Without question, the biggest detriment to the Philadelphia Eagles' 2011 season was the below average play of their undersized linebacking corps.
To assuage the problems the Eagles had in 2010, the team drafted LB Casey Matthews in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft, expecting him to follow in his brother Clay's footsteps and be the future of the defensive unit. Unfortunately, Matthews had a hard time making the transition from college to the NFL, recording a pedestrian 37 tackles through 16 games played.
Over the course of the season, the Eagles made several changes to the linebacking unit, trying out rookie Brian Rolle as well as third-year players Jamar Chaney and Keenan Clayton.
None of them appeared to possess enough talent to be able to run the defense from the middle linebacker position.
Perhaps the most obvious problem with the Eagles' linebackers was their size. Of the seven linebackers listed on the 2011 team roster, none of them stand taller then 6'1", with their average weight a meager 235 pounds.
In 2011, no team was better then the San Francisco 49ers when it came to stopping the run, allowing just 77 yards per game and three rushing touchdowns all season. Their average weight? 249 pounds.
This offseason, there are several available linebackers who would make great additions to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012.
The 26-year-old MLB David Hawthorne would be a great fit for the Philadelphia Eagles. Weighing 246 pounds, Hawthorne recorded 115 tackles in 2011, adding two sacks as well as three interceptions.
The real upsides to the linebacker, however, are his consistency and ability to stop the run.
Since his second year in the NFL, Hawthorne has recorded at least 105 tackles per year and missed just one game due to a nagging knee injury. Eagles' fans may also recall Hawthorne returning a 77-yard interception for a touchdown against them in Week 13.
Hawthorne could bring a whole different element to the small but speedy Eagles' defense, and be a tremendous run-stopping asset to the unit in 2012.
This offseason, the Philadelphia Eagles should take a long look at Jameel McClain of the Baltimore Ravens. At 245 pounds, the Philadelphia native recorded 84 tackles in 2011, and shows a phenomenal ability to bring down the ball-carrier on a consistent basis.
While he is most accustomed to the 3-4 defense employed by the Baltimore Ravens, he has tremendous upside potential due to the fact that he turns just 27 in July and spent his career learning from future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.
McClain's run-stopping ability would fit in well with the Eagles' linebackers and help the defense in the area that plagued it the most in 2011.
Although LB Stephen Tulloch is cut from the same cloth as the Philadelphia Eagles' linebackers, the 27-year-old would make a great addition to the team in 2012, as he possesses excellent intelligence in coverage as well as consistent tackling ability.
As one of the top five linebackers in the free agent pool this offseason, expect the Eagles to take a look at Tulloch to fill the gaping hole at middle linebacker. In 2011, Tulloch amassed 111 tackles, two interceptions and five deflected passes.
While he is slightly undersized, Tulloch could easily take over the starting job in Philadelphia, as he is accustomed to the 4-3 style defense as well as the wide-nine defensive scheme, both utilized by defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and the Eagles.
This offseason, 25-year-old Curtis Lofton of the Atlanta Falcons is arguably the best all around middle linebacker. Since his emergence in the NFL in 2008, Lofton has amassed 492 tackles and seven forced fumbles, without missing a single game due to injury.
The Philadelphia Eagles may be the best suitor for Lofton, as he is a tremendous force to be reckoned with against the run, precisely where the Eagles struggled in 2011, and could solidify the Eagles' undersized defense.
Lofton may command a large salary coming off the best season of his career, but expect the Philadelphia Eagles to make a play for him.
Since the Eagles traded LB Joe Mays to the Denver Broncos in 2010, he has made significant progress and the Eagles would be wise to take a second look at him this offseason.
Mays played in all 16 games and recorded 75 tackles last season, but while his statistics are unimpressive, he has developed an excellent talent in stopping the run.
Although the Broncos use a 3-4 style defense, Mays has experience in Philadelphia. He knows the 4-3, and would be definite asset for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012.