The Eagles will narrow their roster from 90 to 75 by Aug. 26 and to 53 for the regular season by Aug. 30. The Inquirer’s beat reporters will spend the next eight days predicting who stays and who goes. Here’s the lineup:
Aug. 18: Defensive line
Aug. 19: Linebacker
Aug. 20: Wide receiver/tight end
Aug. 21: Offensive line
Aug. 22: Cornerback
Aug. 23: Safety
Aug. 24: Running back
Aug. 25: Quarterback/specialist
LIKELY TO KEEP: 8-9
Was Marcus Smith worth a first-round pick?
Zach Berman: OLB: Trent Cole, Connor Barwin, Marcus Smith, Travis Long, Bryan Braman; ILB: DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Najee Goode (Jake Knott on reserve/suspended list)
Jeff McLane: OLB: Trent Cole, Connor Barwin, Marcus Smith, Travis Long, Bryan Braman; ILB: DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Najee Goode, Casey Matthews (Jake Knott on reserve/suspended list)
The inside and outside linebackers might be the most difficult positions to predict on the Eagles roster. Five different observers might have five different answers about who the 5-6 backups will be.
The starters are cemented: Cole and Barwin on the outside, with Ryans and Kendricks on the inside. There’s no debate, and the Eagles are happy with that group. Then it’s clear Smith will be on the roster, considering he’s the first-round pick. And Goode will be on the roster as the top backup inside linebacker. After those six players, reasonable debates could be made in a variety of direction.
Ryans is the “quarterback” of the defense, as Kelly and the coaching staff often explain. He is one of the most indispensible players on the Eagles roster, even at age 30. Kendricks is an emerging player who needs to become an impact player in his third season. He has the speed and the ability to do so, and his second year in the scheme should be beneficial.
Barwin plays the “Jack.” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said last season Barwin wore more hats than any player on the defense. It would benefit the Eagles if they could free up Barwin to pass rush more this season, but that would require someone being able to do what Barwin does on the other side. But Barwin is one of the steadiest players on the team, and certainly one of the most valuable.
Cole has worked to improve as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he’s still more of a pass rusher who played with his hand in the ground some of the time. All eight of his sacks came in the second half of the season, which could be evidence that he’s improving in the scheme.
Those players you know. It’s what happens after them that will be interesting.
Goode is the top reserve inside linebacker. A full offseason has been a major benefit, and the team is even more comfortable with Goode than they were last season. There is significant competition for the fourth inside linebacker spot. It could be Casey Matthews, Jason Phillips or Emmanuel Acho at that spot. All could make conceivable arguments. Knott, who has missed a good chunk of the summer with a hamstring injury, is suspended the first four games because of performance-enhancing drugs. Or the Eagles could keep only three. (I’ll explain how below.)
Smith has considerable development ahead of him, and the Eagles played him 73 snaps last week to get an extended look at him. But Smith does not appear ready to be a Day 1 contributor. He’ll be on the roster and will likely be a starter down the line, just not this season.
In fact, the top outside linebacker could be Long. The organization has been high on Long for a year. He impressed during his year on the practice squad while recovering from a 2012 knee injury at Washington State, and his summer has also been strong. Long can rush the passer, play special teams, drop into coverage, and is versatile enough to cross-train at inside linebacker.
Bryan Braman was signed mostly for special teams, which will be his primary role. He can also help on defense. Then there’s the curious case of Brandon Graham…
Berman: Brandon Graham, Casey Matthews, Emmanuel Acho, Josh Kaddu
McLane: Brandon Graham, Casey Matthews, Emmanuel Acho, Josh Kaddu
Let’s start with Graham. The former first-round pick might very well make the roster, and might be one of the team’s best pass rushers. But the issue is he’s not a starter, he’s not particularly versatile, and he’s not a standout on special teams. So they can keep him as a situational pass rusher, but how valuable was he in that role last season?
The best-case scenario might be trading him to a team that needs a pass rusher, because Graham definitely has a spot in the NFL. He’s not an ideal fit for this scheme. And when you’re a reserve, it’s about different roles you can fill. Much can happen in the final two preseason games, but Graham might be on the outside looking in.
Last season, the Eagles kept him five inside linebackers and three outside linebackers. They used Matthews in both spots. It was a way of keeping players they liked on the inside instead of someone I think the opposite will be the case this season, and the Eagles go heavier at outside linebacker. Long, Kaddu, and Matthews all have been training at both. If they can keep six just to maximize talent, that’s one way to keep Graham on the roster.
If the Eagles keep a fourth inside linebacker, Matthews might be the one. He can return in his role is a versatile reserve who can play inside and outside and contribute on special teams. The Eagles know he can do that, and he’s done it this summer. The issue might come down to numbers here.
Acho is the best defensive player of the remaining inside linebackers. I’d keep him on the roster because I think he can be a defensive contributor. But special teams could again be the issue that makes it an unhappy cut-down day.
As for Kaddu, he has versatility working in his favor. But he’s been buried on the depth chart all summer, which is not a good sign.
The Eagles do not need to make a decision on Knott until after Week 4. They cut Jason Phillips on Tuesday.