I wrote an article recently about Barrett Ruud and why he should be at the top of the Eagles’ offensive priority list, and in about the middle of it argued that linebacker was the Eagles’ greatest need, not cornerback, but did not elaborate any further than that.
If you don’t mind, that’s what I’ll be doing right now.
Anyone who believes Nnamdi Asomugha should be the number one target for the Eagles whenever free agency kicks off is more than justified in thinking that. The Eagles do, after all, need a cornerback, and Asomugha is the best in the game.
However, in Juan Castillo’s new defense, the front seven become much more important than the secondary.
It’s all going to start with the defensive line and the acquisition of Jim Washburn from the Tennessee Titans. There isn’t much dispute that Washburn is, by far, the best defensive line coach in the league and Castillo has already said he’s going to respect that and give Washburn almost full control over that unit.
What that means is a complete and total overhaul of the way the defensive line will play. Rather than chipping the offensive lineman across from them and reading run before attacking the quarterback, the ends will be crashing the pocket and the the tackles will likely be stunting and shooting the gaps.
That aggressive style of play is going to lead to a lot more sacks and big plays behind the line, but it will also leave the defense susceptible to the big play. If the line comes crashing in and over-runs the draw, or gets sucked in on a screen, there will be a lot of daylight for opposing offenses and will put a lot more pressure on the linebackers—not necessarily the secondary.
In Jim Johnson’s scheme, there was a ton of pressure on the secondary because of all the blitzing he was doing. Even the linebackers were usually coming with a full head of steam at the quarterback, so it was up to the secondary to be effective on an island and be the last line of defense.
That’s why Johnson was always given great secondaries made up of Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent and Brian Dawkins, then Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown, Dawkins, and Michael Lewis, then Asante Samuel, Brown, Dawkins, and Quintin Mikell.
It’s also why the linebacker position has not been addressed as aggressively as cornerback, safety, and the defensive line.
The secondary will obviously play an incredibly important role in Castillo’s new defense, but more emphasis will be put on the linebackers to be play-makers rather than the cornerbacks.
It also seems to be continuously forgotten that the Eagles already employ one of the best cornerbacks in the business, and the guy next to him does not necessarily have to be a superstar as well.
The Eagles can no longer afford to use stop-gap players, like Ernie Sims, or guys who have hit their ceiling at average, like Moise Fokou Chris Gocong before he was bounced to Cleveland. If Castillo’s defense is going to be successful, the Eagles will need sure tacklers there to clean up any messes and guys who can fly around and make plays should the defensive line miss their mark.
Should linebacker be the Eagles' top priority?
I know I’m talking about the defensive line a lot while at the same time saying linebacker should be the No. 1 priority.
The only reason for that is because I believe there’s enough talent on the defensive line already. I believe the Eagles are set at tackle, as I have full faith in Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley as the starters, with Trevor Laws and Antonio Dixon making great backups and rotation players.
Defensive end is a bit of a question mark, with Brandon Graham still recovering from a torn ACL, but even that is in good enough shape with Trent Cole manning the right side and guys like Juqua Parker and Darryl Tapp possibly coming together as the rotation on the left side. That leaves question marks in Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, Ricky Sapp, Victor Abiamiri, and Graham as the backups, but there’s a good chance the Eagles go out and sign Jason Babin and end any worries about defensive end.
So with that in mind, linebacker becomes the next important piece.
It will be important to get a starting-caliber right cornerback, but that can be addressed after the linebacking corps are in place. Contrary to popular belief, there are a handful of guys who could step in at cornerback and would be much more highly-touted in any other offseason that didn’t include Asomugha as a free agent, but the market for linebackers is much more thin and will have to be picked immediately.
Signing Asomugha would obviously be a great help and would make the defense exponentially better, but heading into the season with the current group of linebackers will leave people scratching their head and wondering why the Eagles’ defense still isn’t performing up to paper expectations.