Philadelphia Eagles Position Review: The Linebackers

Randy JobstSenior Analyst IJune 23, 2011

Philadelphia Eagles Position Review: The Linebackers

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    The linebacker position for the Philadelphia Eagles going into the 2011 season is completely wide open. There are several projections for the starting three linebackers for the 2011 season. The Eagles drafted three players in the 2011 NFL Draft: Casey Matthews in the fourth round, Brian Rolle in the sixth round and Greg Lloyd in the seventh round.

    There's plenty of speed, size and intensity to go around—there just isn't a ton of experience.

    Nobody's job is safe.

    New defensive coordinator Juan Castillo had no say in what the defense did last year (as he was the offensive line coach), so none of the starting linebackers from last year have any favor with Castillo.

    This linebacking core probably has the most depth the Eagles have had since the early 1990s, but it doesn't have the experience to back it up. Three players are going to come out of training camp and preseason as starters, it's just next to impossible to project exactly which three players they will be.

Ernie Sims

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    Ernie Sims is an incredibly gifted athlete at linebacker—too bad he has absolutely no football instincts. That's the thing about the NFL, your physical ability is never enough. You have to have a high football IQ as well. Sims has never had that.

    Detroit traded him away in April of 2010, even though they weren't exactly loaded at the linebacker position. After one season in Philly, I think the Eagles organization has already seen enough from him.

    Sims is an unrestricted free agent and will most likely not be offered a contract from the Eagles. He probably won't be offered a starting job by any team—there's enough film on him to scare teams away from doing that. He could serve a backup and special teams role and try to prove himself as a starter, but as far as the Eagles go, we've seen his final game in midnight green.

Keenan Clayton

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    Keenan Clayton is the guy that I believe will win the WILL linebacker job in 2011. He may be undersized at 6'1", 229 pounds, but he has a ton of speed. Some scouts had him projected as a safety when he was drafted in 2010.

    Clayton made one start in 2010, the Week 17 backup bowl against the Cowboys. He finished the game with six tackles and one pass deflection. He also spend much of the game covering Jason Whitten and did a phenomenal  job for a rookie.

    I believe he will grow a ton in his second season. His speed will allow him to cover the entire field and he has pretty good instincts as well. He played seven games last year, mostly as a nickel-back linebacker.

    He will use the experience from 2010 along with his athletic ability to earn a starting spot in 2011. However, it won't be easy as there's a lot of competition at this position.

Brian Rolle

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    Brian Rolle was the 193rd overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. Brian Rolle will be nothing more than an afterthought as a starting linebacker due to his vertical limitations.

    Brian Rolle stands just under 5'10" and because of that most people don't believe he can be a starting linebacker at the NFL level.

    His height never held him back as the starting middle linebacker at Ohio State. He had 76 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two interceptions in his senior season.

    If you watch film or any of the Buckeyes games in 2010, height was never an issue with Rolle. If anything it was an advantage for Rolle as it made him play twice as hard as any other player on the field. I think that will be even more the case in the NFL.

    I don't think he becomes the starter right away in Philadelphia, but he definitely makes the team and will push for a starting job if the starter struggles at any time. He will be a dynamic force on special teams from day one.

    Eagles' fans, think Jason Short but a lot faster. A lot faster.  

Akeem Jordan

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    Akeem Jordan started the 2010 season as the SAM linebacker, but lost his job in Week 4 after the team's struggles with the running game. Moise Fokou replaced him and the run defense greatly improved. I think he has a shot at winning the WILL spot in 2011, but he is already off to a rocky start.

    On June 21st, he was arrested and charged with assault and battery in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The incident happened in the parking lot of a bar. He currently is an unrestricted free agent and this incident probably didn't impress Andy Reid.

    He has seen action at both outside linebacker positions and has the most experience of his competition, but he is not quite as athletic and does not possess the motor that some of the younger guys do.

    I don't see Akeem being brought back in 2011, unless new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo saw something in him in 2010 that I didn't see.

