Next up in our Training Camp preview series is the linebacker position, where the Eagles spent considerable offseason capital in an effort to ramp up the position's production. What should you be looking for from the linebackers when Training Camp gets underway? ...
1. How Big Of An Impact Will DeMeco Ryans Make?
After what has been a revolving door of sorts at middle linebacker over the last few seasons, the Eagles made a bold move to strengthen the position this offseason by trading for Houston Texans captain DeMeco Ryans. The 2006 Defensive Rookie of the Year and the Texans' all-time leading tackle, Ryans, 6-1, 247, was made expendable because of Houston's transition to a 3-4 defensive scheme. In Philadelphia, Ryans returns to his customary 4-3 middle linebacker role, and he knows the eyes of every Eagles fan will be firmly on him come training camp.
"I can sense that everyone has been looking for that middle linebacker, and I'm happy to be the guy that they chose to step in and be the middle linebacker of this defense," Ryans said earlier this offseason. "I'm just looking to step in and do my job. I'm going to be myself and do what I do on the field. I'm not going to be someone that I'm not and I'm just going to continue to be myself."
Ryans' abilities as a surefire tackler aren't up for debate – it's one of his biggest strengths and should certainly help fortify the Eagles' run defense, especially up the middle on first and second down. The question to follow for Ryans throughout much of the 2012 season is how he performs in pass coverage, where he'll benefit from his second year removed from the torn Achilles he suffered in October in 2010. Throughout the spring, Ryans has worked with the first-team nickel defense, and every indication is that's where he'll stay. If the 27-year-old two-time Pro Bowler can play at the level he's accustomed to playing in the middle of a 4-3 defense, the Eagles' defense will take a big step forward.
2. Is Mychal Kendricks Your Week 1 Starter?
Throughout the entirety of Organized Team Activities and minicamps, Kendricks, the Eagles' first of two second-round picks, worked with the first-team defense as the strongside linebacker. The expectation, then, is that Kendricks will be the starter in Week 1 when the Eagles travel to Cleveland to open the season. Those odds seem even stronger when you consider that Reid has had no problem playing rookies at the linebacker position during his tenure as head with the Eagles.
Since the 1999 season, Reid's first in Philadelphia, 10 different rookies have started a combined 47 games for the Eagles (the only position groups that compare are wide receiver, where 10 rookies have combined for 57 starts, and offensive line, where eight Eagles rookies have combined for 52 starts). Over the last five seasons, meanwhile, eight different rookies have combined for 37 starts for the Eagles, both highs for a single position group. So there will be no hesitation from Reid's part (nor from defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, who started Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews a combined 16 games last season) if Kendricks is deemed the best man for the job.
What stands between Kendricks and a starting gig from now until Week 1? First, adjusting to an NFL playbook and the speed of the game – though Kendricks worked hand in hand with Ryans throughout the spring and summer as they both went through the learning process in their first year with the Eagles. Kendricks timed as the fastest linebacker at the NFL Scouting Combine in the 40-yard dash, part of the reason why he's expected to take on the role of covering opposing tight ends at times. But that speed will also benefit Kendricks as a pass rusher, a role that both he and Reid have hinted will be integral for the rookie.
3. Who Makes The Cut For Depth?
Yes, the identity of the starting weakside linebacker is also not set in stone, though Brian Rolle is the incumbent and the odds-on favorite to keep that job in the base defense after he spent the offseason working with the first-team defense. But the most competitive part of the linebacker position this summer may be for one of the spots on the roster as a backup. Assuming that Ryans, Kendricks and Rolle are all "locks" to make the team, that would leave three additional spots if the Eagles were to stick to their recent trend of keeping six linebackers.
Jamar Chaney, the 2010 seventh-round pick, started all 16 games last season, split between two positions. He'll be competing with both Kendricks and Rolle for a starting job, but also provides the Eagles with versatility because of his experience at several positions. Casey Matthews also figures to be on the safer side, as he's been mentioned by Reid this offseason as a potentially key member of the nickel defense. The 2011 fourth-round pick lost his starting job after three games last season, but rebounded to contribute towards the end of the season with his pass coverage abilities.
After Chaney and Matthews is a pair of trustworthy veterans in Moise Fokou and Akeem Jordan. For players at the back end of the roster, special teams ability is always a big factor, and both Fokou, 26, and Jordan, 26, have excelled in that area. Jordan was the Eagles' leader in special teams production points last year and Fokou has always done well in that area as well. Both also possess the positional versatility the Eagles would likely be looking for in a fifth or sixth linebacker. Keenan Clayton is on the mend from offseason sports hernia surgery, but it's time for the 2010 fourth-round pick to show what he can do in the preseason. Considered a solid cover-linebacker, Clayton will be pressured to put on a preseason show to force himself back onto the roster. Monte Simmons, 6-3, 226, spent his rookie season on the San Francisco 49ers practice squad and will also have an opportunity to impress, as will last year's seventh-round pick Greg Lloyd, who was called up to the active roster from the practice squad last season but never entered a regular season game.
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