You’ve heard it a million times: the Eagles don’t place a high value on linebackers. It’s not even something they really hide from. It's not that they don't want good linebackers, but if they have to choose between paying big money -- and allocating valuable cap space -- for a defensive end or a linebacker, the end typically wins out. Same if it's corner or linebacker. With that in mind, defensive end, defensive tackle and cornerback are all probably more of a focal point for Eagles brass than linebacker.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t change coming for the ‘3’ in the Eagles’ 4-3. Here’s a quick look at what we saw last year and a cautious glance at what might be next at linebacker. Earlier this week we took a similar look at the defensive backs, offensive line and defensive line.
What then: The Eagles linebacking corps looked different, but didn’t really play much better in 2010. The entire group combined for four sacks and one interception. Even in a defense that emphasizes defensive ends as the playmakers, that’s not enough.
On great 4-3 defenses with talented ends, the linebackers still contribute. In Chicago, for example, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije got the pass rushing glory, but Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs were the team’s leading tacklers, cleaning up the havoc caused by the ends. When the Colts are at their best, they have a similar system, with Dwight Freeney leading the way up front and Gary Brackett doing lots of dirty work at linebacker. It’s a tough comparison, because the Bears have one of the best defenses in the league and guys like Urlacher and Briggs aren’t exactly easy to find, but the Eagles say they aspire to be the best, and that D is one of the best. Even if they can’t duplicate the Bears’ production, Brackett’s example shows that solid, active linebacker can make a big difference. Maybe the Eagles can get by without breaking the bank for a linebacking superstar, but they do at least need good blue-collar production.
Ernie Sims was supposed to provide that, but he made his biggest impact, literally and figuratively, against teammates in training camp. The shark in the water was too often distracted by some chum over here as a running back broke loose over there. Stewart Bradley’s return was disappointing. Coming off an ACL tear, he didn’t live up to the expectations he raised in 2008 and again finished the season with an injury. Moise Fokou may have had the best season of the group, though he did it quietly. His main talent was setting an edge, sending plays back inside where others could make tackles. It’s worth noting that the Eagles’ run defense improved significantly after he joined the starting lineup, along with tackle Antonio Dixon.
Rookies Jamar Chaney and Keenan Clayton showed glimpses of potential – Chaney more so – but neither played enough to make a real judgment.
Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither each had chances to play, and were quickly relegated to special teams.
What now: The team hasn't rushed to retain Sims, Gaither or Jordan. That’s not saying they’re all sure goners – a team needs depth, after all -- but the Eagles are likely to check out other options first.
The starting lineup could be in for another shuffle. Chaney did enough in his starts to warrant a closer look, though we need to see more before anyone draws conclusions on his potential. Can he bump Bradley out of the middle? The Eagles tendered Bradley at a second round level, indicating that they want him back. This would give the team one more chance to see if he can regain his promising 2008 form, especially with another year to recover from his knee injury. There’s plenty of speculation that Bradley could move to SAM, using his size there and allowing Chaney to stay in the middle, and there’s a lot about that move that makes sense, though I don’t think anyone yet knows exactly what the new defensive staff is thinking personnel wise.
Alternatively, Chaney could be moved to weak side linebacker, where his speed would be an asset. If Sims is, indeed, gone, the Eagles need another body there.
Expect Clayton to get more of an opportunity, though whether it’s at safety or linebacker remains to be seen. He started last year saying he hoped to put on weight and play LB in the NFL, but didn’t get much bigger and ended up in a hybrid safety-linebacker role. Is he a versatile combination of tackling and coverage? Or stuck in between without a good fit?
The linebacker draft class isn’t great, especially after Von Miller (Texas A&M), who should go in the top 10. Justin Houston (Georgia) and Akeem Ayers (UCLA) are the next top ‘backers, though their values lie in pass rushing, something that would be a smaller part of what they’d be asked to do in Philadelphia. Martez Wilson of Illinois is considered the top inside linebacker and could be available late in the first round, when the Eagles pick.
The reality, though, is that with glaring needs at corner, offensive line and defensive line, the Eagles are likely to wait until after the first round, at least, and probably the mid-rounds if they plan to address linebacker through the draft.
Two names that might generate buzz, even if they are not at the top of the linebacker class: Mark Herzlich, a local who beat cancer at BC, and Casey Matthews (Oregon), should be available in the mid-rounds. He’s not as good as his brother Clay, but put on an impressive performance in the BCS title game.
While there are no blockbuster linebacking free agents, there could be some very solid options. We say “could” because the status of some attractive veterans is up in the air; they would be unrestricted under old league rules but restricted under the 2010 system. We’ll see which is in place whenever free agency happens.
In the middle Stephen Tulloch of the Titans and Barrett Ruud of the Bucs are each experienced starters in the 4-3 and rack up big tackle numbers. Tulloch has been tendered. Ruud should be unrestricted. Paul Posluszny is a big name, but he plays in the 3-4 and could also be restricted.
The Redskins Rocky McIntosh is a versatile player who should hit the open market. On the outside James Anderson of the Panthers and Clint Session of the Colts are experienced in the 4-3, but each might be restricted.
The biggest linebacking names – Chad Greenway, Tamba Hali and LaMarr Woodley – have all been hit with the franchise tag and aren’t going anywhere.