The Eagles acquired Kiko Alonso in a March trade expecting him to be a three-down linebacker, an impact player in the defense and a versatile player who would allow them to add to their coverage scheme and their pass-rush design. We're 14 games into the season, and Alonso is still trying to find his way here.
Alonso has 30 total tackles and one interception in the 376 defensive snaps he's played (36 percent of the defensive snaps for the Eagles). The numbers don't tell the whole story, of course, but that and the combination of what we've seen and the production that Alonso has had clearly don't add up to what the Eagles anticipated when they sent LeSean McCoy, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, to Buffalo to get Alonso in exchange.
"Obviously, I know Kiko very well but I think people that didn't know him well from his college career can see what he did in his first year at Buffalo," head coach Chip Kelly said on March 11, when the trade was announced. "He had 159 tackles in 16 games, played every defensive snap, had four interceptions. I think he was the Defensive Rookie of the Year, very instinctive football player, runs extremely well, he's tall, he's long, he's what we're looking for, he's all about football.
"He's just a smart, intelligent football player that's working very, very hard to get himself back in position to play."
Alonso, for his part, has insisted that he's healthy after missing all of the 2014 season with a torn ACL and then missing another five games after injuring the same knee (left) in the September 20 game against Dallas. The injury this season was initially feared as one that could sideline Alonso for the duration of the year; instead, Alonso had arthroscopic surgery and was on the field for the second Dallas meeting on November 8 in Texas.
Save the opening-night interception Alonso had in Atlanta, the falling-back-one-handed-grab in the end zone, Alonso has not found a comfortable niche in the defense. The Eagles hoped that the addition of Alonso in the trade, the selection of Jordan Hicks in the draft and the return to good health of DeMeco Ryans would make the inside linebacker group a strong point in the defense. Those three, along with Mychal Kendricks, who signed a long-term contract extension in the summer, would give defensive coordinator Bill Davis depth and flexibility, more speed, more range, better athletic ability some key pieces for a defense on the rise.
It hasn't worked out that way. Ryans is battling after the Achilles tendon injury that sidelined him for the final half of 2014, but he's just not getting to the football as much as we've grown accustomed to seeing. Kendricks has been hit or miss in his play. Hicks was terrific for half the season, one of the best rookies in the league and certainly one of the best players in this defense, but he tore a pectoral muscle in that November 8 game at Dallas and was placed on season-ending Injured Reserve for the remainder of the year.
And Alonso? It's been a struggle, to put it mildly.
"I just have to get to the football and make more plays," said the soft-spoken Alonso. "That's what I have to do."
Davis is trying to find the right role for Alonso. He's working Alonso in with Kendricks and Ryans, hoping that the unit clicks in these final two games of the regular season. Davis was asked about Alonso on Tuesday in his weekly press conference and he, like all of us, wants to see the pre-injured Alonso on the field for the Eagles.
"Kiko coming off of the injury -- there's a lot of dynamics to Kiko. If you're asking Kiko the rookie year, the healthy guy, flying around," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "We had Kiko injured, coming off injury. He is now settling in. He had a nice Buffalo game. We've got to continue to grow him in the system. Again, those inside backers, it's about flying to the ball, not thinking and being frozen up with your thoughts of where you fit and where you don't. We got to get Kiko to a place where it's set, hike, go get it."
Maybe Alonso is not quite as healthy as he's allowing us to think. Maybe he feels like he's all the way back, but the reality of returning from a devastating injury to a totally healthy form -- mentally and physically -- usually takes more than a year.
Whatever, the Eagles need Alonso on Saturday night. Washington has a well-balanced offense that tests the lateral mobility of linebackers with the stretch running plays it frequents, and the play-action passing game that destroys the middle of the field against defenses that bite.
"They do a lot of things and they are good," Alonso said. "That stretch play is tough. They know how to make it work."
The answer? Keep working. Keep playing. Hope it clicks. Hope that Alonso feels a level of comfort in the new scheme, with the knee, with everything, and he plays like the rookie who dominated with the Bills and shows that the best is yet to come for a player who was expected to help turn this defense into one of the league's best in 2015.