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Taking the long climb, T.J. Edwards emerges at LB

Four point eight nine.

It had been a defining number for linebacker T.J. Edwards, no matter how many tackles he made (367, to be exact) or All-American lists to which he was named from his days at the University of Wisconsin. That 4.89 – the official 40-yard dash time Edwards ran at the 2019 NFL Combine, on a bum ankle, mind you – sunk Edwards' draft chances, even though ESPN analyst Mel Kiper, Jr. said at the time that Edwards could be a mid-round draft pick.

No matter. The Eagles signed Edwards in the post-draft frenzy that spring – he was a priority signing for the Eagles – and here we are, a season and a half later, and Edwards is coming off the best game of his NFL career – 9 total tackles (a career high), including 6 solo stops, and a strip-sack against Dallas, forcing a turnover that safety Rodney McLeod recovered and returned for a touchdown to clinch the hard-fought win two Sundays ago against Dallas.

It was Edwards' first game back on the field after missing three games because of a hamstring injury, and it hopefully presents a case study on what Edwards wants to accomplish each and every week.

"My goal is to keep improving and helping this defense win games," Edwards said this week. "It's all about consistency. I want to have those kinds of games every week. That's what I'm striving for, to be out there helping us win games and to be in the right place making plays."

Edwards is a key piece for the Eagles as the second half of the season begins. The Eagles play at the Giants on Sunday, and Edwards is going to be squarely in the middle of the action diagnosing the Giants' complex running game that includes the read-option using quarterback Daniel Jones as a running threat. It won't be an easy assignment, but Edwards hasn't had a thing handed to him. Being bypassed in the draft stung him – "I'll always have that chip on my shoulder," he says – and Edwards wasn't guaranteed a thing as he earned his place on the roster playing special teams in his rookie season.

Now, Edwards is running the defense and he's impressing the coaching staff along the way.

"He has made great strides. I know he gets painted with a broad brush a lot of times. You know, maybe he didn't have a great 40 time coming out of college," Linebackers Coach Ken Flajole said this week. "But in my opinion, he plays faster than his timed speed. Is he ever going to be a guy who's going to be the Olympic 100-meter champion? No, he's not. But I think you've seen guys that test well in the 40 but they don't seem to play to that speed and then you've got other guys that maybe don't test as well in the 40 that seem to play faster than they do. I always liken it to high-speed internet. If a guy can process the game fast mentally, a lot of times it allows them to play faster than their timed speed. I think T.J. is kind of in that category. At least he is for me."

The same goes for Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz, who is about as difficult a coach as there is as far as earning his trust. Schwartz researched the history from Wisconsin and the slights during the NFL Draft, but when Edwards arrived at the NovaCare Complex in the spring of 2019, he was given a clean slate.

And he has made the most of it.

"I think he was a very productive player at Wisconsin. Had a lot of production and things like that and he didn't run a great 40 time," Schwartz said. "The times he played – he played fairly sparingly as a rookie, but he was out there, and when he's been healthy this year, he's been a contributor for this team. I don't know that I've ever had to limit my calls with him in the game. ... Everything we've asked him to do, he's been able to do, and there's a difference between a guy that tests well and a guy that plays football well. I think that T.J. is a guy that plays football well.

"Our scouts really did a great job with him getting him as a free agent. A lot of our scouts had him marked as one of their red star players which means that's one of their favorite players in the draft and we made a strong effort to get him after the draft. I'm very thankful for that, being able to get a guy like that without having to spend a draft pick was a great addition for us."

The task for Edwards is to follow up on his "breakout" game against Dallas with another strong outing on Sunday. New York will try to confuse his eyes with misdirection and deception and the Giants will flood the zone with crossing routes to give Jones targets to get the football out of his hand quickly.

Edwards will be there, ready to disrupt.

"I'm excited to see what we do," he said. "We know what's at stake here. It's a division game and we know they played a great game us last time around (October 22, a 22-21 Eagles win). It's going to be tough for us. That's what this is all about. Nothing is going to be easy."

Edwards knows that storyline all too well. He's an emerging player and for a team that set out to transition the roster younger in 2020, Edwards' emergence is critical. He's looking for consistency. Sunday will be a test to see exactly where Edwards is in his development after opening eyes in a standout game against Dallas.

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