Casey Matthews

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    Matthews is everybody's man-crush in the 2011 draft. Casey Matthews impressed scouts and fans alike in his final season at Oregon in 2010. His bloodlines are pretty impressive. His grandfather, father and uncle all had great NFL careers and his brother, Clay, looks just as impressive.

    The important thing to realize about Casey is that he is not his brother. He is a 4-3 linebacker and Clay is a 3-4 edge rusher. Casey is not as big, either, at just 6'1", 232 pounds. He does have a great skill-set though.

    A lot of scouts were raving about his coverage skills. He was one of the best coverage linebackers in the draft this year. He isn't quite as fast as a Keenan Clayton, but he has a great motor. He is the anti-Ernie Sims. He isn't an athletic freak, he is a football IQ freak. His great instincts will overcome a lack of elite speed and size.

    He can play both the WILL and MIKE positions; it is still unclear which he will play in 2011. He might be a reserve in both, depending which position needs him more. He will be a standout on special teams as well.

    With Jamar Chaney and Stewart Bradley the most likely starters at the MIKE spot, he is more likely to start on the weak side, where he could be the dark horse for a starting spot. He is another player, like Rolle, that just plays so hard that you can't count him out.

Jamar Chaney

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    Jamar Chaney is a really interesting case as to where he will fit in in 2010. Chaney was the 220th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft and had to fight his way on to the team.

    In Week 14, starting MIKE linebacker Stewart Bradley dislocated his elbow in the second quarter. Chaney was thrusted into the starting lineup and took advantage of his opportunity. He finished that game with seven tackles and picked up 23 more the next two starts. All of a sudden, this former seventh-round pick went from a practice-squad candidate to the future of the defense.

    Chaney should be our starting linebacker in 2010, it's just unclear which spot. Chaney played on the weak side in his first two years at Mississippi State and was projected by some scouts as a strong side linebacker coming out of college. He has the versatility to play either linebacker spot, though he is best suited for the middle, as evidenced by his play late last season.

    If new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo liked what he saw from Chaney last year, I don't see how he doesn't get the MIKE job full time. However, they could move him to weak side (if they feel there is a greater need there) and bring back Stewart Bradley to man the middle once again. Either way, Chaney will be a starter in 2011.

Stewart Bradley

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    Stewart Bradley's situation is completely unclear. He looked like an All-Pro linebacker in 2008, tore his ACL in 2009 and looked a step slower in 2010. Jamar Chaney looked like a much better player after Stew dislocated his elbow last December, but that probably says more about Chaney's abilities than Bradley's.

    Currently, Stew is an unrestricted free agent and the Eagles have to sign him to a new deal first. If he is brought back, he could fight for his old MIKE spot back and force defensive coordinator Juan Castillo to move Chaney to the weak side. Or, Castillo could just move Stew to the strong side, where he played in college.

    The new defensive line scheme that defensive line coach Jim Washburn is bringing in, could have a huge impact on the outside linebackers in 2011. It's still unclear how guys like Keenan Clayton and Moise Fokou will play in a different scheme.

    With the defensive linemen attacking the backfield more and the linebackers taking on more linemen, it could pose a problem for undersized players like Clayton and Fokou. That's where Stew could come into play. Stew is about 20 pounds bigger than Fokou.

    Other free agency needs for the Eagles could determine Stew's fate. If the Eagles go after several big-time targets like Nnamdi Asomugha, they may want to save as much money as possible, which means Stewart will not be brought back.

Greg Lloyd, Jr.

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    Greg Lloyd, Jr., was the Eagles' 237th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. If the name sounds familiar, it should. His dad was Greg Lloyd, Sr., former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker.

    Lloyd is not a lock to make the team by any stretch, but he has a much better chance than most seventh-round picks. He suffered a torn ACL in 2009, playing for UCONN. He hasn't fully recovered from it yet, but is getting closer.

    He won't be expected to compete for a starting job in 2011, he will have to prove himself on special teams and show potential as a spot-starter as well.

