One of the many critical decisions the Eagles must make in the months ahead involves the middle linebacker position and, in fact the entire group. Stewart Bradley's dislocated elbow late in the season opened the door for rookie Jamar Chaney, who went out and showed in three starts that he deserves a chance to be on the field in 2011 -- some where, somehow.
A seventh-round draft pick last April, Chaney went through the usual "no-chance" rap that all late-round picks hear. He was too small, they said. A knee injury that hampered his career at Mississippi State was an issue, some insisted. At 6 feet, 242 pounds, Chaney would have to make his mark on special teams to earn a spot in this league.
He did that, compiling 11 tackles and 177 points on special teams. Then Bradley went down, an ugly injury in the victory at Dallas, and Chaney was summoned.
The young man did not shrink from the sudden rise in responsibility. He recorded 8 tackles in Dallas, then had 16 and a forced fumble against the Giants and suddenly the Eagles felt a huge sense of trust with Chaney playing all three downs at middle linebacker.
Chaney was far from perfect in his three starts and four games with substantial playing time at middle linebacker. The Eagles allowed too much rushing yards in losses to the Vikings and the Packers and Chaney, as the middle linebacker, accepted some of the responsibility for breakdowns. That's part of the territory, too: All players have weaknesses, and the young ones' get theirs exposed very, very quickly.
But, clearly, the promise is there for Chaney. He has range, he has speed, he tackles well and he gets off of blocks well. Chaney uses his hands and his technique to free himself and to flow to the football. He has the instincts and the intelligence to play the middle linebacker position and he can run with tight ends.
The question the Eagles have to answer moving forward is this: What do they do with Chaney?
A lot depends on Bradley, who suffered a second straight season-ending injury. He missed all of 2009, of course, and the Eagles never replaced his three-down ability. Bradley ranked second on the team in 2010 with 88 tackles in just 10 games before he went out for good with his elbow injury. He wasn't quite all the way back from his pre-injury form after recovering from ACL surgery, but he was close. And the Eagles were among the best teams in the league against the run, and they had a lot of takeaways, and the defense had its moments of dominance with Bradley on the field.
Complicating the what's-next decision is that Bradley is, as of now, slated to be a free agent when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is hammered out between the players and owners. Of course, free agency could take on an entirely different bent when an agreement is reached. Bradley may or may not be an unrestricted free agent. Nobody knows the answer.
The Eagles have plenty of questions of their own, not the least of which is what to do and where to play whom at all three linebacker spots. Veteran Ernie Sims, acquired in a trade prior to the draft from Detroit, is also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after an up-and-down year in his first season in Sean McDermott's defense. Moise Fokou played pretty darn well at the SAM spot after he won the starting job back from Akeem Jordan, who was one of the team's stars on special teams. Veteran Omar Gaither is due to be an unrestricted free agent as well after serving as a key reserve and special teams player here.
Another rookie, Keenan Clayton, was used as a hybrid linebacker/safety and he opened eyes late in the year, particularly in the regular-season finale against Dallas and in the playoff loss to Green Bay.
The Eagles have not had stability at all three linebacker positions in many, many seasons. They would love Chaney to advance beyond the promise that he showed in 2010 and they hope that Clayton is the real deal as a WILL linebacker. Fokou made terrific strides at SAM, so maybe he is the guy there for years to come.
Bradley? He has been a core piece of the defense since 2007. He has all the tools and the leadership qualities to be a top-flight middle linebacker. Some think he would be a superb SAM linebacker, rangy and fast enough to blanket tight ends and physical enough to win the battle against the run.
What happens next? Well, there are many issues to address around here. Who plays the linebacker positions, all three of them, is one very big question to answer, indeed.