Mychal Kendricks, who is well aware of the difference between August and September, had a pretty good night on Thursday against Buffalo in the Eagles’ second exhibition game and he accepted whatever that might mean with a shrug.
A year ago, he was the third linebacker in a system that used only two for the vast majority of the defensive snaps, and until that changes, or until his pecking order within that group changes, then the only thing different is the last number of the calendar year.
All true, but there were some wrinkles on Thursday that looked a bit new. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz blitzed a little more with the first team than his reputation would predict, and he left three linebackers on the field in some down-and-distance situations that would have automatically called for a fifth defensive back in the past.
Whether coincidentally or otherwise, Kendricks, who is a fast and agile linebacker, benefited during the game. He got a sack on a blitz call, hurried a pass that led to an interception on another, and got an interception of his own on a tipped pass. He also came to the line quickly enough to get two tackles for losses. Kendricks was on the field for 27 snaps, which is more than either Jordan Hicks or Nigel Bradham, the regular linebackers who averaged 700 more snaps that Kendricks in 2016. So, hey, how about this new year?
“This is all a [bleeping] experiment,” Kendricks said. “This is preseason, man. You can’t take anything too seriously. It’s [bleeping] preseason.”
Well, yes. There is the predictable speculation that the Eagles are giving Kendricks a chance to shine only in order for other teams to take notice. He previously asked for a trade and is making a lot of money for a linebacker who was on the field for 27 percent of the defensive snaps last season.
All of that is true, but it is also possible that Schwartz is considering doing things a little differently this season, even if Kendricks is still in wait-and-see mode on that one. The Eagles defense has been upgraded somewhat – with the addition of rookie defensive end Derek Barnett the biggest piece – but whether it is dramatically improved is another question. Tim Jernigan has replaced Bennie Logan at tackle, and Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills are the cornerback starters in place of Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin.
Better? OK. Dramatically better than the middle-of-the-road defense that couldn’t get to the quarterback consistently and couldn’t get off the field on third down? Two games in the preseason haven’t answered that question, although Thursday’s showing against the Bills was encouraging, except perhaps for the woeful Bills.
“We have a lot of young guys here still and we’ll see in the next couple of weeks who is going to be here and who is not,” Kendricks said. “Once we know that, we’ll be able to hone in on what we need to get done even further.”
If Kendricks remains, it would take something of a sea change in defensive philosophy for his personal situation to be radically altered. Schwartz would have to decide that hurrying the opposing quarterback can’t be done reliably with a steady diet of just four rushers. He’d also have to decide that Kendricks fits frequently into the new equation, both as a potential blitzer and as a gap-stuffer when the other team opts to run the ball.
On Thursday, two of the more effective blitzes came from the safety position, one each by Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Schwartz was particularly hesitant to steal from his secondary coverage last year, and Thursday could have been a harbinger for change, or it could have been bleeping preseason, man.
“It’s just one of those things. Jim said we might run a few more pressures just to get looks at it,” McLeod said. “We’ve been running it a lot in practice and it’s been effective. But it is the preseason. We’re getting work in. We’ll see when the season comes if we’re running some of these calls.”
The conundrum that Kendricks presents is that, from a physical standpoint, he is a perfect hybrid of speed and size at linebacker to complement both a nickel-heavy coverage scheme and to bring his own mayhem to the line of scrimmage when necessary. He certainly fits the description more than Bradham, who is scheme-savvy but a bit slow and late-arriving.
It hasn’t worked out that way for Kendricks, though, not since the Eagles went back to a 4-3 base defense and he became, when thought about at all, something of an afterthought. If Schwartz is contemplating different ideas, however, maybe he’s rethinking Kendricks. It looked that way Thursday, or maybe it was just the hall of mirrors that is August in the NFL.
As the man said, we’ll know more in a couple of weeks. What we know now is that Mychal Kendricks can still play given the right situations. What we don’t know is whether he’ll get them.