Philadelphia Eagles Position Review: The Linebackers
The Philadelphia Eagles linebacking core has gone through an extreme makeover this offseason. They have gone from a shack that is unlivable to a dream house. Players like Jamar Chaney and Akeem Jordan have gone from starters to quality backups.
DeMeco Ryans is the key to makeover this summer. The Eagles sent a fourth-round draft pick to the Houston Texans and also swapped third-round draft picks in order to acquire Ryan's services. The Eagles now have a Pro Bowl linebacker who makes everyone better around him.
The Eagles now have seven linebackers on their roster who have started a game before. Their backups aren't new kids on the block who will play like a deer in the headlights if they are forced to start due to an injury to a starter. Injuries will happen in the NFL. Having quality and experienced backups cannot be overrated at any position.
The linebackers were a major weakness in 2011. They got bullied against the run and couldn't cover any tight ends. It doesn't matter how good your corners are if you can't stop the run or if your linebackers are getting torched by the tight ends.
Here is my breakdown of the top nine linebackers on the Eagles roster. All but rookie Mychal Kendricks and second-year player Greg Lloyd, Jr. have started at least one game. All have a shot at making the 53-man roster.
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Right now, Brian Rolle is the projected starting weak side linebacker. He started 13 games at the position last season. He outplayed Casey Matthews in Week 3 at the position and never looked back. He finished the season with 41 solo tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, one recovered fumble and one defensive touchdown.
He didn't set the world on fire, but for a sixth-round draft pick in his first season in the NFL, he did an outstanding job. Rolle's biggest criticism isn't his athleticism or his toughness. It's his height. He is barely 5'10". Small linebackers always get red flagged.
For Rolle, his lack of height is a non-issue. He doesn't get the responsibility of covering tight ends in this defense. He isn't an every-down linebacker either. He will play in 4-3 packages only. His job will be to play the run and occasionally cover backs. He won't see much more than most first downs and obvious running situations.
He may be the projected starter on the weak side, but he isn't guaranteed the job just yet. Jamar Chaney will be nipping at his heels all summer long. This will be the closest starting position battle at training camp this summer.
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Jamar Chaney had a rough 2011 season. He was coming off an impressive 2010 season where he not only did a good job replacing middle linebacker Stewart Bradley late in the season, but he actually looked like a better player. In 2011, he was moved to the strong side linebacker spot during a very short offseason program. He was forced to move back to middle linebacker in Week 3 after Casey Matthews struggled at the position.
Chaney looked lost and soft in 2011. He was consistently out of position, and when he was in position, he was missing tackles in the open field. A new defensive coordinator who wasn't quite ready for the job was a big part of the problem with Chaney, but Chaney rarely looked like a starting linebacker last season.
The Eagles coaches have been high on Chaney since they drafted him in the seventh round in 2010. He is going to get a really good shot to win the weak-side linebacker job. They like his size and they love his speed. He just needs to become a smart and more fundamentally sound player to earn a starting role again.
A full season on the bench may be the best thing for Jamar Chaney right now. Maybe a tight training camp battle will be the best thing for his career. It will be interesting to see what type of player he becomes after a disaster of a season in 2011.
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Keenan Clayton picked a bad year to miss OTAs. He is recovering from a sports hernia surgery that has kept him out of practice all summer long thus far. He should be ready for training camp, but for a guy who needs to prove his worth just to make the roster, he picked a bad team to fall behind.
Clayton is a good coverage linebacker. Outside of his coverage skills, he doesn't offer a whole lot. The Eagles plan to use DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks in nickel packages. The same nickel packages that Clayton thrived in during the final four games of the 2011 season.
It appears that the Eagles won't have a major need for Clayton in 2012 or beyond. He hasn't shown much ability in run support, and Andy Reid has never been a fan of one-dimensional linebackers. It will take a pretty special summer for Clayton to remain an Eagle in 2012.
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DeMeco Ryans is the key to the Eagles linebackers. If he returns to his 2009 form, then this will be one of the best linebacker groups in the NFL. He was available for just a fourth-round draft pick because he didn't fit in the 3-4 defense. He also hadn't fully recovered from his torn Achilles tendon injury back in 2010. It usually takes a full season after the surgery to fully recover from that kind of an injury.
Ryans looked like he was all the way back late in the 2011 season with the Texans. We won't know if he is still the elite player that he was back in 2009 until we see him in live action. If he is back to his earlier form, then the Eagles will have the best 4-3 middle linebacker in the league.
