DeMeco Ryans played 96 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps last year. The only reason the linebacker didn't play 99 percent was because the Eagles had blown out the Raiders and Bears and the reserves played in garbage time.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis had talked about limiting Ryans' snaps midway through the season, but except for the few times when the Eagles went with their "dime" package, it never quite happened.
It should happen this season.
The Eagles have more depth for substitution packages, particularly with cornerback Nolan Carroll as the likely sixth defensive back in the dime defense. And linebacker Najee Goode, with a full offseason in the system under his belt, could be a candidate to spell Ryans on passing downs.
"I'm a lot more comfortable, not just from a playing standpoint, but understanding the coaches [and] the things they ask for," Goode said Sunday after practice. "There were some things that we went over during the summertime that really helps me to understand what other guys are doing. It was huge."
Goode has been getting occasional first-team repetitions at inside linebacker in place of Ryans. Coach Chip Kelly said he wasn't looking to give the 30-year-old Ryans rest. The Eagles want to see how some players perform against the starters after "ripping it up" against the second and third teams.
"DeMeco is going to be our starting linebacker on Day 1, [but] we don't know as much about Najee," Kelly said. He added later: "You obviously have two good linebackers in Mychal [Kendricks] and DeMeco, but where is our depth behind them and who is it going to be?
"And Najee has done a really good job when he's been put in those situations, so we are starting to get a little bit more comfortable with him."
The Eagles claimed Goode off waivers from the Buccaneers before the start of last season. He stepped in for the injured Kendricks early in the Green Bay game last November and started the following week against the Redskins. He recorded 11 tackles, one sack and two pass breakups in those games.
He has flashed as a pass defender in this camp - for example, breaking up two throws intended for rookie receiver Jordan Matthews on Sunday. It wouldn't be a surprise if Davis had Goode subbing for Ryans, who struggled in pass protection last year, in certain nickel situations.
Taking Ryans off the field isn't as easy as it sounds. He's the leader of the defense, called plays in 2013, was responsible for lining up the front and wore the helmet with radio connection to Davis.
The Eagles seem to be preparing for the inevitable, though. Kendricks said in the spring that he, too, was calling plays in practice alongside Ryans. The third-year linebacker has been on the field for all three downs and every situation - including dime packages - during camp.
Asked if using more dime defense would help decrease Ryans' playing time, Davis said, "Absolutely. This is one way we can limit DeMeco's snaps."
But there are more reasons for using six defensive backs in third-and-long situations this season. The Eagles simply didn't have the personnel in the secondary a year ago. Carroll, who signed as a free agent in March after four seasons and 26 starts with the Dolphins, has been a camp standout.
"Obviously Nolan is a guy who continues to show up every day and warrants playing time," Kelly said. "Let's see where he can fit in."
Carroll seems to have at least one pass breakup every practice. Davis said he's also tough enough to play inside - where the fifth and sixth dime defensive backs typically play - if an opponent were to run the ball even with four receivers.
There weren't many teams that used four-receiver sets last season, but the Cowboys did on eight percent of offensive plays. The Cardinals, another 2014 opponent, used four or more receivers 12 percent of the time.
"We need to get as many underneath cover guys on those receivers, and if there's four of them you want to play some zone behind it," Kelly said. "You play some zone deep behind it, who is your front linebacker getting matched up on the [running] back? Obviously, Mychal Kendricks is outstanding in coverage in those situations."
The 2013 Eagles defense was mostly vanilla. They had their base unit and when offenses went with three receivers, the nose tackle would come off for slot cornerback Brandon Boykin.
But the NFL has increasingly become a league of specialization. Davis should have more flexibility with Carroll and Goode.
"The goal is to start," Goode said. "When Coach needs it and any time your number is called, whether they've got to come out or they're tired, I'm going to step up."