Whatever the plan is for the Philadelphia Eagles in this 2020 offseason, it's started. The team announced on Wednesday that they released veteran linebacker Nigel Bradham, a mainstay in Jim Schwartz's defense the last four seasons.
An ankle injury in 2019 limited Bradham to just 12 games and 71 percent of the team's defensive snaps. Bradham recorded 63 total tackles, including two for loss, in that time. He also helped late in critical road victories at Green Bay, where his end zone interception of an Aaron Rodgers pass tipped by cornerback Craig James sealed a 34-27 victory, and at Washington, where he recovered a fumble from quarterback Dwayne Haskins and returned it 50 yards to put the exclamation point on that Week 15 victory.
After signing with the Eagles as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2016 season, Bradham started 58 regular-season games and six postseason games, including the win over New England in Super Bowl LII.
Bradham is free to join any team in the league, so he's got a bit of a jump-start on that process. So do the Eagles, who have an interesting picture at linebacker – and the defensive front seven – to address in the coming months.
The Eagles want to see more from T.J. Edwards, who recorded 19 total tackles in 115 regular-season snaps as a rookie. Nathan Gerry took advantage of the most playing time in his career to notch 67 total tackles, 2.5 quarterback sacks, a pair of interceptions (one returned for a touchdown against the Jets), and a recovered fumble in 2019. The Eagles traded for Duke Riley from Atlanta during the season and he will get a shot to show what he can do in the spring and summer here now that he's got the defensive scheme down. Alex Singleton, promoted from the practice squad during the regular season, becomes a player to watch in the linebacker mix for 2020 as well.
Kamu Grugier-Hill is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in March, so he's obviously someone to keep an eye on as the Eagles work on a reconfigured linebacker corps. The rule of thumb in the NFL is that you don't give a player his release until you have a plan for a replacement, so the Eagles, as they've constructed their offseason plan for addressing the roster, clearly have something in mind.
We just don't know what that is at the moment.
Whatever happens, it's safe to say that the Eagles need more from their linebacker corps. They're thin there now from a roster standpoint and while the entire positional group has changed through the years – defenses are using more defensive backs on the field to counter the spread formations from offenses, resulting in one or two fewer linebackers on the field at a time – this defense still needs some impact from linebacker.
Where will that come from? The Eagles are counting on the likes of Edwards, Gerry, Riley, and Singleton to continue to develop. But they'll add to the linebacker room in either free agency, the NFL Draft, or both. From a historical standpoint, the Eagles haven't committed a draft pick to the linebacker position since Gerry was taken in the fifth round of the 2017 draft (No. 184 overall). Jordan Hicks, in 2015, was a third-round draft pick and Mychal Kendricks was selected in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. A pair of fourth-round draft picks – Keenan Clayton in 2010 and Casey Matthews in 2011 – had limited impact in Philadelphia.
So, where do the Eagles go? We're not that far away from finding out as free agency begins in less than a month and the draft follows in late April. The Eagles haven't tipped their hand on what they're going to address from a roster standpoint, but the obvious answer is that they're going to hit as many areas of the roster as they can. The defensive front seven, certainly, is an area to consider. So is the secondary. The defense wants to continue to be a stout group against the run – the Eagles ranked third in the NFL in run defense in 2019 – while becoming more productive rushing the quarterback and forcing takeaways. Philadelphia ranked tied for eighth in the NFL in quarterback sacks last year with 44, and 10 of them came against a woeful Jets offense. The Eagles tied for 19th in the league with 20 takeaways in 2019.
This is just the beginning. The team has spent the last many weeks preparing for what's ahead. The move away from Bradham gets things rolling and, make no mistake, the Eagles are going about this systematically, very step by step, understanding that they're going to be thrown some curveballs and will have to be adaptable.
At the season-closing press conference at the NovaCare Complex, Howie Roseman spoke about the "need to infuse youth into this team." With some room to maneuver within the salary cap, with 10 draft picks to use, the Eagles have a chance to make some significant changes to this roster. Step one happened on Tuesday, with many more to follow.