Les Bowen: Ryans likened to Eagles legends Joyner, Trotter

JAMAR CHANEY didn't need to confer with any Eagles coaches to know what the acquisition of DeMeco Ryans was going to mean for Chaney, the Birds' incumbent starting middle linebacker.

"He's going to start off at the MIKE, that goes without saying," Chaney said last night, a few hours after the news broke that the Eagles had sent a fourth-round pick in next month's draft to the Houston Texans for Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker. The teams also exchanged third-round draft choices.

"You knew something had to happen, just because of how much talk there was about the linebackers. You couldn't really blame nobody [for making a move]; most of the blame [for missing the playoffs] was placed on the linebackers and the safeties last year. You knew some moves were going to happen. It was a matter of when and what it was going to be."

The first move turned out to be a bigger one than Chaney or just about anyone else could have foreseen. Ryans, the 2006 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, sure seems like the most dynamic player the Birds have acquired to man the middle at least since the heyday of Jeremiah Trotter, a decade or so ago. Former Eagles linebacker Ike Reese, now a host on 94 WIP, said last night he'd go back even farther for a comparison.

"In a 4-3 defense, especially in this Wide 9, I think he's going to have the ability to flow from tackle to tackle. I think his range is so much better than what they've had here, maybe since Seth Joyner," in 1986-93, Reese said. "The speed that he will be able to bring - Jeremiah Trotter didn't move as fast as this guy moves, in Trotter's prime."

Is this Ryans' prime? He doesn't turn 28 until July, but he is coming off the least-productive season of his career, his first back after suffering a ruptured Achilles' tendon six games into the 2010 season. Supporters say the Texans' move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, in which Ryans came off the field in nickel packages, was the reason the stats were lower, it wasn't that Ryans couldn't move as well. That remains to be seen.

Skeptics might also think a fourth-round pick and an exchange of thirds is a low price for a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker who should have plenty of tread left on his tires. A source close to the situation cited the 2008 Jonathan Vilma trade between the Jets and the Saints as a precedent. Vilma was coming directly off a season-ending knee injury when the Jets traded him for a fourth-round pick in 2008 and a third-rounder in 2009. He was not quite 26 at the time.

The Texans, who fielded the NFL's top defense last season, have unloaded a lot of talent this offseason; scuttlebutt holds that the moves are being forced by an untenable salary-cap situation. Ryans reportedly is scheduled to make $5.9 million this year.

"A pedigree as a middle linebacker. Nose for the football. Been a standout at the position ever since college, when he played at Alabama," Reese said.

Eagles guard Evan Mathis, who earlier in the week signed a 5-year, $25 million deal to stay with the Birds, was very happy to welcome his former Crimson Tide teammate. Mathis called Ryans a "great player who is also one of the best team leaders I've been around." Mathis added he was not surprised by the deal; maybe he was asked for his two cents when he was wrapping up his contract.

Texans players seemed stunned to lose their defensive captain. Defensive end Antonio Smith told the NFL Network: "I don't know what is going on at this moment, but DeMeco is a great player, a leader . . . Our defense is going to miss him. That's all I can say about it. I'm not in agree[ment] with it."

Fellow defensive end J.J. Watt called Ryans "far and away the most respected guy on the defense, our leader. He's a guy that everybody turns to, especially when things are going tough. It's tough to see him go, but at the end of the day, what can we do? He's obviously going to go play great football for the Eagles."

Chaney, who welcomed Ryans to the Eagles on Twitter, agreed that Ryans is "a physical linebacker." Chaney expects to be fully recovered from neck surgery by training camp, and doesn't see himself automatically moving to the bench. "I can play all three linebacker positions," he said. "There'll be competition in training camp, and we'll see. The best three, most of the time the best two linebackers are going to be on the field [because of the nickel]."

In a recent interview, Eagles coach Andy Reid defended the play of his young 2011 linebacking corps, saying the group grew and got more comfortable behind the Wide 9 as the season progressed. When asked about the fact that by the end everyone was playing strictly situationally, Reid said it was that way lots of places. But in Ryans, again assuming he is all the way back from the Achilles', the Eagles have a three-down middle linebacker, which cuts down on defensive confusion and aids continuity. In 2009, Ryans played all but two defensive snaps for the Texans.

The move explains why the Eagles had no profile in the current free-agent linebacker market; Stephen Tulloch, a linebacker who intrigued fans because he played behind the Wide 9 in Tennessee and Detroit, rejoined the Lions yesterday with no apparent interest from the Eagles. There was no indication the Eagles had interest in Atlanta's Curtis Lofton, the No. 2 inside 'backer on most lists, or in anyone else out there.

Asked if he'd had an inkling, Chaney laughed. "People think we know," he said. "We don't know what's going on, particularly with a team that plays it as close as the Eagles. Some of the coaches probably didn't even know."


Contact Les Bowen at bowenl@phillynews.com.