You can point to the 2006 draft as the weekend when the Eagles started to rebuild their linebacker corps. They used a third-round draft pick on a standout small-school defensive end named Chris Gocong and came back the next day with a fifth-round pick named Omar Gaither. Maybe those somewhat-humble beginnings aren't the exact moments the Eagles transitioned from a veteran-laden, piece-meal approach to the all-young-guns group the Eagles have in place now.
No question, as the Eagles continue their preparation for Sunday's NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Giants, that the linebackers are featured reasons the defense ranked third in the NFL this season and showed so much improvement from September to now. That draft in 2006 brought to the Eagles the seeds of what is, without question, one of the most promising groups of players the Eagles have ever had.
"In 2006, the Gocong pick was the big one, because Jim Johnson was always looking for a bigger, more prototypical SAM (strong side) linebacker, somebody who is 250 pounds -- and Chris is bigger than that -- and who could be a blitzing-type guy who could take on tight ends," said Tom Heckert, the Eagles' General Manager. "Chris hasn't blitzed a ton this year, but as he progresses he is going to be that guy. But Chris is a stud versus tight ends because he is so big and strong and can run. He just gets better and better.
"Omar is a really good player who can play in the middle and who can play at the WILL spot. We started with those two players and, as it turns out, just added more pieces and we're really happy with what we have."
It really has worked out well for the Eagles, even if they didn't exactly plan it this way. Some experimenting here, some patience there and always outstanding coaching and a commitment from the players to improve has turned linebacker into a position of strength after years of relying on Jeremiah Trotter in the middle and some moving pieces around him.
Gaither was the first of the young linebackers to pay dividends. He moved into the starting lineup late in his rookie season on the weak side and improved the spot after another draft pick, Matt McCoy, didn't pan out. Gocong, meanwhile, spent all of his first year on Injured Reserve as the Eagles talked back and forth about what he was -- in college Gocong dominated as a 260-pound pass-rushing end; but he didn't have enough lead in, um, his rear end to do that here. It wasn't about the weight, per se, it was more about doing all the things against the run and the pass to satisfy what the Eagles like to do with their ends.
So when Gocong got healthy again and started practicing in 2007, he did so as a SAM linebacker. The Eagles hadn't had a superior player at that position since the days of Carlos Emmons, having tried Dhani Jones for a few decent, but certainly not spectacular seasons. The Eagles wanted to get younger, more athletic and stronger at the position, so they asked Gocong to make the move to a position he had never played.
"It was a huge move for Chris and you could see him out there every day making sure he was in the right place and trying not to make mistakes," said Heckert. "He worked hard. He was OK. The guy never played off the ball before. He improved every week. But you can't think all the time out there. There comes a point in time when you have to go out and play, and that is what Chris is doing now. His improvement has been outstanding. Chris is doing a very, very good job. He isn't in man coverage a ton against a tight end, and he comes out in the nickel, but we've seen a big improvement to where he is just out there playing football instead of just doing his job. I think he has played really well for us this year."
"We wanted to be more athletic there, and we wanted to add that kind of skill across the board. We got lucky and got a lot bigger, too."
With Gocong in place, and with Gaither playing well at middle linebacker, the Eagles were improved last season with veteran Takeo Spikes at WILL. The linebackers were better, the numbers against the run were better and, yes, there were promising signs. Then Spikes was injured, and a pair of rookies saw more time and the coaches watched out third-round draft pick Stewart Bradley stepped on the field late in the season and flew all over the place making plays and how non-drafted rookie Akeem Jordan was in on just about every special teams tackle and showed that he had the speed in the defense to cover and to get to the football and to force himself into the crowded picture at some point.
That point came this year. Well, actually, before this season started. Way, way before the season started.
After reviewing the 2007 season, the Eagles decided to go with the kids. They released Spikes, moved Bradley to middle linebacker and slid Gaither back to the weak side. They also considered Jordan a valuable piece to the puzzle, so much so that midway through the season Johnson replaced Gaither with Jordan, just to see if Jordan's superior speed would make a difference.
It did, and the Eagles linebackers have never been better. With Gocong's improvement and a group effort in zone coverage, those annoying tight end-dominated games became a thing of the past. Bradley blossomed better than anyone could have dreamed in his first year as a starter -- he was named to Sports Illustrated's All-Pro Team this week -- and Jordan has been a ball hawk and a huge aid against the run and the pass.
Meanwhile, Gaither has shrugged off the disappointment of losing his starting job by becoming a standout player on special teams along with another linebacker, Tracy White. And rookie Joe Mays, who has yet to make an impact this season, is a promising youngster who had a lights-out preseason.
Looking good, indeed.
"Having Stewart come along as he's done has been very important," said Heckert. "We knew he was instinctive guy and then he had the size. He's such a big, athletic kid and when you play middle linebacker, you have to handle guys coming at you from every direction. He's handled it well. Early on, he was making the calls and he was getting guys in good position, trying to see everything and that was OK. Now, he's playing football. He's making a ton of plays. He's great as a blitzer and he's good in coverage. Stewart is a big-time player."
Jordan's rise has been meteoric, from the level of Division I-AA James Madison to the NFL. He wasn't even on the active roster for much of last season and could have been signed off the Eagles' practice squad at any time. Good thing he was ignored. Jordan started for the first time against the Ravens and hasn't looked back.
"Omar and Akeem are similar in a lot of ways. They are both instinctive and they are both good players," said Heckert. "Akeem is just a really good athlete who can run and who can cover. That is one of the things we were looking for. He was a great player at a smaller level in college, and while we were a little bit concerned about his size initially, it hasn't shown up at all. We had him as a fifth- or sixth-round player. It just so happens that Akeem wasn't drafted and we were able to sign him.
"Omar is a really good football player who, right now, is a valuable player who can line up at all three linebacker positions for us. He made plays when he started this year. It's a great problem for us to have and I know he wants to play more. The decision was made to change to Akeem and he took advantage of that chance. That's the way it goes."
On Mays, Heckert says: "He has a chance to be a good middle linebacker and when he had a chance to play in the preseason he played very well. He is another 250-pound player who is tough and who made a ton of plays in the preseason. I think he can do it, but he has to find a way to get on the field. He has to show up on special teams and make plays there. That's the next step for him."
On White, signed midway through the season to help on special teams, Heckert says: "He hasn't had much of an opportunity to play. He is similar in size to Akeem and he is fast and instinctive. We'll have to wait and see how he does next year when he has a full off-season to learn things. Right now, he is helping us a lot on special teams."
For the first time in a long time, then, the Eagles are loaded at linebacker. Gocong and Gaither are in their third NFL seasons. Bradley and Jordan are in their season campaigns. Mays is a rookie and White is in his first year here.
It has been an amazing transformation for a position that spent much of a decade under Johnson in some kind of flux, with so many in-and-out pieces. Now the kids are here to stay, and get better and better and better.
"We're so young, we're talented and the guys are working hard and taking well to good coaching," said Heckert. "It has been great to see, it really has. We have a linebacker group that should be good for a long, long time."