A funny thing happened on the way to the season. A team loaded with Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, DeSean Jackson, Trent Cole and Asante Samuel suddenly had Joe Mays become the focal point of attention.
Stewart Bradley got injured on Sunday night and that opened the door for Mays to become the starting middle linebacker. This situation raises a lot of interesting questions. Should Mays get the job over Omar Gaither? Can Mays handle it and how will it affect the defense?
Let's talk about Mays. He is 5-11 and 246 pounds. That isn't ideal size, but he still has a middle linebacker build. Some fans are concerned because he doesn't have a huge frame. That is okay. It is more important for a middle linebacker to be thick and powerful than tall. He has to battle offensive linemen. He's going to have to deal with fullbacks some of the time. He'll make a lot of tough tackles around the line of scrimmage that require strength and power. Sometimes being tall can actually be a disadvantage in those areas. Shorter players will naturally play with better pad level. They'll have good leverage. Some of the best middle linebackers of the last 25 years have been six feet or shorter: Mike Singletary, Zach Thomas, Sam Mills, Al Wilson, Jessie Tuggle, Chris Spielman, and London Fletcher all fit into this category.
All we know of Mays is what we've seen in two training camps and last year's preseason games. He didn't get on the field much at all last year during the season. Mays is strong and physical. He is an excellent hitter and tackler. He's got some real pop when he hits his target. Mays is a good downhill player. We like to attack with our middle linebacker so that is important. He is instinctive and has good range.
|Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He's followed the team for almost 20 years. Tommy has been trained by an NFL scout in the art of scouting and player evaluation and runs www.scoutsnotebook.com.|
The two areas where we need to see progress from last year are shedding blocks and pass coverage. Mays is now in his second training camp and knows the scheme. He no longer has to worry about adjusting to the Eagles defense or the speed of the NFL. Mays is now in the process of fine tuning his game. We'll see in the next few weeks whether his improvement is enough for him to keep the starting middle linebacker job.
Mays does have a kamikaze playing style, at least based on what we saw last year. That is something that has to be considered. Last summer, he was trying to make the team and went all out every snap in order to impress the coaches. Starters have to play under control. They need to cover the correct gap and play ""assignment smart"" football. I think we'll see more of that style from Mays this year, but this is something to be watched.
I think Mays can be a solid run defender for us. I do not know where his pass coverage skills are at this point. That would probably be an area where he'll need work and the only way to get that is by learning on the job. Bradley struggled in coverage at times early in the 2008 season, but got better as the year went along as he got experience. Mays is projected to start in the base defense, but isn't one of the nickel linebackers right now. We need him to play the run well and at least be an adequate pass defender.
Mays did play middle linebacker in college so he doesn't need to adjust to the position. He's also an instinctive player. That combination should speed his adjustment to the starting role. We don't need the middle linebacker to be a major playmaker. Our defense is built on the defensive line getting pressure and the defensive backs covering well. We primarily ask our linebackers to tackle well and handle some blockers.
Mays will benefit from having a pair of good defensive tackles in front of him. Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley will keep blockers off him a lot of the time. That frees up Mays to run to the ball and hit like a ton of bricks, which he does very well. Mays is in line to be a first-time starter. Heck, he didn't even get much special teams experience in 2008. There will be mistakes. There will be growing pains. Jeremiah Trotter went through that in 2000. Bradley did it last year. The defense can still be quite good even with a new starter in the middle.
I know some people expected Omar Gaither to get the job. After all, he was the starter in the middle in 2007. I think Andy Reid and Sean McDermott did the smart thing by giving Mays the job for now. He played very well last summer. He showed a lot of promise. The Eagles need to get him on the field and find out if he can be a good starter, effective starter, or if he's simply meant to be a role player. Mays hasn't been handed the job for good. He needs to show that he can handle the promotion. The only way for him to show us what he can do is by getting the chance to be the starter.
Gaither has 15 starts at outside linebacker and 16 starts in the middle. We know what he can do. He is good enough to get the job done, but didn't develop as well as hoped at either spot. I think leaving him at outside linebacker is the smart thing for now. Let him battle Akeem Jordan for the WILL position. Gaither is more of a playmaker on the outside. That makes him more valuable at that spot. Gaither will be on the field in the nickel defense. He does have good coverage skills.
The team signed Matt Wilhelm to come in and provide some depth. He is big at 6-4 and 245 pounds. He's started at inside linebacker in the Chargers 3-4 scheme 21 times over the last two years. Prior to that he was a backup and special teams player. Wilhelm is a good insurance policy. He has experience. He has size. He also is willing to be a backup and special teamer. Wilhelm isn't likely to be a starter for us, but the coaches will keep an open mind. If he's clearly the best player, he'll get a chance.
Some people are concerned about how the loss of Bradley affects the leadership on the defense. Last year, he was a new starter and had to become a leader. Middle linebacker is a leadership position. The player has to help get the play in from the sidelines. He makes sure the front seven is lined up correctly. Think of all the times you've seen the middle linebacker go up and tap a lineman on the hip to get him to slide over a bit. The middle linebacker is a leader by default. I have faith in Mays and Gaither when it comes to running the defense and being a leader.
I want to make one final point about Mays getting the job over Gaither. I think Reid does a great job of letting the young players know that they will get a chance to play if an injury occurs. Those guys desperately want to get on the field. If they feel like there is a real chance for them to play, they're more likely to prepare accordingly. Some teams will keep a utility veteran around to get on the field if anyone gets hurt. They don't trust young guys. The only way to find out if a player has what it takes is to get him on the field. At the same time, it is up to the player to stay prepared and practice hard. You don't start doing that stuff once the job is open. Eagles fans have seen very little of Mays since last summer. You can bet he's worked hard in the classroom, film room, weight room and on the practice field. You reward that work by giving him the chance to play. The coaches know that he isn't a sure thing. Mays could struggle as the starter. That's a chance you take, but I think it is the right thing to do. Photo Gallery : Joe Mays
I went back and dug up my raw notes on Joe Mays from last summer's preseason games. Here they are:
Vs. PIT - The guy who helped himself the most last night was backup middle linebacker Joe Mays. He led the team with six tackles. Several of those were big hits. Mays was instinctive. He showed good range. He tackled with authority. He showed why the coaches have him as the backup, despite the fact he was a sixth-round pick in April. This kid can hit. Needs to work on shedding blocks. Unloaded on a WR who caught a short pass across the middle. Did it again as he upended Limas Sweed after a catch across the middle.
Vs. CAR - Another good game. Didn't have the dramatic hits like last week, but tackled well and showed good range. Was credited with a pair of tackles, including one TFL. This kid looks like a player. Mays made a tackle in punt coverage.
Vs. NE - Terrific game. He led the team with 8 tackles. Mays flew to the football and tackled well. He has some real pop when he hits. He had a tackle-for-loss when he fired into the backfield and blasted the running back. The most impressive thing is that he shows good instincts. Mays isn't the fastest player in the world so he has to read formations and plays quickly. He does a good job of that and seems to sense where the ball is going to be. Takes good angles to the ball. Blew up the FB as he tried to catch a pass over the middle. Does everything at 100 MPH. Fun to watch.
Vs. NYJ - Another outstanding game. Had 13 tackles. Flew to the football. Really fought to get off blocks. Had a TFL in the 4th when he fired into the backfield. Still showing good instincts. Might not be the biggest guy, but he is a tough, physical player.