Leading up to Sunday, I will go position-by-position and player-by-player to preview what could be in store for all 53 members of the current Philadelphia Eagles. Click here for the breakdown on the running backs. And here for the wide receivers. Today, we move on to the linebackers, starting with...
Casey Matthews - The role of Eagles first-year players will be a major storyline, especially early in the season. We know Jason Kelce will likely start at center. And we know Danny Watkins will likely be watching from the sidelines. The other rookie to keep an eye on is Matthews. He looked overmatched in the second preseason game against the Steelers, but bounced back with a better performance against Cleveland. Even though Matthews is listed at 232 pounds, Juan Castillo said up at Lehigh he had bulked up to 245.
Teams will likely follow a simple formula to beat the Eagles: Control the clock, run the ball, keep Michael Vick off the field, and avoid getting down early. That translates to attacking the middle of the Birds' defense - the defensive tackles and the linebackers. While it's clear that Castillo believes in Matthews, he'll have to make a decision if the rookie linebacker struggles early on.
Jamar Chaney - He's the best linebacker the Eagles have on their roster. The question is: Where to play him? Chaney was surprisingly moved to SAM at the start of training camp, with Castillo explaining that was the most important linebacker position for his defense. Chaney too struggled against the Steelers, but he played very well against Cleveland, specifically in coverage.
The Eagles gave up 33 touchdown passes last year (including the playoffs, and not including Week 17). Seventeen of those 33 were scored by running backs and tight ends. Opponents passed to the tight end 26 percent of the time against them in 2010. That was a league-high, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. In other words, the Eagles need their linebackers to be better in coverage. And that should start with Chaney.
Of course, if Matthews struggles, Castillo's best option is probably still to move Chaney inside and go with either Moise Fokou or Keenan Clayton at SAM.
Moise Fokou - He played the SAM last year, but Fokou now moves over to the WILL. He's probably one of the Eagles' more physical defenders, and has been consistent, although unspectacular in his first few seasons. Fokou's played all three linebacker positions over the years and provides the Eagles with some versatility. He also led the team with 19 special-teams tackles a year ago.
Fokou will get a chance to hold onto the WILL position, but Brian Rolle or Clayton could push him for playing time.
Keenan Clayton - He starts off the season as the backup SAM, but Clayton can also play the WILL. I'm surprised he hasn't received more of a look this preseason. Clayton might be the Eagles' quickest linebacker and showed in the preseason that he can cover. If he proves he can play the run, Clayton could push Fokou for the starting job. If not, he could see time in the nickel. Clayton had 11 special-teams tackles last season.
Brian Rolle - He was probably the Eagles' most impressive defender in their preseason finale against the Jets. Rolle blitzed effectively, covered and looked like a sure tackler. Perhaps most importantly, he had some standout moments against the run.
Rolle has already replaced Matthews as one of the nickel linebackers, alongside Chaney. That's important, considering how often the Eagles figure to play with three cornerbacks on the field. If he continues to impress the coaching staff, Rolle could steal the starting WILL job from Fokou. He, too, looks like he'll be a good special-teams contributor.
Akeem Jordan - I wasn't sure that the Eagles' veteran would survive cut day last weekend, but he did. And this week, he agreed to a two-year contract. Jordan has experience playing all three linebacker positions, but he looked most comfortable a couple years ago at WILL.
If Matthews stumbles and the Eagles want to keep Chaney at SAM, Jordan could get a shot in the middle.
He led the Eagles in special teams points last year, excelling both as a blocker and a tackler.
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