The draft has come and gone. Free agency is a distant memory, at least in terms of significant additions. There will be some changes, more minor than major. For the most part, this is the team that you're likely to see on the field in 2009.
One of the surprises to some fans is the lack of change at linebacker. I have received many, many questions over the last several months about the various linebackers the Eagles could target. The only addition was a seventh-round pick, Moise Fokou. Some will say the Eagles ignored the position. I don't think so. Believe it or not, the Eagles like the linebackers they have.
We don't have the great linebackers of the Buddy Ryan/Bud Carson era. Seth Joyner, Byron Evans and William Thomas were Pro Bowl-type players and game-changers. Those guys were special. The current group is solid, but nowhere close to that group. Part of that is by design. Jim Johnson's scheme focuses on getting pressure up front and covering well in the back. The linebackers aren't the focal point of the defense. The previous group played the vaunted 46 Defense and linebackers were crucial to that scheme being successful. You have to build your roster based on the scheme that is being run.
Back to the present. Chris Gocong is entering his third year as the starter on the strong side. Gocong is an ascending player. He's improved his play every season. The question with him is where he levels off. Gocong was solid last year. He still needs to get better in coverage and he needs to be more of a playmaker.
One thing to remember in regard to strongside linebackers (or SAMs) is that they take time to develop. Few guys in college fully develop the ability to play the run, cover and be effective pass rushers. Many SAMs played a different position prior to the NFL. Both Gocong and former Eagle Carlos Emmons played defensive end collegiately. Emmons was a disappointment in Pittsburgh, where he began his NFL career. He lacked the dominant pass rush skills needed to thrive in the 3-4. Emmons came to Philly and was a terrific fit in the Eagles' 4-3 scheme. Eagles fans saw the finished product, but they didn't see the first four years of his career as he learned to play the position.
Gocong now has 35 games and a couple of training camps under his belt. Playing linebacker should feel pretty natural for him at this point. His key numbers went up from 2007 to 2008. That's good. Now we need to see that trend continue. Gocong did have seven fewer tackles in 2008, but he had a pair of sacks, five pass breakups and a forced fumble. He also recovered one fumble. That came in the first Dallas game when he fell on Tony Romo's fumble in the end zone, giving Gocong his first NFL touchdown. Those are the kinds of plays that we really want. Strongside linebackers are never going to be tackling machines in this scheme. The ball is funneled more to the other linebackers. You hope for a solid run defender and someone who can make his share of plays.
I think Gocong has the ability to be a very good SAM. He needs to be more consistent with his run defense and tackling. Occasionally, he will overrun the play and leave his gap wide open. He needs to cover better. He showed a lot of improvement last season, but still must get better. Finally, Gocong has to be even more of a playmaker. He's still looking for his first interception. You'd like to see a guy with his speed and power force more fumbles. His blitzing has improved. Now he needs to improve that sack total. 2009 will be a key season for Gocong. We'll start to see if he's going to be a very good player or just a solid starter.
Stewart Bradley has only spent one season as the starting middle linebacker, but he clearly showed that he was a natural at the position and has tremendous potential. The question with him isn't whether he'll be good, but rather how good. Bradley has an excellent combination of size, speed and ability. He's the kind of physical player that Johnson loves in the middle of his defense. Bradley can line up over the ball and attack offensive linemen at the snap. Jeremiah Trotter was a master at that. Mark Simoneau wasn't quite as effective. Omar Gaither was even less effective at that. Bradley does it well. Not many defenses regularly ask the middle linebacker to play on the ball. It can be quite effective when done well. Trotter had the lower body strength to give blockers fits. Bradley is taller, but does have the size and strength to still be good at engaging blockers and holding his ground or driving them back.
Bradley did have some growing pains last year. He missed some tackles. He occasionally overran plays. Learning to key and diagnose plays takes some time. Offenses are designed to confuse defenders. Bradley got a lesson in misdirection plays and cutback runs all season long. You could see him get a little better each week. Defenders have to develop the ability to anticipate plays so they can get into the proper position. Dallas running back Marion Barber burned Bradley for a touchdown pass in the Week 2 loss. Bradley was late to react and then lacked the pure speed to cover Barber when beaten initially. The Giants tried a similar play in the postseason meeting. Bradley saw it coming and got out wide quickly. He forced the running back out of bounds and the Giants had to settle for a field goal. Those games were four months apart. Bradley learned a lot about how to play middle linebacker in that time.
