It may not be the second coming of the "Gang Green" defense, but a group of largely under-the-radar defensive players look to emerge in 2009. The Eagle linebackers held their own in 2008, but this season, they have their sights set on making game-changing plays.
At times last season, the Eagle linebackers were maligned for failing to create turnovers and record sacks. Bradley, Gocong, Gaither and Jordan only accounted for 5.5 sacks, 1 interception and 2 forced fumbles.
Despite the lack of big play making, the Eagle linebackers were a big part of earning the third ranked overall defense. In critical situations, they did what they had to do.
The primary role of Jimmy Johnson's linebackers in 2009 was to provide support in coverage and run stop. That's really all they were asked to do and they pulled it off pretty well.
The 4-3 defense designed by Jimmy Johnson looks to generate pressure from all angles. The front four are expected to collapse the pocket with change up pressure and support from all areas of the secondary and linebacker groups. The traditional linebacker pass rush is therefore a more shared duty with the secondary.
Nonetheless, as these linebackers mature, expect them do a better job with more opportunities in getting to the quarterback and mixing it up with turnovers.
The linebacking crew is founded with two converted players in Chris Gocong and Stewart Bradley, both of whom figure to start in 2009 with little competition.
Gocong is a converted defensive end playing the hybrid role at strong side linebacker. Bradley is an outside linebacker moving nicely to the inside.
Bradley and Gocong have adjusted pretty well and have consistently improved. It's time for them to step up to the next level: making more plays, forcing fumbles, intercepting passes, sacking the quarterback and not missing tackles if they are to sell the fans on their longevity as core players.
Both Bradley and Gocong are getting comfortable with their responsibilities and they are playing more instinctively.
They are strong, reasonably fast, and explosive players who might end up being great linebackers that win some close games for the Eagles with a superior effort.
The weak-side linebacker position is set up as a contest between Omar Gaither and Akeem Jordan, with varying opinions as to who is the better player.
If neither player looks like what the Eagles want when it's go time, there must be an outside chance to see Bradley play the weak side with with Joe Mays playing middle.
Starting Middle Linebacker: Stewart Bradley
Stewart Bradley has the character the coaching staff looks for in a field leader. They will be looking to him to step up into an administrative a motivational role player on the field.
As a player, Bradley is the best looking prospect out of the bunch, recording over 100 tackles in 2008. Bradley is expected to make a bigger all-around contribution this season. He just missed being a real Pro Bowl candidate in 2008.
If he can generate a few turnovers and contribute with the same kind of heavy hitting as he did on Brandon Jacobs, Bradley may be Pro Bowl bound.
If we have seen the best Bradley has to offer, he may someday switch to an outside linebacker position, as he is experienced in all three linebacker duties.
Overall, Bradley has good open-field running speed at 4.7-type 40-yard times, but his explosion is evident in his combine 20-yard shuttle time of 4.17 which would have ranked him second in the 2009 combine for linebackers, quicker than Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, and Aaron Curry. Bradley also showed athleticism with a 36-inch vertical leap.
At 6'4" and 255 pounds, the 25-year-old Bradley has great size for a middle linebacker. He plays with his heart as you would expect from a Nebraska product. Philadelphia fans want an all-heart prototype at middle linebacker and Bradley fits the mold.
Bradley had the only interception among linebackers in 2008 and one forced fumble. The Eagles need three or four interceptions from him in 2009, along with two or three forced fumbles to make this defense realize the potential that appears to be there.
Starting Strong Side Linebacker: Chris Gocong
Chris Gocong is expected to develop into a better pass rusher as the right outside linebacker and defensive end hybrid.
Gocong has had to work on his pass coverage and showed great improvement through the season. Pass rushing, run stopping, and coverage are dynamically challenging for one person to master at this level.
The expectations and need from Gocong is increasing his play making. That's the story of the linebackers. More than looking for his first NFL interception, Gocong needs to get to the quarterback more than twice and force more than one fumble.
Gocong did record his first NFL touchdown in 2008 when he recovered a fumble in the end zone against Dallas in their first meeting.
Gocong is a similar athlete to Bradley. He's a big linebacker at 6'2", 263 pounds. He also has average linebacker straight-line speed being in the 4.7 40 yard dash range.
His explosion is evident with his 39-inch vertical leap which would surpass even the best mark in the 2009 draft by Aaron Curry at 38 inches.
His 10' 3" broad jump would have tied him for second in this year's combine just behind Curry again at 10' 4". Gocong also ran a 4.08 20-yard shuttle that would have ranked him first among 2009 linebacker prospects.
Gocong was second to Gaither in sacks recorded last season with two. He needs to put up seven to ten sacks this season and jar the ball loose in the process. An interception or two would be nice, but if he can get to the quarterback, he will be a success.
Starting Weak Side Linebacker(s): Omar Gaither and Akeem Jordan
Gaither and Jordan are competing for the weak side. Gaither started the season well, showing to be a better play maker, but Jordan was a quicker coverage backer and took the duties over. When Jordan was injected, the defense looked better.
Jordan has run 40 times in the 4.6 to 4.7 range as compared to Gaither who has run more 4.7 to 4.8 times. Last season the speed in coverage made a big difference in the defensive scheme.
If Gocong can create pressure from the strong side, Jordan will work nicely in coverage on the weak side.
