State of the Eagles: Inside 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. We have already looked at offensive linetight endsdefensive lineoutside linebackers, wide receivers and quarterbacks.

Projected first team

DeMeco Ryans (6-1, 247), 29, 9th
Mychal Kendricks (6-0, 240), 23, 3d

For all the discussion about limiting DeMeco Ryans’ snaps I’ve gotten the feeling, after watching a few practices this spring that only we in the media think Ryans will come off the field on passing downs this season. Chip Kelly said something about limiting Ryans’ playing time (he played more snaps than any defensive player in the NFL last season) during the owners meetings in March, but when the Eagles were running through looks in their nickel defense both Ryans and Kendricks remained on the field. It’s early, so there is time for change, but the Eagles don’t appear to be in any hurry to get Ryans off the field. And in many ways it makes sense. He calls the plays, sets the front seven and is coordinator Bill Davis’ eyes and ears in between the lines. Ryans is a natural born leader and carried the defense at times during the first three quarters of last season. But his struggles covering tight ends and running backs in space reached an apex by the time the Eagles played the Cowboys in the season finale. You can take Pro Football Focus’ numbers with a grain a salt, but Ryans allowed five catches for 79 yards and a touchdown when targeted in Dallas, according to the Web site. He’ll be 30 in July and it’s difficult to see those aging legs picking up speed at this point in his career.

Mychal Kendricks had become one the Eagles’ big-play contributors on defense by the end of 2013. Cris Collingsworth slobbered all over him during the Cowboys game when Kendricks led the team with nine tackles. He also had some forgetful moments in pass coverage. Kendricks has great athleticism, but can sometimes play recklessly. He’ll overrun a tackle attempt or bite on a fake. He needs to use his hands better against tight ends. I recall the Chargers’ Antonio Gates and the Vikings’ Chase Ford (!) beating Kendricks with key late-game catches. That being said, Kendricks still has upside. He’s only 23 and has the capabilities to be the consistent, big-play linebacker the Eagles have lacked for years.

Projected second team

Jake Knott (6-2, 243), 23, 2d
Najee Goode (6-0, 244), 25, 3d

Jason Phillips has been Ryans’ first backup in practice, but I have Jake Knott ahead of him for our purposes. Neither has a roster spot close to locked up, though. I’ll get to Phillips further down, but Knott hurt his chances when he was suspended four games by the NFL for using a banned substance. Even if Knott beats out his competition, the Eagles have to consider if they want to keep five inside linebackers on the 53-man roster until he returns from his suspension. They carried only four last season. Knott made the team last year despite not being drafted. A shoulder injury at Iowa hurt his stock. He’s not especially quick, but he has decent instincts.

Najee Goode probably has the third spot locked down and will backup Kendricks. He was steady in relief last season and picked up a sack against the Redskins. Goode would seem the most likely inside linebacker candidate to take some of Ryans’ snaps on obvious passing downs, but questions remain about his ability to play in space.


Emmanuel Acho (6-2, 240), 23, 3d; Casey Matthews, (6-1, 245), 25, 4th; Jason Phillips (6-1, 240, 28, 6th.

Phillips missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The Eagles signed him last offseason in the hopes he would buoy special teams and he seemed likely to make the team until the training camp injury. He’s been fully cleared to practice, but doesn’t seem to be running with as much fluidity. Casey Matthews has been difficult to spot at OTAs. He’s not among the first six at outside linebacker – where he played last season – and I honestly can’t recall seeing him at inside linebacker either. I’m sure he’s gotten some reps. His best chance to make the team is inside, but it will be his special teams ability that ultimate decides his fate. His run in Philly may be nearing its end.