Last year, Bradley had to adjust to playing inside and being a full-time starter and still played well. The sky is the limit for 2009. The only hedge I'll make is that he's got to stay focused and has to work just as hard. Expectations for him will be very high. Some young players get a taste of success and then get complacent. Safety Michael Lewis admitted this happened to him after making the Pro Bowl in 2004. He hasn't been the same player since then. Bradley was a mid-round pick and is more of an overachiever type. Those guys usually stay motivated.
The only concern at middle linebacker could be how to get backup Joe Mays some playing time. Mays had a terrific training camp and preseason last year. He stood out every time you watched him. Unfortunately, Bradley is entrenched as the starter ahead of him. Mays can't worry about that. His job is to play so well that it puts pressure on the coaching staff to get him on the field. I'm curious to see if Mays can play at a high level again this summer.
The position under most scrutiny is weakside linebacker. Akeem Jordan is the incumbent starter, but only has about half a season of starting experience. He wasn't much of a playmaker last season. I think some people also get stuck on the fact that Jordan was undrafted and ""only"" played at James Madison. Why didn't the Eagles go get a stud linebacker to take the job from him?
I think the Eagles like Jordan more than people know. He isn't flashy, but the defense got a lot better when he took over the starting role from Gaither. One of the things that Johnson looks for in a weakside linebacker is the ability to take on the fullback on run plays. The offense hopes to isolate the fullback on a linebacker on an inside run (generally called iso plays). If the linebacker is stuffed, the back has clear sailing into the secondary. The Redskins and Giants were quite good at this in the first meetings last season. Giants fullback Madison Hedgecock got the best of Gaither all game long. Jordan was the starter for the late season game and the playoff meeting. He got the best of Hedgecock in each game and the Giants failed to run as well. There is no specific stat to show Jordan's impact. Re-watch the games and you'll see how well he played.
Jordan did a very good job in helping to cover tight ends. Early in 2008, Johnson was using Brian Dawkins on tight ends most of the time. Around midseason he switched up and split the duties between Jordan and strong safety Quintin Mikell. Tight ends had been a big problem early in the year, but that adjustment proved to be very effective. Jordan showed a good feel for coverage. He was physical with receivers inside the 5-yard zone where they are free game. Jordan is athletic and has good speed. He's able to run with guys and stay in their hip pocket.
So what's the concern with a linebacker who is tough enough to stuff fullbacks on run plays and looks good in coverage on pass plays? The one thing Jordan didn't do was make plays. He didn't have a sack, interception or forced fumble. He did recover one fumble and had six tackles-for-loss. Jordan didn't have a full season to work with, but this is a legitimate issue. The weakside linebacker has to be a playmaker. Being a solid run defender and cover guy is the bare minimum. In order for someone to be considered good at the weakside spot, he's got to make things happen. Jordan has the physical ability to be a playmaker. I hope with that the experience he got in 2008 combined with a full season of playing time will help him to become a stat-sheet stuffer (credit to Clark Kellogg for that term).
Jordan is penciled in for the starting job, but you can bet that Gaither will work his butt off to get the job back. There were moments when Gaither looked terrific last year. Watch the Chicago or Pittsburgh games and you'll think Gaither was headed for the Pro Bowl. The flip side of that is to watch the first Washington and Giants games. Clinton Portis had 31 touches against us in the October meeting. Gaither never tackled him. You can't have a game where the opposing tailback gets that many touches and your starting weakside linebacker never tackles him. If he can improve on his run defense, maybe he can win the job back. I wouldn't count on it. I think Jordan will keep it. We can hope for a spirited battle that will bring out the best in both guys.
The linebacker corps may lack superstar names, but not potential. Bradley can be a Pro Bowl player if he continues to get better. He's not that far off right now. Gocong might not be at that level, but he does have a lot of upside, even now. Jordan is the big mystery. He did well last year for half the season. 2009 is a big opportunity (and challenge) for him. He can show us that he's got what it takes to be a playmaker or that he's meant to be a backup and role player. Gaither and Mays are quality backups. Tank Daniels and Tracy White are solid veterans, but their impact is more on special teams than on defense. I know everyone isn't crazy about the linebacker situation, but I think there is reason for optimism. This is the most comfortable I've felt about the linebackers in a long time.