Note: This is the seventh part of a 10-part series looking at the Eagles' roster entering free agency and the draft. The first part was quarterbacks, the second part was running backs, and the third part was wide receivers. the fourth part was offensive line, the fifth part was tight ends and specialists, and the sixth part was defensive linemen.
ON THE ROSTER
Under contract: DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Emmanuel Acho, Najee Goode, Jake Knott, Jason Phillips
Free agents: None
Outlook: This is another position that is relatively solidified, at least at the starting spots. DeMeco Ryans and Mychael Kendricks were two of the steadiest players on the Eagles’ defense last season.
Ryans proved that he can play in the 3-4 and served as a three-down linebacker. He’s not an elite inside linebacker in the Patrick Willis/NaVorro Bowman/Luke Kuechly mold, but he’s an above-average player who knows the defense and is a sure tackle. The team believed Ryans deserved Pro Bowl consideration, and it wasn't a far-fetched notion. He’s the leader of the unit, and topped the Eagles in tackles while adding four sacks and two interceptions. The downside of Ryans is that he’s going to be 30 this season and is due $6.9 million, so the clock is ticking on his future in Philadelphia. Ryans is too valuable to release, but he could require a paycut.
Kendricks is a player the Eagles need to emerge as a difference-maker. He showed flashes of that ability in 2014, and he has exceptional speed for the position. The 2012 second-round pick is only 23 (will be 24 in September) and has bounced between different schemes in recent seasons, so another year as inside linebacker in the Eagles defense can be of benefit. Kendricks needs more consistency, but he has the raw ability to continue improving.
With those two starters expected to return, the Eagles can always look for an upgrade at the backup spots. Najee Goode did a nice job as Kendricks’ injury replacement last season and spent the whole year with the team after he was claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay following final cuts.
Jake Knott was a rookie free agent who made the roster. He missed four games because of injury last season and was primarily a special teams player. Knott remained on the roster throughout the entire season over Emmanuel Acho, who spent time on the active roster and practice squad following a strong preseason. The Eagles look for different types of players as the backup inside linebacker, trying to avoid duplication of specific skill sets.
Goode, Knott, and Acho will all try to make the roster again this season, but they’ll have competition. Casey Matthews spent most of his time as an outside linebacker, so we’ll address his situation on Wednesday even though he started last season as an inside linebacker.
One variable is Jason Phillips, who was signed to be a core special teams player and reserve inside linebacker before tearing his ACL in training camp. Phillips was going to make the roster last season, and he’ll need to show he’s healthy in order to make it this season. He expects to be healthy for training camp.
Barring injury, Ryans and Kendricks will return as starters. The question, then, is what the Eagles do behind them. That means top free agents such as San Diego’s Donald Butler and Arizona’s Karlos Dansby will not figure into their plans. If the Eagles sign a free agent, it would be similar to Phillips last season.
The Eagles could also address the position in the draft. They did not draft an inside linebacker last season. The top inside linebackers are Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, Wisconsin’s Chris Borland, and Connecticut’s Yawin Smallwood, but they would not necessarily make sense for the Eagles in the early rounds unless the value was overwhelming.
In the middle rounds, pay attention to Florida State’s Christian Jones. The former top recruit has excellent measurables and experience, and at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds would give the Eagles a body type they do not have at that position. He played as an edge rusher at Florida State, too, so he’s scheme versatility. The same could be said about UCLA’s Jordan Zumwalt, who has similar size.
Stanford’s Shayne Skov was a productive college player who Chip Kelly is familiar with from the Pac-12. He played in a 3-4 defense in college, so there is not much scheme projection required.
As always, it’s worth mentioning Oregon players. Boseko Lokombo was an outside linebacker with the Ducks, although he is a potential inside linebacker. He has athleticism that could impress at this week's combine.