The Eagles will start hitting the field a week from now. Until then, we will look at the biggest Training Camp storylines facing the Eagles. Today, here is a look at the linebacker position as a whole with an added emphasis on the man in the middle.
Dave Spadaro: This is probably the most pressing question for the defense with Jordan Hicks in Arizona. The Eagles had Hicks for four seasons, and he missed 21 games with injuries, so the Eagles have had plenty of experience with Hicks off the field. This time, of course, it's not a short-term need. The Eagles must have someone step up for a full season.
A key player in this equation is Zach Brown, signed as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. How quickly Brown learns the defense and potentially wins a job – perhaps as a strongside linebacker – impacts what the Eagles do across the board. Nigel Bradham played in the middle during the Super Bowl season, Paul Worrilow has starting experience as a MIKE, and the Eagles, by the way, use only two linebackers on the field about 70 percent of the time.
This, though, is a tangible position to watch in the summer. Really, it's one of the few legitimate "openings" in the projected starting lineup. Who plays the middle linebacker position? The Eagles would love a player or two to step up and claim the job. They could also move some of their versatile linebacker pieces around from week to week, although that is not the ideal scenario.
Fran Duffy: I'll take on the last part of that question, and that's 'does it matter' who the second linebacker is? Of COURSE it matters.
When teams gameplan for opposing defenses, if there is a matchup to be won in the passing game, it's often easiest to attack a poor coverage linebacker. Whether it's with a dynamic running back, an athletic tight end, or just a creative multi-layered route concept opening up the middle of the field, the linebacker who can't run, cover, and play in space is tough to put on the field on regular downs.
That's why teams have trended more toward subpackages in the last decade-plus, to get more speed on the field. That's also why the position has trended more toward athletically inclined players with defensive back backgrounds (such as Kamu Grugier-Hill).
On a recent episode of the Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast, I answered a question about who would play the Corey Graham role as the team's Big Nickel defender, and the answer to that question is the same as the answer to this one. It's up to Jim Schwartz to put the best 11 players on the field. That's the question they have to answer on every play, responding to who the offense deploys. If the offense comes out with three receivers, one running back, and one tight end (11 personnel), who are the best 11? If the offense comes out with two receivers, one running back, and two tight ends (12 personnel), who are the best 11? Go right down the list from there and ask the same question. That's what this summer is for, to help set the pecking order in all of those packages. It will be fun to watch the competition unfold!
Chris McPherson: The middle linebacker position carries a sense of gravitas with is as a leadership position. Typically, the middle linebacker is wearing the helmet radio and making the calls, so from that standpoint it is important. And while the Eagles play in a subpackage an overwhelming majority of the time, they still need to be able to win with three linebackers on the field.
A couple of things to watch at linebacker, not necessarily related to the MIKE position. This is a big Training Camp for Kamu Grugier-Hill. He started 10 games and played a career-high 32 percent of the snaps on defense last season. He had a productive offseason. Linebackers coach Ken Flajole said that Grugier-Hill "can be a real factor for us" and "be more than just a special teams guy and a spot player on defense." Grugier-Hill fits the new NFL's linebacking mold with his ability to play in coverage.
The battle for a roster spot will include some promising young players. Flajole called Joey Alfieri and T.J. Edwards "two of the better undrafted free agents that we've had since I've been here." He also deemed Alex Singleton, who played three seasons in the Canadian Football League, "a tough nut" who will flourish when the pads go on at Training Camp.