This is the sixth in a series analyzing the Eagles, position by position, leading into training camp ...
He looked the same -- able to cover sideline to sideline, occupying so much space with his wingspan, playing downhill at the line of scrimmage against the running game. The sight of Stewart Bradley in the middle of the Eagles defense during the post-draft practices was a welcome sight, a huge relief and an exciting prospect for Sean McDermott's bunch that was unable to replace Bradley last season after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in August.
Right up until Bradley tweaked a calf muscle and was sent to the sidelines for the remainder of the practices, he looked like he was all the way back from the injury. What his presence means for the Eagles defense -- and the true test for Bradley's knee -- is straight ahead with two-a-day practices looming. If Bradley is close to or at 100 percent, the Eagles get back one of their most valuable pieces, a three-down linebacker who can cover, who can blitz and who is a physical force at the point of impact.
If Bradley suffers any kind of setback, the Eagles must be ready to replace him more effectively than they did last year.
The linebacker positions are key for the defense, of course. And with an off-season of change, this group has some new pieces to put in place. Along with Bradley's return, the Eagles will look to integrate Ernie Sims into the works. A former first-round draft pick with Detroit, Sims fell out of favor there as the coaching staff changed, but the Eagles think he is a perfect fit here. Sims' game is based on speed and he is an excellent tackler, so the Eagles want to free him up and let him go make plays. How much they move him around and how well he gets off blocks will determine just how effective Sims is in the defense.
Sims will man the WILL linebacker spot heading into camp. Bradley plays the middle, and second-year man Moise Fokou is penciled in as the starter at SAM. Fokou has come a long, long way since the Eagles drafted him as a seventh-round pick last April and he has earned the right to try to win a starting job. Fokou has long arms and is strong and can run well enough to cover and he has absorbed the defense quite well in time.
The fourth "starting" linebacker is Akeem Jordan, who can play all three spots in a pinch. He is a terrific special teams player who is most directly affected by the presence of Sims. That said, don't be surprised if the Eagles take a look at Jordan on the strong side during camp, just to see if there are opportunities to get him on the field there.
Another player with a lot of starting experience is Omar Gaither, who returned to practice in the spring after missing much of last season with a Lis Franc injury. Gaither can play in the middle, he is a fine cover linebacker and he can make an impact on special teams. How he figures into this group remains to be seen, but he is a good football player who can help the defense in a variety of ways.
Third-year man Joe Mays is expected to work in as Bradley's direct backup, but Gaither and even Jordan can play there as well. It is, on paper, an experienced group that has quite a bit of promise, but also some questions. When you look deeper on the depth chart, you see a bunch of young players whom the Eagles hope can develop and help this year, and create a logjam on the 53-man roster.
Draft picks Keenan Clayton and Jamar Chaney will be given a lot of looks in this training camp as the Eagles look to make the linebackers more talented and more athletic. Clayton showed some signs in the spring that he has ability as a cover linebacker, so he will get peeks at the SAM position. Chaney was a tackling machine in college and he is going to challenge at middle linebacker. He is a physical kid and a smart player and the Eagles need to find out if he is ready to help as a rookie.
Alex Hall, acquired in a trade with the Cleveland prior to the draft, got reps in the spring at both defensive end and linebacker, and the Eagles have to find out where he fits in best to try to make this roster. Ditto draft pick Ricky Sapp, a player who in college had a chance to freelance and make plays. He is an athletic, talented guy. But can he make the transition to linebacker in a 3-4 defense?
Another player to consider here is Simoni Lawrence, an Upper Darby High School product whom the Eagles signed late in the spring. He devoted himself to the playbook to try to learn the scheme, and he is a talented guy, but Lawrence has some catching up to do. The first five practices with rookies and selected veterans only will be critical for Lawrence.
Bottom line: If Bradley comes all the way back -- he says he feels great and he looked terrific in the spring -- the linebackers are instantly upgraded. He makes everyone around him better. Sims is one of the key pieces of the defense. He is extremely talented and driven and his speed will help the defense if the Eagles can keep him off of offensive guards. SAM is a question mark given Fokou's youth, but the Eagles believe he is ready for the job and that Jordan and Clayton will also be there to help.
The Eagles have played musical chairs at linebacker for years. They now have a bunch of young veterans who have talent, along with some draft picks who have a chance, to provide great competition. The defense needs this group to have a strong camp and make it hard to figure out the 53-man roster in September.
Next: Defensive backs, specialists