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#EaglesCamp Preview: Inside Linebacker

Posted Jul 29, 2015

A Look At The Inside Linebackers
Name Age Exp. Note
Emmanuel Acho 24 4 Reliable backup started two games in 2014
Kiko Alonso 24 3 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year comes in hungry
Najee Goode 26 4 Top backup entering '14, lost season to injury in Week 1
Brandon Hepburn 25 1 Spent time on practice squad in '14, needs to stand out
Jordan Hicks 23 R Third-round pick will have to excel on special teams early
Brad Jones 29 7 Versatile ex-Packer ready to compete for spot
Mychal Kendricks 24 4 On verge of Pro Bowl last season in only 12 games
DeMeco Ryans 31 10 Defensive leader aims for quick Achilles recovery

1. How Will The Rotation Shake Out?

In Mychal Kendricks, Kiko Alonso and DeMeco Ryans, the Eagles have perhaps the league's best trio of inside linebackers. Kendricks, 24, emerged as a force last season when healthy. In 12 games, he finished with 108 tackles, good for second on the team behind Malcolm Jenkins' 113. At 6-0, 240, Kendricks has among the best sideline-to-sideline speed of any linebacker in the league and is equally adept in coverage, defending the run and rushing the passer.

Like Kendricks, Alonso is a 24-year-old former second-round pick, though he entered the league in 2013, a year after Kendricks. As a rookie with the Buffalo Bills, Alonso earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after finishing third in the league with an astounding 159 tackles and four interceptions. Perhaps more impressively, Alonso played every single defensive snap for the Bills that season. Then, of course, he tore the ACL in his left knee last summer, forcing him to miss the entire season. About eight months later, he was traded to the Eagles in exchange for LeSean McCoy.

Then there's Ryans, who has been the leader on and off the field for the Eagles defense since coming to Philadelphia via trade during the 2012 offseason. Perhaps too much has been of Chip Kelly calling Ryans the team's "Mufasa," but the sentiment holds true – the defense takes on a different personality when Ryans is on the field.

So how, then, will defensive coordinator Bill Davis juggle the playing time between three "three-down linebackers" who all deserve to be on the field? That is one of the most intriguing storylines entering the 2015 season. Is it possible to have all three on the field at the same time? The dream scenario, of course, is that all three prove to be healthy and productive, which brings us to question No. 2.

2. How Healthy Are Kiko & DeMeco?

Linebacker is notoriously a position beset by injuries. Look no further than the 2014 Eagles, who saw four different players start inside and one other key contributor (Najee Goode) lost for the season in Week 1. Alonso missed all 16 games last year, though he surprised even himself with what he was able to do this spring.

"I honestly didn't think I'd be doing this much, but I've just been going based on how it feels, and it feels really good," Alonso said in late May. "Ever since I've gotten here, I've done everything."

That includes not wearing a protective brace over the knee , which Alonso "never really liked." He expects to be a full participant for the open of Training Camp on Sunday.

Ryans, meanwhile, tore his Achilles in the eighth game of the 2014 season. Though that injury typically calls for about a year-long recovery, Ryans was nearly a full participant for the Eagles during the spring.

"I'm not doing everything," Ryans explained in May. "I'm gradually progressing into doing everything, but I am doing position drills and that's going really well."

This is the second time Ryans has torn an Achilles (he suffered the injury in the opposite leg in 2010), so he's familiar with everything that goes into the rehab process. Following that 2010 injury, Ryans played in all 16 games for the Houston Texans in 2016, so we shouldn't be surprised if he does so again. Still, the presence of Alonso and Kendricks allows Chip Kelly and the Eagles to perhaps take their time with Ryans' return. Though make no mistake that Ryans will do his best to get on the field as soon as possible.

3. Who Wins The Roster Battles For Depth?

Not only are the Eagles deep at inside linebacker from a starting standpoint, but the depth beyond the top three is as good as the Eagles have had in some time (certainly since moving to a 3-4 defense two years ago). Third-round pick Jordan Hicks was so high on the Eagles' draft board that they selected the former Texas Longhorn despite already having a perceived logjam at the position. So Hicks will bide his time learning behind the top three while he looks to contribute on special teams and study the defense until it becomes second nature.

That then leaves maybe one more spot on the 53-man roster for another inside linebacker and there are three or four worthy candidates.

Najee Goode was well on his way to making an impact on the roster last season as the third linebacker behind Kendricks and Ryans before tearing his pectoral in the season opener and landing on injured reserve. At 6-0, 224, Goode was reliable for the Eagles in 2013 – after the Eagles claimed him off waivers before the start of the season – and has earned the trust of inside linebackers coach Rick Minter and the rest of the defense. He was also a valuable contributor on special teams.

In Goode's absence last year, Emmanuel Acho stepped in, as did Casey Matthews, starting two games and recording 36 tackles. At 6-2, 240, Acho is reliable inside, especially in the run game.

Veteran Brad Jones was signed early in the offseason, before the Alonso trade, and has the versatility to play both inside and outside linebacker, though his natural position is inside. At 6-3, 242, the 29-year-old former Green Bay Packer has started 36 games over six seasons, including a combined 22 from 2012-2013. He has 10.0 career sacks and is also a reliable special teamer, having forced a fumble and blocked a kick on special teams just last season.

Finally, Brandon Hepburn is the unknown of the group after spending some of the 2014 season on the Eagles practice squad. At 6-4, 235, Hepburn was a seventh-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2013 after a standout career at Florida A&M. He has yet to play in a regular season game.

That rundown also discounts the versatility of players like Travis Long or Marcus Smith to swing inside from their natural outside linebacker positions. Which makes the roster push at inside linebacker perhaps the most condensed on the team – it should make for an exciting Training Camp.

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