Outside linebacker might be the Eagles' biggest need. In the first 8 games of the season, Trent Cole had 0 sacks. In the last 9 games he had 8 sacks. In the past, Cole was a guy who would start fast, and finish slow. This year he was the opposite. However, even with Cole's late rejuvenation, he's 31 years old, and the Eagles lack a true 3-4 OLB who can get after the passer with any level of consistency. They also lack depth.
While an edge rusher isn't as glaring a need as other positions such as safety, it is important to factor in the importance of the position. Premium edge rushers are extremely valuable and highly sought after players. Think of them in terms of importance to a defense similarly to the way you think of the importance of the QB to an offense. Any team that doesn't have a stud edge rusher should always continue to look for one until they do. And the Eagles most certainly do not have a stud edge rusher.
Here are the OLBs the Eagles spoke with after Senior Bowl practices:
• Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech (6'3, 252)
Two years ago, West Virginia's Bruce Irvin was drafted 15th overall by the Seahawks. While the pick wasn't a huge surprise to NFL people, it was a major surprise to the draftnik community:
While Irvin is a different player than Attaochu, there are some parallels. In two years at West Virginia, Irvin racked up 22.5 sacks, despite a limited repertoire of pass rush moves. Leading up to the draft, he said that West Virginia never taught him how to rush the passer.
I feel like, to be honest with you, I’ve never been taught how to pass rush. The last two years, the 23 sacks that I got, it was all natural ability. Not to knock my coaches, but they emphasized stopping the run, and that’s what we did. We never did any pass rushing drills. I feel like, with the proper coaching and the right people around me I feel like I can be a very productive player in this league.
When you watched Irvin's tape, he had three basic moves: Speed around the corner with a little dip, speed around the corner with a quick stop and rip underneath, and the bull rush. He was getting to the QB just with raw ability.
Irvin is more explosive than Attaochu, but Attaochu is more well-rounded as a run defender, and he didn't look lost dropping into coverage at the Senior Bowl.
Where Attaochu is similar to Irvin is his complete lack of a pass rush repertoire. Attaochu racked up 12.5 sacks in 2013 (6th in the country), and 31.5 for his career, which is the highest career sack total in Georgia Tech history. And he basically did it on raw ability. That can be viewed as a positive or a negative. I tend to view it as a positive, as pass rush moves can be learned, while raw ability cannot.
If the Eagles were to have interest in Attaochu, they might have to take him in the first round, and not expect immediate results. Attaochu has the requisite athletic ability and size to be a dominant pass rusher, but it could take some time to teach him how to rush the passer and master the finer points of the game (timing out the snap count, etc). In terms of his fit in Philly, Attaochu could be played sparingly behind Trent Cole for a year, before taking over as the rush OLB in 2015.
• Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU (6'3, 244)
To note, someone in Eagles gear spoke with Van Noy after one of the practices, but it was not a face I recognized, so it may or may not have been an Eagles' scout. Still, because Van Noy is an intriguing option for the Eagles, we'll review him anyway.
Van Noy is a complete OLB. He can rush the passer, he can play the run, and he's great in coverage. If you look at the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, you can three all three of those attributes on display.
At the 0:53 mark, watch him take on two lead blockers, and then make a tackle for loss anyway. At the 3:54 mark, look at the explosion through the hole to make a tackle for a big loss. At the 6:56 mark, watch the speed rush, resulting in a sack, FF, FR, and TD. At the 8:39 mark, he gets a pick 6 to seal the game. Oh, and he blocked a punt, too (5:41 mark). Van Noy had himself a game.
The thing that might dissuade the Eagles from having interest in Van Noy is that they already have a player who is just like him. Connor Barwin is the most complete player of the Eagles' outside linebackers, as he can rush the passer, play the run, and cover. He's not stellar at any one of those things, but he's solid enough across the board to be a legitimate productive 3-4 OLB in the NFL. Barwin seems to be the perfect compliment to an OLB on the other side who can really specialize in getting after the passer.
The Eagles' bigger need in terms of outside linebackers is a stud outside edge pass rusher who can play opposite Barwin and be an impact player. Van Noy is a lot more like Barwin, in that he's comfortable handling all the responsibilities of the OLB position, but isn't an elite player at any one of those things. Van Noy is a versatile player, which makes him very attractive in Billy Davis' defense. Could the Eagles double up on versatile OLBs, which would give Davis the ability to show more exotic looks, having confidence that both of his OLBs can do everything? There could be some logic in that.