The Eagles finally jumped into the linebacker market, and they did it in a big way and, as we probably should have expected, with a surprise.
At first blush, the DeMeco Ryans trade has a lot to like. A lot. He was a Pro Bowler in 2007 and 2009 and AP defensive rookie of the year in 2006. Playing as a true middle linebacker in the 4-3 early in his career, he recorded more than 100 tackles each season. Equally importantly, according to reporters in Houston he was a leader who ran the defense from the middle, something the Eagles sorely lacked last season. Jamar Chaney gave it a go as the commander in the huddle, but when trying to organize stars like Trent Cole, Jason Babin and Asante Samuel, he doesn’t have the same kind of credentials as a former Pro Bowler. In the photo running right now on Philly.com, you can see the stars on Ryans’ captain’s patch. He has been a leader and should be expected to take over the defense, at least verbally, when he arrives in Philadelphia.
Ryans is only 27 and he’s accomplished much, more than any of the free agent linebackers available on the market. Getting a player of his pedigree to fill your biggest need, for essentially a fourth round pick, sounds like a steal, and it might be.
But then there’s that price tag. NFL teams usually find ways to hang on to their key players (see: Lions and Stephen Tulloch, Eagles and DeSean Jackson) and Ryans was available for the same price that the Eagles used to get Casey Matthews last season. What gives?
For one, Ryans played a diminished role in the Texans’ 3-4 scheme last season. He was on the field for just 58 percent of Houston’s defensive snaps last year, according to ProFootballFocus, after playing for more than 99 percent of their snaps in 2008 and 2009. Considered a true 4-3 middle linebacker, at least according to respected Houston Chronicle beat writer John McClain, Ryans was supposedly wasted in the new system. He was also coming off of an Achilles tendon tear that ended his 2010 season after just six games. Whether it was the scheme change, diminished role, the fact that he was coming off an injury or a combination of all those factors, he had a down year and made just 64 combined stops, though McClain wrote on Twitter than Ryans improved as the season went on.
Back in a 4-3, with another year to heal, it’s obvious the Eagles hope he regains his old form. But this is where you have to urge at least a little caution. It’s one thing to take a high-performance player and move him to a new team and assume he will continue being a difference-maker. It’s another thing to take a player who had a down year and assume that a few changes will get him back on track. It might be true, but the last season has to at least give you a moment’s pause. There’s a leap of faith with every transaction, but there’s more of one when you’re expecting someone to change course rather than continue on their previous trajectory.
Still, the Eagles have little to lose here and much to gain. A fourth round pick and slight change in the third is very little to pay for a guy who has the potential to fix the most glaring hole on the roster, and who arrives with far more credentials than, say, Ernie Sims did two years ago.
That said, if Ryans doesn't fix the Eagles' linebacker woes, it won't matter that the Eagles didn't give up much, because they still won't have their defense repaired. What we learned last summer is that big, recognizable names don’t always make the difference we first think they will. When a team is ready to let a player go, there are almost always reasons to ask questions.
But considering the Eagles’ need, considering the price they paid and the potential upside, it’s a deal the team was wise to make. They had to find an upgrade at linebacker. Had to. Throw in Chaney's offseason neck surgery, and that need became even bigger. Sitting here in March, before Ryans has even looked at a playbook, it sounds like a strong move.
The proof, we should know by now, comes in September and October.