Ryans is the type of player that makes everyone better with his play and his leadership. He is both a great athlete at the position and a coach on the field. He could be to the Eagles what Patrick Willis is to the 49ers or what Ray Lewis has been for the Ravens.
Last season, the Eagles finished in the top 10 in yards allowed despite having poor play at linebacker. They can be a good defense without a good linebacker. But can they be a great defense or a championship defense without one? Hopefully, DeMeco Ryans won't let the question be answered.
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No player in the NFL was more unfairly criticized in 2011 than Casey Matthews was. He was a fourth-round draft pick that was immediately thrown into the fire by a defensive coordinator. He had never been a defensive coach in the NFL until last season.
He became the starting middle linebacker in a lockout-shortened offseason and failed miserably. You can't really blame him. He was undersized and overwhelmed. He never really stood a chance.
Matthews will benefit from the 2012 season. He will serve as DeMeco Ryans' backup and his mentee. He won't spend the season trying to learn the defense on the fly. He can learn the position under Ryans without the pressure of delivering on the field at the same time.
Part of the problem with Matthews was his size. He came into the NFL at about 232 pounds. In many cases, rookies are trying to get their speed up for the NFL combine, so they lose weight in order to gain speed. He is now up to 250 pounds heading into training camp.
Matthews has great cover skills and is a really smart football player. He doesn't possess great speed, but should make up for it with better recognition skills. The extra pounds of muscle should make a huge difference in his game. He can fight through blocks better.
It will be interesting to see just how much stronger he is this season. He will definitely be a player to watch during preseason.
Greg Lloyd, Jr.
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Greg Lloyd, Jr. was a very physical linebacker in college at UCONN. A really bad ACL tear during junior year has really set back his career. He hasn't gotten his speed back, and it's unclear if he ever will.
Lloyd was one of the Eagles' seventh-round draft picks in 2011. He was a low-risk, high-reward type of pick. If he gets back to where he was during his junior year, then the Eagles get a steal. If he doesn't, then the Eagles whiff on a seventh-round draft pick.
Lloyd will get another shot in training camp to prove he can be an NFL linebacker. If he shows any potential this summer, the Eagles will most likely stash him away on the practice squad for another season. If he struggles in pass coverage and doesn't show much speed, then the Eagles will cut their losses and move on.
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It's rare for a player to be named the projected starter at his position shortly after being drafted. It says more about how well Mychal Kendricks fits in. He played middle linebacker in college at California and was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year. He is the Eagles' projected strong-side linebacker heading into training camp.
Kendricks will act like an inside linebacker in the Eagles' nickel packages. He will line up next to DeMeco Ryans in the nickel and have the responsibility of covering tight ends all over the field. This is where Kendricks start to worry Eagles fans.
Kendricks is only 5'11". Tight ends range from 6'4" to 6'6". The concern with him is that he will be too small to cover tight ends. Normally, I would agree with this, but he had a 39.5-inch vertical at the NFL combine. He was also one of the fastest linebackers at the combine.
Kendricks has the athleticism of a wide receiver. Height and experience is the only concern with him at this point. He was a great run defender in college, along with being solid in pass coverage. He hasn't looked outmatched during the Eagles' OTAs against the tight ends.
The Eagles' first preseason game will be against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It will be interesting to see Kendricks covering the Steelers' top tight end, 6'5" Heath Miller. Last year's preseason saw the Steelers running game expose Casey Matthews. Hopefully, we won't see the same thing from the Steelers with Kendricks.
Akeem Jordan/Moise Fokou
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I lumped Akeem Jordan and Moise Fokou together because they are very similar players in the same situation this summer. Both Fokou and Jordan are fighting for the back-up strong-side linebacker job. They both have won and lost starting jobs during their tenures with the Eagles. They are both good special teams players, and they are both about the same size at around 6'1", 230 pounds.
Both players will not make the roster in 2012. The Eagles will look for one of these players to step up as the better special teams player and a more reliable backup outside linebacker. Both players have made starts at both strong-side and weak-side linebacker, and both players started multiple games at strong side linebacker in 2011.
Jordan has the benefit of finishing the season as the starting strong-side linebacker, while Fokou rode the bench. He left the coaches with a better taste in their mouths from last season. It will take a strong effort by Fokou to keep his spot on the roster and force Jordan out.
Both players will be worth watching this summer. If Mychael Kendricks struggles or gets hurt, one of these players will have to step up and play big for the defense to be successful.