We don't talk much about the Eagles' linebacker corps because, frankly, it is a group of players that has never been particularly heralded. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz said as much a couple of weeks ago when he acknowledged that the linebackers are not "household names" and that it really didn't matter because he loved the speed of the group and the hunger and the fit of young players in this defense.
We're talking about the linebackers on this Sunday because one of them, free agent signee Jatavis Brown, was placed on the Reserve/Retired list and his departure brings into focus what the Eagles have in that room. For Brown, who played four seasons with the Chargers and was added on a one-year free agent contract that was pretty much zero risk for the Eagles, the love of the game just isn't there any longer. He simply is walking away from the game. No hidden agendas. No unusual back story. He's just done with football. That's the word.
Brown was signed to add depth at linebacker and help on special teams. The Eagles added two more speedy linebackers in the draft – Davion Taylor in the third round and Shaun Bradley in the sixth round – so those two potentially have more responsibility and an increased chance to impact the season.
The linebacker picture looks like this, and you can take it to any Firstrust (The Official Bank of the Philadelphia Eagles) Bank branch that is open: The Eagles are riding with Nathan Gerry, activated off the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Sunday, second-year man T.J. Edwards, Duke Riley, and Alex Singleton as their four primary linebackers. At this point, that's the deal. Of course, that is all subject to change when the pads go on – August 17, so mark it down! – but those are the four experienced linebackers from 2019 and they know the defense and they can run and they're going to be counted on heading into the regular season. Non-drafted rookie Dante Olson will get a long, long look as a developmental player.
As you know, the Eagles play with two linebackers and an extra defensive back on the field most of the time, anyway, in this pass-first NFL. This team builds its defense from the defensive line out to the cornerbacks and the safeties and then the linebackers. In terms of investments, those given to the linebackers are modest. Taylor was a third-round draft pick in the spring, the highest for a linebacker since Jordan Hicks was taken in the third round of 2015. Mychal Kendricks was a second-round selection in 2012. Jerry Robinson, way back in 1979, was the last linebacker taken in the first round by the Eagles.
So, it's no surprise that Jeremiah Trotter – a third-round pick, by the way – was the most recent Eagles linebacker to make the Pro Bowl following the 2005 season.
Linebackers are important, no doubt, but they don't dominate the flow of the defense here. That's the job of the defensive line, where the Eagles have invested heavily. In this 2020 blueprint, the Eagles will dominate at the line of scrimmage and will occupy blockers and the linebackers will have clean shots at the ball carriers in the running game. The linebackers here also have the speed to play well in coverage as offenses look for favorable matchups in the passing game.
It's an interesting way to build a defense, but you really can't argue with the results. The Eagles have been pretty darn good with Schwartz at the helm. The linebackers have been positive factors.
The keys this year are multiple. Gerry has to take another step after his improvement in 2019. The Eagles are super high on Edwards, signed after the 2019 draft, and he'll have an opportunity to earn a starting job. Riley runs well and was a third-round pick of the Falcons whom the Eagles think will make a significant impact now that he knows the defense. For sure, Taylor has to accelerate his learning curve, as does Bradley. Singleton has to prove that he's more than a special teams player.
That is your linebacker landscape, altered in a weird way by the sudden retirement of a player, Jatavis Brown, we never had a chance to know. But, hey, that's how it's going to go in the NFL this season. The teams that handle the "weird" the best are going to win. Strange indeed, but true.