In order to lock the job up, Jordan will need to show he can make plays. He recorded no sacks, no forced fumbles and no interceptions.
What Jordan did well, was cover space and tight ends, recording 61 tackles in six starts with six stuffs for a loss. That does not show up as well on SportsCenter, but it does the trick on the scoreboard.
Jordan showed a nose for the football, recovering two fumbles, but he still needs to initiate some turnovers. With a little less than half a season under his belt, I think we can expect Jordan to pick up his game this year.
Gaither looked like an emerging linebacker in 2007. Although he started weak side in early 2008, he slipped out of favor for coverage concerns as Akeem Jordon took the job.
Gaither led the team in sacks by a linebacker with two and half, despite only starting in 10 games. He was also credited for a forced fumble.
Gaither is a quality football player and sure tackler. He can line up in any position: weak, middle or strong. He is strong enough and fast enough to compete. Gaither can contribute on special teams as well.
Best Depth at Linebacker: Joe Mays
Mays has looked like a great middle linebacker in camp and preseason. Undersized at 5'11" and 246 pounds, Mays didn't get on the field with defensive unit. He stood out as a special teams player.
Mays is a Philadelphia kind of player that just leaves it all out there on the field. He plays without hesitation and explodes into the thick of things.
I think the entire Philadelphia region would love to somehow see Mays get some more time without taking Bradley off of the field.
Maybe a little stiff at times, like a body builder, Mays is still a very fun to watch "de-cleating" tackler.
Possible Linebacker Conversion: DE Bryan Smith
Bryan Smith is a very quick, but undersized at right end and the Eagles are loaded with defensive ends. Last season's third round draft choice might fit better if he can provide a depth option behind Gocong.
Smith has tried to put on mass, but weighed in last season at 245. That's a fantastic weight for a speedy pass rushing outside linebacker.
He has 4.7-type 40-yard dash speed and incredible explosion. Smith would make a nice edge rusher playing wide of Trent Cole.
I have read reports that put Smith in the 4.5 40 yard dash range. If that is true, he starts to like a Lawrence Taylor/Derrick Thomas prototype at right outside linebacker.
Coming out of college, Bryan Smith was projected to be a converted outside linebacker. He's just not bulky enough to hold down an end position. Smith is really looking like a project player for 2009 as he also has no experience at any linebacker position.
Seventh Round Rookie Draft Choice: LB Moise Fokou
Fokou is a solid weak side linebacker who will most likely be a practice squad candidate. He has the athletic measures to be a good linebacker at the NFL level, but will definitely need to bring something special to the field.
If Fokou can generate turnovers in camp and preseason, the Eagles may take a chance on him.
He is a bit undersized at 6'1" and only 233 pounds. Moise is more realistically a project that needs to put on some size before he is ready for the NFL.
Fokou ran a 4.76 40 yard dash and made a 31" vertical leap. His explosion showed up with his impressive 10' 1" broad jump.
He fared well in the 3-cone and shuttle drills, ranking top 10 among linebackers in both. An injury hindered his bench work at the combine, but he lifted 225, 22 times, at his pro day.
Although he brought impressive energy to the field at Maryland, one of the proven special teams veterans will probably win a free linebacker spot before Fokou gets a shot.
Longshot Free Agent Linebacker: Charleston Hughes
Preliminarily a middle linebacker prospect, Hughes enjoyed a great 2008 season in the CFL after playing 2007 semi-pro football in Michigan. It would be a tremendous opportunity for this young man to make a practice squad and someday earn the chance to play on Sunday in the NFL.
Special Teams Linebackers: Tank Daniels and Tracey White
Daniels and White are proven special teams studs that provide depth at the thin strong side linebacker position.
Daniels, White and Mays would be incredible on the kick coverage team. They will get their opportunity to compete for a better job in camp.
A Last Look at Linebacker
The starting linebackers: Bradley, Gocong, Jordan and Gaither; only produced one interception, five and a half sacks and three forced fumbles. Without much flash, they covered and tackled fairly well.
As the 2008 season progressed, the defense continued to climb the ranking charts. The improvement on defense is easily correlated to the improved game play of the linebackers, particularly in coverage.
The Eagles will likely keep six linebackers on the active roster. Bradley, Gocong, Mays, Gaither and Jordan will almost certainly all make the team. Smith could make the team as a defensive end, linebacker or both.
An interesting point about Bryan Smith and Joe Mays is that in 2008, both players were the top rated small school outside and inside linebacker prospects respectively.
Either Tank Daniels or Tracey White are almost assured a spot for their special teams experience. Since good special teams players are out of their minds, they are always fun to watch when they get in for a live defensive play.
Fokou and Hughes have an outside chance of earning a spot on the linebacker squad with outstanding special teams play. It all remains to be seen. What these guys will do is completely unknown.
Fokou's athleticism measures well even if he is undersized and he was also fairly productive in college.
There is a lot of emerging and unrealized talent in this linebacking group, but it's Philly and patience is a rare virtue around these parts. The guys are young and settling-in. They will improve, notwithstanding some more growing pains.
If they do not really break out in 2009, there will be some serious disappointment among Eagle fans and probably coaches as well. There will be plenty of "I told you so" and more.
There are, however, a multitude of reasons to believe that these linebackers will fully mature as a unit in front of our eyes.