Rookie to play vital Rolle with Eagles

Brian Rolle (left) sacks Jets quarterback Greg McElroy on Thursday. (Bill Kostroun/AP)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - If you've been listening closely, or even if you haven't and have been residing on a mountaintop in Tibet the last month, you've probably heard that the Eagles are - drum roll, please - "all in."

They attacked the post-lockout free-agent market with Shawn Andrews-at-Five Guys fervor. Signed about 120 Pro Bowlers, or so it seemed.

But "all in" in the salary-capped world of the National Football League doesn't quite mean the same thing as it does in, say, baseball, where an owner can pretty much fill out checks until he gets writer's cramp.

Yes, the Eagles have three really, really good cornerbacks. Yes, they've got a lot of really, really good pass-rushers. And yes, they've got a bunch of really, really good skill-position players.

That said, this still is a team with a lot of question marks. This still is a team that, despite the "dream team" hype, is going to have at least 10 rookies on the payroll when it finally is finished shaping its 53-man roster this weekend, including six who either are going to be Week 1 starters or play in one of their sub-packages.

They've got an offensive line with two rookie starters and just one guy - left tackle Jason Peters - who has started an NFL game at the position he's going to be playing on Sept. 11 against St. Louis.

Their three starting linebackers have a total of zero NFL starts at the positions they're going to be playing in Week 1. Their starting middle linebacker, Casey Matthews, is a fourth-round rookie.

While Matthews has been the subject of much scrutiny the last month, little has been said or written about a rookie linebacker who could end up being on the field as much, or even more, than Matthews - Brian Rolle.

Rolle, who was taken in the sixth round of the April draft just two picks after the Eagles grabbed their Week 1 starting center, Jason Kelce, appears to have won a job in the Eagles' two-linebacker nickel package alongside Jamar Chaney.

The 5-9, 225-pounder out of Ohio State figured to be a potential core special-teams player when the Eagles drafted him. But he has impressed the Eagles coaches with his play in training camp and the preseason, including last night's 24-14 win over the New York Jets.

Rolle registered his first sack of the preseason on the Jets' third offensive play, blitzing cleanly and dropping quarterback Greg McElroy for a 6-yard loss. He split a 12-yard sack with linebacker Keenan Clayton later in the first period when both came in clean on blitzes off the edge.

In the second quarter, he blew up a run by the Jets' Bilal Powell, enabling defensive end Chris Wilson and linebacker Akeem Jordan to tackle Powell for a 6-yard loss.

"That's the way I play," Rolle said. "I'm a down-and-dirty type guy. I love to stick my nose in there. I don't think people give me enough credit for the way I play the run. They say I'm a good cover guy, but I feel like I'm good against the run as well and am going to stick my nose in there and create havoc."

Rolle is getting the nickel 'backer nod over Clayton, a 2010 fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma. Clayton, an undersized 'backer like just about every other Eagles 'backer, played well late last season in limited reps in Sean McDermott's nickel and dime packages, and was expected to contend for the starting weakside linebacker job this season.

But Juan Castillo, who replaced McDermott, moved Moise Fokou from the strongside to the weakside. And Clayton has lost the nickel job to Rolle.

"[Rolle] is an undersized, explosive guy that a lot of people overlooked because of his size," said the NFL Network's Mike Mayock. "But he covers well. He moves well. He's an ideal nickel linebacker in addition to a valuable special-teams guy.

"The other thing I like about him is he's smart and he's instinctive. At the linebacker position, that's huge. I like him. He'll play hard. You get a little nervous when you look at that whole linebacker group and look at how young they are.

"They're going to start Matthews. They're going to play Rolle in nickel. You look around and say, 'Damn, as smart as they are, they're still rookies.' Teams are going to try to take advantage of them."

Rolle clearly arrived at Lehigh in late July with a chip on his shoulder. He knows a lot of people look at his small stature and think he can't play. That includes the NFL teams that snubbed him.

"I look at myself as 6-1, 240, even though it might not say that's what I am," Rolle said. "I've just tried to work hard and focus on [learning] each [linebacker] position rather than one. I feel that enabled me to go out there and make plays.

"Once I got in camp, I dedicated myself to doing great regardless of what people outside the organization think.''

The Eagles never have placed a high value on the linebacker position. That was apparent again in free agency, when they didn't sign any.

They selected three in the draft - Matthews, Rolle and seventh-rounder Greg Lloyd, who probably is destined for the practice squad. They don't have a linebacker on their roster who was higher than a fourth-round pick.

"The young kids that we drafted, it takes time to develop kids," Castillo said during training camp. "Going back to some of you [media] guys, I'm sure your first year, when you started doing what you're doing now, I'm sure you're a lot better now than you were when you first started. It's a process, and it's our job to develop the kids and make them better."

The difference between Castillo's rookies and myself, of course, is that my first job was at a small paper in West Texas, not on an NFL team with Super Bowl aspirations. I could afford to make a few rookie mistakes covering the Midland High Bulldogs. They screw up too many times and the Eagles can kiss the Lombardi Trophy good bye.

"[Rolle] seems to be decisive in what he does," said Brian Baldinger, an NFL Network analyst who also does the Eagles' preseason games for the Eagles Television Network. "The problem with that is he goes the wrong way sometimes too. When you're 5-9 and weigh whatever he weighs, which ain't much, and you're in the wrong gap, somebody two-hand shivers him and they're going to knock him for a loop.

"But if he's right and takes the right angles, he gets there before anybody else does. And that's what they're banking on."

Castillo took a leap of faith with Matthews, throwing him in their with the first-team defense on the very first day of training camp. He's been there every day since.

Rolle earned his nickel linebacker job by impressing Castillo, head coach Andy Reid and linebackers coach Mike Caldwell in training camp and preseason games.

"You know what, he's athletic, even though he's not the biggest guy," Castillo said. "He's explosive. He can change direction. And we feel that he has the ability to be a shutdown linebacker, meaning that he can cover backs and do a good job covering backs. Mike is working with him, and fundamentally, he still needs that work. But he has the ability."


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