On the eve of free agency, our position-by-position free agency preview moves on to perhaps the most talked about position by Eagles fans. Last year, the only linebacker whom the Eagles signed in free agency was Akeem Jordan, who, of course, had played his previous four seasons with the Eagles. Rather, the Eagles' influx of talent at the position came through the draft, where the team selected three players, including two who combined to start 16 games in their rookie year. In fact, of the 46 starts by Eagles linebackers in 2011, 39 were made by players drafted by the Eagles in the last three seasons. But will they buck that trend and dive into free agency this time around?
On The Roster: 1. Jamar Chaney 2. Brian Rolle 3. Moise Fokou 4. Casey Matthews 5. Akeem Jordan 6. Keenan Clayton 7. Greg Lloyd 8. Monte Simmons
2011 Eagle(s) Hitting The Market: None, in fact. All eight linebackers currently on the roster are under contract for 2012.
Adam Caplan Free Agent Rankings:
OLB: 1. Anthony Spencer (Franchised)
2. Jarret Johnson
3. Leroy Hill
4. DeAndre Levy (RFA)
5. Jo-Lonn Dunbar
6. Bryan Thomas
7. Manny Lawson
8. Geno Hayes
9. Erik Walden
10. Aaron Maybin (RFA)
ILB: 1. Stephen Tulloch
2. Curtis Lofton
3. Barrett Ruud
4. David Hawthorne
5. London Fletcher
6. E.J. Henderson
7. Dan Connor
8. Joe Mays
9. Jovan Belcher (RFA)
10. Stephen Cooper
Where's The Fit?: While much has been made of a perceived need to improve the linebacker corps, head coach Andy Reid has insisted that he expects big things from his young group of linebacker. Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews combined to start 16 games in their rookie season, and Rolle was notably promising in his outside linebacker role, showcasing a persistent nose for the football. Jamar Chaney started all 16 games, split between the outside and the middle, but did have offseason next surgery. Chaney expects to be ready to fully participate in Organized Team Activities, but the Eagles will hope to be able to plug Chaney into a spot this season, rather than continuing to move him around.*Jordan andMoise Fokou* are both dependable veterans who also do yeoman's work on special teams. So it seems that the Eagles have the depth in place to form a solid group of linebackers, but they could use an upgrade at the top level. There will options available.
Intriguing Names: The name you will hear loudest among the screams of Eagles fans is Stephen Tulloch, because of what most describe as his "familiarity with the wide-nine scheme." The 27-year-old Tulloch, 5-11, 240, played five seasons with the Tennessee Titans, where Jim Washburn was the defensive line coach, before moving on to the Detroit Lions, who also employ the wide splits for their defensive line. Tulloch has started 45 games over the last three seasons and ranked seventh among all inside linebackers in 2011 according to ProFootballFocus. Notably, Tulloch had the second best ranking in coverage. Noise-wise, Tulloch is followed closely by Curtis Lofton, who has plied his trade with the Atlanta Falcons for the last four seasons. Since getting drafted in 2008, Lofton has started 63 of a possible 64 games for the Falcons and also performed well over that time. Lofton ranked 15th on ProFootballFocus' rankings of inside linebackers in 2011, though he is considered to be more of a downhill player than a coverage specialist. Both Lofton, 25, and Tulloch are likely to command big contracts when they hit the open market.
Perhaps flying under the radar is Seattle Seahawks linebacker David Hawthorne, whom Eagles fans will remember for his pick-six to close out the Seahawks' defeat of the Eagles this season. Hawthorne, 26, also has extensive starting experience, with 41 starts to his credit over the last three seasons. Capable of playing in each of the three linebacker spots, Hawthorne ranked as ProFootballFocus' second-best 4-3 outside linebacker in 2010 before the Seahawks moved him to the middle in 2011. Below Hawthorne's level are two younger players who are both impressive against the run. Former Penn State standout and Wallingford, PA, product Dan Connor has already been linked to the Eagles. Connor tore his ACL as a rookie and took a few years to make an impact, but he excelled while stepping in for the injured Jon Beason in 2011, starting 11 games for the Panthers and standing out as a physical run stopper. Erin Henderson, 25, also made 11 starts in 2011, though he did it for the Minnesota Vikings as an outside linebacker. Provided his first chance in the starting lineup, Henderson clocked in as the fourth best 4-3 outside linebacker in ProFootballFocus' rankings. Against the run, he came in third, behind only Von Miller and fellow free agent Jarret Johnson.
For more local flavor, there is Philadelphia native Jameel McClain, who started 31 games over the past two seasons for the feared Baltimore Ravens defense. McClain, 6-1, 245, is a 26-year-old in the prime of his career and also would profile as a likely outside linebacker with the Eagles. Finally, if the Eagles want to turn to someone they know well, would it be crazy to suggest a fit with longtime nemesis London Fletcher? Sure, the team's M.O. is, smartly, to stay away from older free agents and Fletcher, the Washington Redskins stalwart, will be 37 by Week 1. But Fletcher is an anomaly, having started an astounding 224 consecutive games, tied with Ronde Barber for the longest such streak in the league for a non-specialist. Fletcher has also continued to produce, as his hard-hitting style has yet to wear down. On a one- or two-year deal to bridge the gap to the team's next generation of linebackers, Fletcher would be welcome in Philadelphia.
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