The next few months are set to be some of the most pivotal in recent history for the Philadelphia Eagles, who are tasked with giving second year quarterback Carson Wentz as much help possible to compete for the NFC East crown in 2017. From WR to CB, there are some prominent holes that need filling..but it’s the linebacker position that seems to be labelled with a huge question mark.
Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks emerged as two of the most pivotal players on the Eagles Defense this season, while Stephen Tulloch earned $3M for just 6.8% of defensive snaps. Mychal Kendricks saw his role dramatically reduced after missing some vital preseason football, being forced into playing the “meaningless” final game. A failure to establish consistency in the early stages of 2016 under Jim Schwartz saw the team rely on their nickel package far more often, using just two linebackers.
With the veteran Stephen Tulloch likely retiring and Mychal Kendricks being reduced to auditioning for the vacant long-snapper role following an injury to Jon Dorenbos, the Eagles could potentially have just two linebackers heading into 2017, elevating a need to bolster the position in the Draft..or does it?
One player forgotten by many, was selected by the Eagles in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Former Oregon Ducks linebacker, Joe Walker. He ended his 2015 campaign leading the Oregon Ducks in tackles with 87 and recorded 6 for a loss as well as 2 sacks. He may not have the best size for the position, but a 40-yard dash time of 4.56 and a 6’2, 236 pound frame make him incredibly elusive. In a very gritty and aggressive system implemented by Jim Schwartz, Walker stood out in Training camp and flashed during his first taste of preseason action, before a torn-ACL saw him watch the 2016 season from the sidelines.
If there was one area in which the Eagles lacked severely last season, it was coverage linebackers..as proven by the lack of action seen by Mychal Kendricks, who struggles massively in playing side-to-side. It’s a role that both Bradham and Hicks fill well, but the Eagles need re-enforcements if they are to send more men after the ball.
The main criticism of Joe Walker seemed to be his frame coming into the Draft. Much lighter than most linebackers, it was assumed that this would work against him in beating blocks in the NFL. Walker began playing for the Oregon Ducks in 2013 and showed plenty of potential during his time there. Howie Roseman was asked earlier in the year what he likes about Walker..and his response says it all:
“He’s always around the football. He’s got instincts. He might not test as well as some of the 1st/2nd round linebackers, but the kid is always around the football and he was a high level special teams player at Oregon”
Special teams, as we all know is a huge aspect of the Eagles team. Whether it’s breaking records for back-to-back games with return touchdowns or ranking as one of the top units in the league in stopping opposing units from creating big plays, hard hits and speed are two elements of Fipp’s unit that hold plenty of weight.
When it comes to being around the ball, it’s something he demonstrated perfectly during the preseason win against the Bucs. Take this rushing play for example. Walker (59) does a great job of pushing past his block and aligning his path to undercut the running back before leaping to push him out of bounds. It’s this kind of pursuit that the Eagles craved from Mychal Kendricks in 2016.
If there’s one aspect of the game where Walker’s speed helps him, it’s closing down receivers and stopping the run. The Bucs complete a huge pass down the field here and a swift move from Donteea Dye saw him get past his Rowe with ease for some extra yards. The instinct of Walker to anticipate the path of Dye, run past Rowe and straight to the top of the route to close it off was just as impressive as the speed in which he did close.
When it comes to picking up running backs in man-coverage, Walker is just as impressive. Staying light on his feet, he’s able to stay with the Bucs tailback and completely close off the chance of a checkdown, keeping his body facing his assignment and flipping his hips at the end like a cornerback to put the Cherry on the Cake.
Stopping the run game, as aforementioned, is also where Walker is incredibly effective. His size may mean that beating blocks can be difficult at times..but his burst through the trenches is beyond impressive. In this play, he was able to get into the backfield extremely quickly, locate the ball and bring down the runner for a gain of just one yard.
In 2015, the Eagles gave up more rushing yards than any other team in the league and although things started strongly under Schwartz a year later, they still ended up surrendering an average of over 100 yards on the ground per game. With Walker in the rotation and a dominant front four, Walker could well be the missing piece in creating a thunderous blitz package.
If Walker can recover fully from a torn-ACL and shake the “injury” tag that has followed him throughout his career, then there is no doubt that another strong Training camp could see him rise up the depth chart and compete for a rotational role, regardless of who the Eagles bring in to bolster the position.
The Eagles need a consistent linebacker who is consistent playing laterally, opening up avenues for Hicks and Bradham to blitz without worrying about a huge play over the middle due to a dump pass. Strong against the run and even stronger in tackling and closing down receivers, Walker’s under-the-radar play could be exactly what the Doctor ordered.
That’s not to say that the Eagles won’t bring in some help over the course of the offseason, but if a decision came down between Kendricks or Walker, you can make a very solid case for the seventh round pick who did nothing but shine during OTA’s and Training camp.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports