Saturday, August 1, 2015

State of the Eagles: Outside linebackers

While the Eagles finish their offseason program with 10 organized team activities and a three-day mini-camp, The Inquirer will reset the team's 90-man roster and look at each position heading into July's training camp. Today, outside linebacker.

State of the Eagles: Outside linebackers

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The Eagles´ Trent Cole. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
The Eagles' Trent Cole. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

While the Eagles finish their offseason program with 10 organized team activities and a three-day mini-camp, The Inquirer will reset the team’s 90-man roster and look at each position heading into July’s training camp. We've already looked at the offensive line, tight ends, and defensive line.

Projected first team

“Jack” linebacker: Connor Barwin (6-4, 264), 27, 6th season

“Predator” linebacker: Trent Cole (6-3, 270), 31, 10th season

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As defensive coordinator Bill Davis said, the Eagles had Connor Barwin wear “more hats” than any player on the defense last season. He filled so many roles, in large part because he was the only outside linebacker on the roster with experience in the 3-4. Barwin, who had five sacks in 2013, rushed the passer on only 58 percent of passing plays last season. He dropped into coverage the rest of the time.

Barwin was also important in setting the edge on rushing plays. Davis kept him on the field for 94 percent of the defensive snaps – more than any defensive player except DeMeco Ryan and Cary Williams. That shows how important he is to the Eagles.

In 2014, pay attention to whether the Eagles use him in pass rush more frequently. He has the ability to get to the quarterback, and he’s also especially adept at knocking down passes. The Eagles would be well served unleashing Barwin, which would make the pass rush less predictable and maximize Barwin. But the Eagles need to have other linebackers who can drop in coverage.

The Eagles saw promise in Cole’s pass rushing last season, especially after questions of how he would translate after spending his first eight seasons in the 4-3 defense. He finished with eight sacks, all of which came in the second half of the season. That could show that he adjusted to the defense. The coaching staff insists that sacks are overrated, and that Cole was always applying pressure. I spoke to Andy Reid about Cole in March, and the former Eagles coach made a point of mentioning of how well he thought Cole adjusted.

Cole is not getting younger, though, and he needs to prove he’s still a consistent player. Cole is due $5 million this season before seeing his salary jump to $10 million next season, so there’s a good chance this could be Cole’s final season in Philadelphia. He's already established himself as one of the better defensive players in franchise history. 

Projected second team

Brandon Graham (6-2, 265), 26, 5th season

Marcus Smith (6-3, 251), 22, rookie

Brandon Graham is still with the Eagles after an offseason of trade rumors. He heard those rumors, too. The former first-round pick played only 27 percent of the snaps last season, and that was without much depth at outside linebacker. He said weight was the issue and he is in a better spot now, but Graham needs to show this coaching staff they can trust him. He’ll be pushed by some players who are more ideally suited for the 3-4 defense.

One of those players is likely to be Marcus Smith, although Smith is practicing exclusively in the “Jack” role. That could be one way to free up Barwin, and Smith will definitely play this season. The team invested a first-round pick in him, and he fits the frame and the skill set the Eagles seek at that spot. Smith was known more as a pass rusher in college, although he said he dropped into coverage on 50 percent of the snaps. How well he drops could dictate how much he plays, but expect to see Smith have a role in 2014.

Others

Bryan Braman (6-5, 241), 27, 4th season; Travis Long (6-4, 255), 22, 1st season; Josh Kaddu (6-3, 246), 24, 3rd season; Casey Matthews (6-1, 245), 25, 4th season

Braman was targeted in free agency from the Houston Texans for his special teams prowess, and his long frame fits what the Eagles like. Coach Chip Kelly mentioned that Braman would compete for playing time at outside linebackers; he’s taken snaps behind Barwin as the second-team “Jack” linebacker during OTAs. However, Braman’s primary role will be special teams.

Pay attention to Long this summer. He’s a player who can be a surprise inclusion on the 53-man roster. Long was signed during training camp last season after the team determined he was healthy following a knee injury that affected him during the pre-draft process. Long remained on the practice squad throughout the season, so he was with the team every day and traveling on road trips. Long knows the defense after spending last year with the Eagles, and he has pass rush skills that the team likes.

The next players on this list played for Kelly at Oregon. Kaddu was a 2012 fifth-round pick by the Dolphins whom the Eagles signed after last season. He played in only five NFL games, although he was first-team all-Pac 12 under Kelly at Oregon. Kaddu is a good athlete who has positional versatility. He can also drop into coverage, which is not the case for all the outside linebackers. Kaddu would need to make the team as a special teams player.

Matthews is in a similar situation as Kaddu. He can play both inside and outside, but his value is on special teams. That was how Matthews made the team last season. He was the team’s fourth outside linebacker, but Matthews played only six percent of the defensive snaps. He has made the roster in each of his first three seasons, so you cannot count him out. But the additions to the roster will make it more difficult for Matthews in 2014.

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

Inquirer Staff Writer
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