    Chances are if Lloyd could have stayed healthy throughout college, he could have easily been drafted three or four rounds earlier; he could be another one of those late-round draft steals that Andy Reid and company are famous for.

    If Stewart Bradley is not brought back, Lloyd has a good shot to make the team as a backup linebacker, depending on where the Eagles want to put Casey Matthews (who can play both outside and inside linebacker).

    Greg Lloyd's performance in the East-West Shrine Game is a sign that he will be fully recovered from his knee surgery in 2009. He led the East team in tackles and helped them to a win. He looked great in the All-Star game back in January and should be even healthier five months later.

Omar Gaither

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    Let's make this quick.

    Omar Gaither is an unrestricted free agent. His play has been declining the past two years. He hasn't grown as a football player, despite getting plenty of opportunities as a starter.

    I would be shocked if he was brought back. Three linebackers taken in the draft, and another player signed before the draft, tells me that Gaither won't be back.

Moise Fokou

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    Moise Fokou is the most underrated player on the Philadelphia Eagles. It's been that way his whole football career. He played his first year of college ball at Frostburg State University. He transferred to Maryland a year later and didn't wow NFL scouts and coaches enough to be taken early in the draft; he was the 230th pick.

    Fokou started the last four games of his rookie campaign in 2009. For some reason he lost his starting job to Akeem Jordan at the start of the 2010 season. Through the first four games, the Eagles gave up 555 yards on the ground. Fokou was named the starting strong side linebacker going into Week 5. Over the next four games, the Eagels gave up just 273 rushing yards.

    Moise Fokou has proven himself to be excellent against the run, which is what you want out of your SAM linebacker. He is the clear-cut favorite to start opening week for the first time in his pro career.

    Stewart Bradley is the only guy who could potentially start over him, but the Eagles would have to sign Bradley and decide to move him to the strong side for that to happen. Bottom line, Fokou will be the starter.

Rashad Jeanty

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    Rashad Jeanty was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles last February. He spent the last four seasons with the Bengals as a special teams ace, a spot-starter and an outside linebacker.

    Jeanty broke his fibula in a playoff game with the Bengals in 2010 and was unable to pass a physical the following season. He was cut from the Bengals before the 2010 season began, on August 30th.

    Jeanty is a long shot to earn a starting role, but will be an immediate impact-player for Bobby April's special teams unit. Jeanty would also be a good backup for Moise Fokou; he has good experience as a starting outside linebacker. He isn't a lock to make the team, but he should if he is fully recovered from the injury he suffered 17 months ago.  


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    The starting three linebackers could shake out in a number of ways in 2011. A new defensive coordinator was hired who will do things quite a bit differently than the previous regime head. It's still uncertain where a number of players will be playing, as several guys can play outside and inside linebacker.

    Having said all that, I'm going to take a crack at predicting the starters.

    Kennan Clayton has looked great in his limited opportunities and his speed will help him cover backs and receivers all over the field. He gets the WILL spot.

    Jamar Chaney looked great as well in his starts in 2010, he gets the job at MIKE in 2011.

    Moise Fokou started late in 2009, but was cast aside to start the 2010 seasons; the run defense suffered the consequences. I believe Juan Castillo won't let that happen. Fokou gets the SAM job.

    A couple of these players will have to be released or let go. We have 11 guys from last year, the draft and one from the waiver wire. Ideally, seven of eight guys will make the team at linebacker in the 4-3 defense.

    Because of money being spent at other positions, Ernie Sims won't be brought back. Neither will Stewart Bradley.

    Omar Gaither is also gone.

    That leaves us with eight players.

    Greg Lloyd is the eighth man. He will make the team based on his play, as well as how many guys Andy Reid wants as linebackers.

    Whoever you believe will make the team and start, you have to realize that this is the deepest the Eagles have been at linebacker in about 20 years. They have a ton of youth and a ton of potential.

    The future is bright for the middle three.