With the Eagles' shift back to a 4-3 defense, most of the focus has been on the defensive line. The Eagles are stacked up front with physical, athletic players who should make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks and runners. The new scheme will also mean big changes for the linebackers. The Eagles have good potential at linebacker, but there are also questions to be answered.
Let's start with the good news.
The Eagles do have talented players. Mychal Kendricks, projected to start on the weak side, is a former second-round pick. He has started all four years that he's been in the NFL and has proven to be a productive playmaker. Kendricks has 12 sacks, six forced fumbles and three interceptions. Jordan Hicks will start in the middle. He was a third-round pick in 2015 and was on the way to a great rookie season when he got injured. Nigel Bradham was an early fourth-round pick of the Bills back in 2012. He started three of four seasons for them. The Eagles signed him in free agency to play the strongside position.
Continuity and familiarity should also help this linebacker crew. Kendricks will be starting for the fifth year in a row and he's playing a spot where he spent part of the 2012 season. There will be an adjustment after playing inside in the 3-4 under Chip Kelly, but this won't be completely new. Hicks will be playing beside Kendricks, as he did for part of last season. Hicks is making the shift from inside linebacker to middle linebacker, but played extensively in the 4-3 in college so the scheme isn't new to him. Bradham is new to the Eagles, but knows the scheme and position well. Bradham was signed because he played for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in Buffalo in 2014 and had the best season of his career. Bradham should know exactly what's expected of him and be able to help his teammates adjust to the new defense.
If you think back to the linebacker struggles of the Andy Reid era, some of the big problems were constant change, a lack of top talent and awkward fits. This group won't have Dhani Jones, Keith Adams, Omar Gaither, Jamar Chaney, Moise Fokou or Joe Mays on the field. The current group was talented coming out of college and has shown playmaking ability in the NFL. I also think it is critical that these players fit the roles they are going to play. No one is being asked to do something he can't handle. Kendricks is an athletic playmaker. Hicks can run the defense and be the man in the middle. Bradham plays the run well and can help cover tight ends. There are no reaches or projections here.
There are some questions. Kendricks looked like a Pro Bowl player in 2014, but took a step back last year. He needs to show that 2015 was an anomaly. He didn't have any less talent, but I do think playing in the Eagles' unusual linebacker rotation hurt him. The coaches wanted to find a way to use Kendricks, Hicks, DeMeco Ryans and Kiko Alonso.
Hicks played well and the rest of the group was very up and down. The only question with Hicks is health. He missed half of last year due to injury. He had some issues this spring. He missed time in college. When he's on the field, Hicks is a terrific player. He just has to stay on the field.
The question with Bradham is how he will adjust to a new situation. He got a solid contract from the Eagles. That means there will be pressure from fans and the media to live up to expectations. Bradham also didn't have the same level of media scrutiny in Buffalo that he will in Philly. As long as Bradham doesn't let outside distractions get to him, he should be fine.
It's been a busy offseason for the Eagles who have signed several impactful players to new contracts prior to the start of Training Camp ...
When the 4-3 defense is at its best, the linebackers are very productive. Go back to Schwartz's defense in Buffalo in 2014. They were fourth in the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed. Linebackers finished first and second on the team in tackles. The top three linebackers combined for 3.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss, 12 pass deflections, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. Keep in mind that defense had a rookie starting at middle linebacker and injuries limited two veterans. The last top-shelf Eagles defense came in the 2008 season. Stewart Bradley led that team in tackles, with three other linebackers finishing in the top seven. That group combined for 5.5 sacks, 27 tackles for loss, 17 pass deflections, one interception and three forced fumbles.
I think the 2016 Eagles linebackers can post those kind of numbers, and that's without anyone needing to have a spectacular season. This is really a talented set of starters. If there is a real concern at linebacker, it is depth. Najee Goode is the only proven backup. He can play inside or outside, but would be most natural at weak side in the 4-3. Rookie Joe Walker has a chance to be the key backup in the middle. He got a lot of work in the spring and the Eagles will carefully monitor his progress in the summer. They would love him to earn that spot for the season. Another pair of rookies will battle for jobs. Myke Tavarres is a really good athlete, but has the challenge of adjusting from small-school football to the NFL. Quentin Gause doesn't have ideal size or athleticism, but is the kind of high-character, productive player you never want to bet against. Depending on the progress of these young guys, the Eagles could consider adding another veteran to the mix.
One other part of this equation is coaching. Jim Schwartz has had good linebacker play in Tennessee, Detroit and Buffalo. Ken Flajole is the new linebackers coach and has had quite a bit of success on his own. He got outstanding play from D'Qwell Jackson in Cleveland. Flajole had a ton of success in Carolina with players such as Dan Morgan, Will Witherspoon, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. Back in 2000, Flajole coached the linebackers for Seattle and had a great trio in Anthony Simmons, Chad Brown and George Koonce. Younger fans might not recognize those names, but older fans will remember those players as outstanding players. Schwartz and Flajole are the kind of veteran coaches you want working with young, talented linebackers.
The Eagles' defensive line gets most of the attention, and deservedly so, but don't overlook the linebackers. This group could be outstanding in 2016 and beyond.
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