius Slay and James Bradberry seemingly regressing in both speed and durability, but Fangio’s two-high-safety looks tend to work best when that last line of defense is buoyed by well-rounded starters — guys who can fly around and do all the little things well, be it step up in run defense or close quickly in zone coverage. Think Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson in 2021, when Fangio’s Broncos “D” ranked No. 3 in points allowed.
At LB, meanwhile, you can make the case that Fangio’s expertise is enough to boost the stock of even midgrade veterans. On the surface, that jibes with the Eagles’ general philosophy under Roseman, which is to allocate top dollar to front-four and perimeter players — defensive tackle, edge rusher, cornerback, etc. — and take bargain-bin swings in the middle. But when considering that some of Fangio’s best years have coincided with all-star runs by elite LBs like Roquan Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, it’s not a stretch to suggest Roseman and Co. will likely be more invested in that spot this spring.
Because, again, at the end of the day, in a Fangio defense, the point of sitting back rather than sending extra pressure is to let your guys win — to let your talent disparity force the other side into mistakes. And if you don’t have the talent, well, that’s when you end up replacing coordinators and schemes and regimes all over again.
There are no shortage of high-profile veterans the Eagles could consider in free agency. The defensive-line crop is deep, from big-money possibilities like Justin Madubuike (Ravens) and Christian Wilkins (Dolphins), who could pair with Carter to give the team an enviable 3-4 DE duo, to rotational stalwarts like Grover Stewart (Colts), Sheldon Rankins (Texans) and DaQuan Jones (Bills). The free agent LB class has a blend of “traits” vets like Devin White (Buccaneers) and Patrick Queen (Ravens) to seasoned short-term captains like Bobby Wagner (Seahawks) and Jordan Hicks (Vikings). And the same goes for safety, where a home run might be Buccaneers star Antoine Winfield Jr., though Jordan Fuller (Rams) or Kyle Dugger (Patriots) could solidify the lineup.
In the end, Fangio’s mere presence — his resume, his no-nonsense approach, his clear vision for what he wants to do — should represent a noticeable upgrade. It’s hard to be any worse than the Eagles were at the tail end of 2023, both in execution, effort and understanding of concept. Now it’s a matter of how much the new man in charge can uplift those at his disposal.