Note: This is the eighth part of a 10-part series looking at the Eagles' roster entering free agency and the draft. The first part was quarterbacks, the second part was running backs, and the third part was wide receivers. the fourth part was offensive line, the fifth part was tight ends and specialists, the sixth part was defensive linemen, and the seventh part was inside linebackers.
ON THE ROSTER
Under contract: Connor Barwin, Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Casey Matthews, Travis Long, Josh Kaddu
Free agents: Phillip Hunt
Outlook: The players most affected by the Eagles’ switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 were the outside linebackers. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, both veterans of the 4-3, made a major adjustment to the new defense. Connor Barwin had experience at linebacker in Houston, so his transition was more about learning his new teammates and scheme.
The outside linebackers were solid in 2013, but did not generate enough pressure on the quarterback. The Eagles’ 37 sacks were 20th in the NFL. Of those sacks, only 16 came from an outside linebacker.
Cole was the top pass rusher in the group. He had eight sacks, and the Eagles’ coaching staff maintained throughout the season that Cole was generating good pressure on the quarterback even if the sack totals didn't always reflect that suggestion. Pass-rushing has been his forte, and he’s been one of the better pass rushers in the NFL during the past decade. But Cole is 31 and is due $6.6 million this season. The Eagles need to consider the future at the position, both for 2014 and beyond. Even if Cole returns in 2014, the contract only becomes more burdensome in the subsequent seasons.
The Eagles hoped Graham could be that type of pass rusher, but the 2010 first-round pick has not become the player the team anticipated. He juggled between schemes and has dealt with injury, but Graham’s three sacks in 2013 were not a positive development in his fourth season. Even more concerning was his playing time: Graham took only 27 percent of the snaps, clearly a backup. Maybe he can finally have a breakthrough season with another year in the scheme. The the Eagles also could conceivably move on from the former first-rounder.
One player who absolutely fits is Barwin. When the Eagles gave Barwin a six-year, $36-million deal, they knew his versatility. But he might have been even better as advertised. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said Barwin wore “more hats” than anyone on the defense, and he was used to rush the passer, set the edge, and in coverage. The scheme relied on a player such as him. Barwin can be an even better pass rusher if used in that role, too.
Casey Matthews moved to outside linebacker last season and can play both the inside and outside linebacker spots. Matthews has experience playing for Chip Kelly and contributes on special teams, but he’ll need to earn a roster spot to stay in Philadelphia for his fourth season. Josh Kaddu is one of Matthews’ former teammates at Oregon and was signed to a futures deal after the season. The 2012 Dolphins draft pick will have his chance to impress coaching during the spring and summer.
Phillip Hunt is a restricted free agent coming off a torn ACL. The coaching staff did not get enough time to see how the former CFL star would transition to his new position. He’s not a necessity for the Eagles to re-sign.
ADDITION: One player that should have been mentioned earlier is Travis Long, who spent last season on the practice squad. Long, 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds, is a player the Eagles like. They signed him during training camp last season understanding that he was recovering from an injury. Long had a season in the Eagles' program. Similar to defensive lineman Joe Kruger on injured reserve, Kruger will push for a roster spot next season after what was almost like a redshirt year on the practice squad.
This is a priority position for the Eagles. They need to improve their pass rush, whether it’s via free agency or the draft. The decisions on whether to retain Cole and/or Graham are factors to consider. But the Eagles will have their eyes on outside linebackers this week at the combine and when considering free agents.
The top pass-rushing outside linebacker on the free-agent market is Washington’s Brian Orakpo. The former first-round pick will be 28 next season and had 10 sacks in 2013. Look for Washington to do everything they can to keep him, and that might require the franchise tag. They must designate the tag within the next two weeks.
Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds is a player to seriously consider. The former Virginia Tech standout will turn 26 in March, so he's of ripe age. He had eight sacks last season, and that total has increased each of the past four seasons. Even though his 6-foot-2, 262-pounds is not idea, his arms are nearly 33 inches. But he’s an emerging experience from a scheme similar to the one the Eagles use. The Steelers are tight on cap space, and keeping Worilds might require releasing Lamarr Woodley, who would then be another name to consider. If Worilds hits the market, expect a big market for him.
The Eagles could look for a veteran Band-Aid. Denver’s Shaun Phillips is a free agent. The Philadelphia native said at the Super Bowl that the Eagles showed interest last season, but Phillips did not want to return home. He will be 33 next season and is a proven pass rusher.
Seattle’s O’Brien Schofield played his rookie season for Davis in Arizona. He has been mostly a backup in the NFL, and has 11.5 sacks in four seasons. Other under-the-radar free agents are Washington’s Rob Jackson and Kansas City’s Frank Zombo. Both were primarily backups in their careers.
This could be a spot the Eagles address in the draft, as early as the first or second rounds. It’s unlikely that UCLA’s Anthony Barr or Buffalo’s Khalil Mack fall to the Eagles at No. 22. Two players to watch are Auburn’s Dee Ford and Stanford’s Trent Murphy.
Ford was mentioned by NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock on Tuesday. He was a 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive end at Auburn, but his pass-rush skills were on display all season. He finished with 10.5 sacks, including two sacks in the national championship game.
Murphy might be more of a defensive end, although he played outside linebacker in Stanford’s 3-4 scheme and led college football with 15 sacks. Murphy is 6-foot-6 and 261 pounds has the measurements that could excite the Eagles, but they must decide if he’s an outside linebacker in the NFL or a defensive end. The college production is certainly appealing, though, and it came as a 3-4 edge rusher.
Other players who could be appealing are Louisville’s Marcus Smith and Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attachou. Both are college defensive ends that can play 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. They have good size and college production. Oregon State’s Scott Crichton, Alabama’s Adrian Hubbard and BYU’s Kyle Van Noy can also play in that spot. Hubbard (6-foot-6, 251 pounds) underachieved for the Crimson Tide, but still came out early and has raw size and talent that might develop in the NFL.
Missouri’s Michael Sam will attract considerable attention this week, but he does not appear to be a fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Texas’ Jackson Jeffcoat is another player trying to make that transition to outside linebacker. South Florida’s Aaron Lynch was considered a bigger prospect before the season, but the Notre Dame transfer finished with just 5.5 sacks this season. At 6-foot-5 and 244 pounds, he has the frame for the position that the Eagles covet. He played 3-4 defensive end at Notre Dame before dropping weight, and will have many questions to answer in Indianapolis.