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Defense Faces Early Challenge Minus Nigel Bradham

  • The one-game suspension of linebacker Nigel Bradham tests the Eagles' defense in many ways against a powerful Falcons offense on September 6.

In the world of “next man up,” the Eagles will need exactly that for the 2018 season-opening game with the news on Friday that linebacker Nigel Bradham is suspended for the September 6 game against Atlanta at Lincoln Financial Field for an off-field incident that occurred in July 2016. This is going to be a challenge for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz when he gets to the point where he’s preparing personnel packages for that night.

A linebacking corps that already has some legitimate question marks becomes taxed even further for the opener. At this point, squinting to see that far ahead, the Eagles will have a completely new lineup from the one that helped defeat New England in Super Bowl LII.

Bradham won’t play. Mychal Kendricks was released. Dannell Ellerbe, who played just three defensive snaps in the Super Bowl, is an unrestricted free agent. Instead, projecting ahead, the Eagles hope to have Jordan Hicks healthy and in the middle of the defense and then … who … else? Schwartz tinkered with the personnel in the Super Bowl, employing veteran safety Corey Graham for 64 snaps and, in those snaps, using Malcolm Jenkins in a linebacker role for pass-coverage purposes. Maybe that’s a direction Schwartz considers for the opener, but let’s remember that Graham is an unrestricted free agent, and while the possibility remains that Graham could sign with the team before Training Camp, he hasn’t done so yet.

At this point, the Eagles are considering every option to replace Bradham in that game and, in the bigger picture, develop reliable and quality depth at all three linebacker positions. At the moment, that is one of the biggest to-do items for camp.

Against an Atlanta team that was as balanced last season as any in the NFL, the Eagles are going to have to come up with some solutions. Atlanta has a powerful and versatile running game paced by backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Atlanta’s star is wide receiver Julio Jones, and he’ll get some help this season from first-round draft pick wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Quarterback Matt Ryan is one of the best in the league, the owner of a new mega-contract, and someone rated very highly by Pro Football Focus, which provided this analysis of Ryan’s 2017 season in ESPN Insider.

“While his overall play did take a slight step back from his 2016 MVP campaign, quarterback Matt Ryan still played at a high level,” PFF wrote “The box score may not show that, but Ryan suffered some awfully bad luck in 2017 and threw a league-leading eight "unlucky" interceptions (tipped passes, receiver errors, etc.). Ryan ended the year tied for second in overall PFF grade while ranking third in adjusted completion percentage and throwing only five turnover-worthy passes all year.”

In other words, the Eagles’ defense has to replicate the performance from the Divisional Round playoff game against Atlanta, a 15-10 victory. Bradham was credited with four total tackles, a quarterback sack, two tackles for loss, and a pass defensed. Whatever the numbers say don’t necessarily tell the story, because Bradham was a dominating player in that game and for much of the season, which is why the Eagles made it such a priority to sign him to a long-term contract in the offseason. His versatility allowed the defense to overcome the loss of Hicks, who went out in the seventh game of the year with an Achilles tendon injury and was lost for the remainder of the season.

Now what?

Well, Hicks is making excellent progress coming back from injury and there’s encouragement in his recovery. The Eagles signed Corey Nelson in free agency. Some of the young linebackers, notably Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nathan Gerry, made strides in the spring and are contending for playing time. LaRoy Reynolds, signed in the spring as an unrestricted free agent, has experience in the NFL, notably with the Falcons. Joe Walker had valuable playing time last season and knows the system, but he has to get healthy first. And Jenkins gives Schwartz some options to move around, if only for that game.

Take this all on a game-by-game basis. We’ve got a long way to go before September 6, but that has to be part of the focus: How do the Eagles compensate for Bradham’s loss against Atlanta? The coaching staff has some time to think about the various machinations and the personnel department has some time should it decide to address the linebacker position. Not having Bradham is a significant blow for the defense, but as we learned last season, there is always the “next-man-up” approach for the Eagles. The ability to successfully replace so many injured front-line players helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl in the 2017 season. They’re going to be tested again, right out of the gate, in 2018.

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