This is one in a series of stories from Inquirer and Daily News beat reporters previewing the Eagles’ offseason. Free agency will begin on March 14, and the draft will be April 26-28.
Schedule of previews:
Tuesday, Feb. 20: Quarterbacks/specialists
Wednesday, Feb. 21: Offensive line
Thursday, Feb. 22: Running backs
Friday, Feb. 23: Wide receivers/tight ends
Monday, Feb. 26: Defensive line
Tuesday, Feb. 27: Linebackers
Wednesday, Feb. 28: Cornerbacks
Thursday, March 1: Safeties
Under contract: Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks, Joe Walker, Nate Gerry, Najee Goode, Kamu Grugier-Hill.
When you win the Super Bowl and can move forward with 19 of the 22 players who started that day under contract for the next season, there are no personnel emergencies.
The closest thing the Eagles would seem to have to something like that would be at linebacker, where they tiptoed through the playoffs with an acute lack of depth, and where one of the two linebacking pillars of their Super Bowl title, Nigel Bradham, is scheduled to become a free agent March 14.
Journeyman Dannell Ellerbe became the starting middle linebacker in title after Jordan Hicks went down with an Achilles tear Oct. 23, and Joe Walker and Najee Goode proved much less effective as replacements, Walker eventually ending his season on injured reserve with a neck injury. What defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz basically did was stop playing base, relying heavily on Bradham and Mychal Kendricks in most situations, with Malcolm Jenkins coming down into the box for dime packages. The Eagles played three snaps in base during the Super Bowl.
Bringing back Bradham, 28, ought to be the Eagles’ biggest offseason priority. We should get a better sense of the status of that when Howie Roseman talks to reporters Wednesday in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine. Agent Drew Rosenhaus said Tuesday he had no comment on Bradham’s status, or whether he expected to meet with Roseman at the combine.
Bradham has led the team in tackles the past two seasons, and after Hicks went down, he put on the radio helmet and relayed calls from the coaches, something he hadn’t done before. In 2017, Bradham stayed away from the off-field scrapes that put him in a questionable light the previous year – a fracas with a pool attendant in Miami and accidentally trying to check a backpack including a loaded gun through airport security. He seemed to grow as a leader and a spokesman.
Kendricks completely turned around an Eagles career that seemed to be on its last legs, after puzzling, aimless seasons in 2015 and 2016. He spent last offseason on the trading block, and began 2017 not at all happy with a marginal role in which he would come off the field in favor of Hicks and Bradham whenever the Eagles weren’t in base. Hicks’ injury defused that situation, but assuming Hicks is healthy in 2018 – a big assumption for a talented player who has missed big chunks of two of his three NFL seasons, and also battled injury in college – the potential exists for more friction.
That segues into the question of how much you rely on Hicks, given his problems in staying healthy. Through the draft or free agency, the Eagles just about have to find a better inside linebacking option than they were left with when Hicks went down.
This is a likely route for a team that drafts 32nd overall, and then doesn’t select again until the fourth round. The question is, how do the Eagles find cap room to do something, and how big a move can they make? NaVorro Bowman, cut by the 49ers, then recycled as an effective Raider down the stretch last season, would be a less used-up version of Ellerbe. Somebody like Washington’s Zach Brown might entail a significant investment. Avery Williamson from Tennessee? The Jets’ Demario Davis? Maybe versatile Anthony Hitchens, from Dallas?
Everybody knows the Eagles haven’t drafted a linebacker in the first round since Jerry Robinson in 1979. But I’m not sure that is relevant to the current conversation. For one thing, the 32nd overall pick might as well be in the second round (and would have been in the second round, in fact, back in 1979). For another, linebackers are more important in Schwartz’s scheme, playing behind the wide-nine front, than they were under previous setups. I would not be at all surprised to see a linebacker become the Eagles’ first selection in this draft .
Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch might be a solid possibility. Would Alabama’s Rashaan Evans still be on the board at 32? A little later in the draft, how about USC’s Uchenna Nwosu?