Jamar Chaney could be a key member of the 2011 Eagles defense. We don't know anything official yet, but I think there is a good chance he will be the starting weakside linebacker. I recently re-watched some tape of Chaney to take another look at him. I came away impressed, from an overall perspective. He still needs work, but there is plenty to like.
Chaney started three games (including playoffs) at middle linebacker last year. He totaled 28 solo tackles in those three games. Let me put that number in perspective. Stewart Bradley started 12 games at middle linebacker. He had 55 solo tackles. Numbers can be skewed, but you still have to appreciate that level of production from a rookie.
I'm not trying to disparage Bradley. He and Chaney are different types of players. Tackle totals can be deceiving as well. Sometimes a player having a high total means that he and the defense struggled to get off the field. Jessie Tuggle played on some bad Falcons defenses and always had really high tackle numbers. The same is true for Eugene Marve from his days in Buffalo.
I do think Chaney played well. The number of tackles showed that he had good speed and range. He was able to make stops on plays that came to him, but was also fast enough to chase the ball all over the field. Chaney also proved to be a good tackler. He wrapped his targets up and put them on the ground. There were a couple of plays in the wild card loss he'd like to have back, but generally Chaney impressed me with his ability to get to the ball and make the play.
A few people have wondered if Chaney was successful because he had fresh legs. I do think that helped him, but that wasn't the only reason he looked so impressive. Go back and watch the tape and you see good linebacker skills. He was able to shed blocks and be tough against inside runs. That was an area where Bradley was impressive in 2008, but struggled last year. He couldn't get off blocks nearly as well because he seemed to be trying to protect his knee. Chaney used his long arms and strength to fight off blocks and get to the ball.
Chaney also did a good job of moving through trash. This is a football term for when a player has to move through heavy traffic to get to the ball. It requires good field vision, agility, balance and strength. Anyone who has been to a concert or club or some crowded area knows how hard it is to move through a large group of people. The same concept is true for linebackers on a lot of running plays. They have to do the same thing, but in a second or two. They also have blockers who are trying to get in their way. Some guys need to be in space. Chaney did well when he was in tight quarters.
I'm sure more than a couple of people are wondering why I'm not projecting Chaney to start in the middle if he showed so much potential there. That is a very relevant question. I think Chaney can be a good middle linebacker, but re-watching tape of him made me wonder if that is his ideal spot.
Chaney struggled in pass coverage. He didn't have physical issues, but too often looked lost. The middle linebacker has to cover the middle of the field on some pass plays. That can be a huge area and it can involve a lot of different players, depending on who the offense sends out and where they send them. The middle linebacker has to be fast enough to get good depth on his pass drops (which Chaney can), but he also must know what's happening. Part of this is pre-snap recognition. The middle linebacker needs to look at the formation and already have a strong idea of what can happen. It also requires good instincts. Sometimes your eyes can deceive you and you must feel what is going to happen.
Chaney never showed a good feel for the passing game over the middle. There was a play in one game where he got excellent depth on his drop and should have been right there to break up a pass. The problem is that Chaney had his back to the tight end. Chaney turned the wrong way once he got deep and by the time he turned around the ball was already to the receiver. Chaney made the tackle, but gave up a big gain. There were play action passes where he was badly fooled. That will happen to all linebackers, but you can recover. This takes speed (which Chaney has), but also requires the linebacker to know where the receivers behind him are. Chaney didn't recover well after he broke forward on play-action passes. He would turn quickly and run, but didn't seem to know where he should be.
I'm not trying to be overly harsh on the young man. Many young linebackers struggle in coverage. They were good pass defenders in college, but those passing attacks lacked the sophistication of NFL offenses. In the NFL, you need more than athletic ability. You must understand what the offense is doing and where all the receivers are. You almost need eyes in the back of your head. This is why instinctive players are so good against the pass. They just feel things.
Kurt Gouveia was the Eagles middle linebacker in 1995 and did a good job for us. Prior to that he was a nemesis when he played for the 'Skins. He wasn't big or super-athletic, but was very instinctive and a good pass defender. He had 12 career picks, despite only being a full-time starter for five years. Think about Lofa Tatupu in Seattle. He isn't a great athlete, but that guy has great instincts. He's got 10 career picks in just six years on the job. Heck, it seems like most of the interceptions came against us.
As I re-watched tape of Chaney, I tried to see what kind of instincts he had. This is an area where he doesn't excel. He was at his best when the play was in front of him and he could attack the ball. There was a pass play in the wild card game where the Packers dumped the ball to a back in the flat. Chaney read it perfectly and stopped the play for minimum gain. That play was about speed and physical ability. Other plays required Chaney to read the offense and anticipate what was coming. This is when Chaney was hesitant. He wanted to make sure of what he saw.
I think Chaney could thrive at weakside linebacker. He's tough enough to handle isolation plays that might be run at him. He's fast enough to cover running backs in the flat. He's got enough speed to make plays even on the far side of the field. The biggest thing is that he'll have less responsibility in terms of diagnosing plays. The weakside linebacker has more space to work in and can see more quickly if plays are coming at him or going elsewhere. I think Chaney has the potential to be a Lance Briggs-type of weak side linebacker.
Many of you may think that is hyperbole, but remember that Briggs was a mid-round draft pick who developed into a star player. Chaney would have gone in the middle rounds if teams didn't have some concerns about an old ankle injury. The players have similar size. Both run well. Both can hit and tackle. Both guys came from BCS schools, but not football powers. They posted similar numbers in college.
If Chaney is even in the same conversation as Briggs in a few years, the Eagles will be ecstatic. Weakside linebacker has been a revolving door for years. Chaney could be a good long-term answer. He's not an aging player like Takeo Spikes. He's not an undrafted overachiever like Akeem Jordan. He doesn't lack the speed to play there like Omar Gaither did. He doesn't lack the size or strength to play there like Matt McCoy did. Chaney has the potential to be a very good weakside linebacker - now and into the future.
The first test for Chaney is showing that his good play at the end of 2010 was no fluke. He needs to report in good shape and still be as hungry and focused as he was last year. Complacency kills a lot of careers. I don't think Chaney will fall into that trap, but we won't know for sure until we see him out on the field. Thankfully, it sounds like that is just around the corner.