Eagles face challenge in LB search

Will Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton reach the open market as an unrestricted free agent? (AP Photo / George S. Warren)

On Monday afternoon, the Browns announced a new five-year deal for inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, which is worth $42.5M with $19M guaranteed, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

We are two weeks away from the official start of free agency (March 13), and the linebacker market will continue to develop as teams try to re-sign their own players and make decisions on the franchise tag.

The question for the Eagles is: Where can they find a linebacker to solidify the middle of their defense and fill a hole from last season?

The team has three avenues to explore: free agency, a trade and the draft.

The Inquirer's Jeff McLane did a good job on Sunday of breaking down the potential free agent class. One name that's been discussed since the season ended is Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton. There had been reports that new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan didn't view Lofton as a three-down linebacker, but apparently that's not the case.

"I spoke to the team and they told me it’s ridiculous to say Lofton isn’t a three-down linebacker," said Lofton's agent, Todd France, in an interview with D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Ledbetter indicates that the Falcons would like to sign Lofton to a long-term deal before he's able to hit the open market.

The tough part for the Eagles is deciding if free agency is really their best option for upgrading the position. Free agency allows them to target players and pursue them aggressively. But with that likely comes a high price tag. Jackson got $8.5M per year with $19M guaranteed. It's reasonable to assume Lofton, who turns 26 in June and finished fifth in the league with 147 tackles last season, will be looking for at least something in that neighborhood.

Stephen Tulloch signed a one-year, $3.25M deal with the Lions last year, and head coach Jim Schwartz sounds like he wants the middle linebacker back in 2012.

"Stephen is a guy that fits our system very well," Schwartz told Anwar S. Richardson of MLive.com. "He's young. He's tremendously durable, he's tremendously productive. I think he can be a big part of what we're doing in Detroit. I think our linebackers were much improved last year."

Tulloch, 27, will likely be looking for some long-term financial security after settling for a one-year deal last summer.

The draft presents another option, and in some ways, a more attractive one. While someone like Lofton might cost around $8M per year, last year's 15th overall pick (Mike Pouncey) reportedly cost the Dolphins about $2.3M per season. Someone like Boston College's Luke Kuechly, who has been linked to the Eagles in many mock drafts, would be a less expensive option and still could potentially offer a major upgrade.

Of course, the problem with waiting for the draft is that it's risky. If Kuechly's gone by the time the Eagles pick at No. 15, there may not be another middle linebacker who the team views as a "plug-and-play" prospect.

The final option would be to trade for a linebacker. The Eagles have Asante Samuel as a potential chip, and DeSean Jackson could be one too if they use the franchise tag and deal him.

Whichever path the Eagles choose, they need to find a three-down player. It doesn't make sense to use a first-round pick or pay a free agent big money if he is going to come off the field in sub packages.

The focus around these parts is on stopping the run behind the wide-nine, and that makes sense, given the issues from a year ago. But don't forget about the athletic tight ends who provide matchup problems on a weekly basis. And remember that the Eagles ranked 29th in covering running backs in the passing game, according to Football Outsiders.

I took a look at Jamar Chaney's splits from Week 3 on last season, after he returned to the middle linebacker position. Here's how the plays were split up, according to Pro Football Focus:

  Stopping the Run Blitz Pass Coverage
Jamar Chaney 45% 5% 50%

Half the time he was on the field, Chaney was in coverage. And keep in mind he was replaced in nickel situations during the final month of the season, or the numbers would lean even more towards pass coverage.

The point is the Eagles need a middle linebacker who can shed blocks and get to the ballcarrier against the run, but also someone who has enough athleticism to provide an upgrade in coverage. They could look to upgrade at the SAM or WILL positions too.

As the market plays out in the next two weeks, we'll find out which free agents actually become available and which path the Eagles choose to upgrade at linebacker.

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