Hicks came out of Texas as an injury-ridden, overlooked third rounder. Many criticized the pick as Hicks had trouble putting together a fully healthy season during his collegiate career. Hicks silenced all those critics as he dominated as a rookie before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury and proving it wasn’t just beginner’s luck in 2016.
As a rookie, Hicks proved to have a nose for the football. He intercepted two passes, broke up another three passes, forced one fumble and recovered three – all in just five starts. In 2016, he built on an impressive rookie campaign. He led the team with five interceptions and added another 11 pass breakups. He wasn’t as much a magnet for fumbles as he was as a rookie, just recovering one. However, Hicks has done nothing but improve since stepping on the NFL field. Look for that to continue in 2017 as he looks to establish himself as one of the best linebackers in the league.
The reason for the priority level on this position is the lack of depth. The Eagles were one injury away from a disaster at the linebacker spot. Luckily, that disaster never came.
One outside linebacker position is currently occupied by Nigel Bradham, a free agent signing from 2016. Bradham, who also had some off-field issues during the season, put together a solid season in his first as a Philadelphia Eagle. Bradham made 98 tackles with an interception, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles. The 27-year-old also added two sacks and was second on the team with 10 tackles for loss.
The other outside linebacker spot was held intermittently by Mychal Kendricks. Kendricks is a player who has been reported that the Eagles will be trying to trade this offseason. With a $6.6 million cap hit in 2016, which is scheduled to rise by $1 million each of the next two years, the Eagles would need a trade partner willing to take on that salary. Kendricks has flashed excellent potential since entering the league but has never been consistent.
His best season came in 2013, his second year in the league. Kendricks had three interceptions, four fumble recoveries and four sacks that season. Fast forward three years to this past season and Kendricks started just eight games and failed to record any interceptions. Additionally, for the first time in his career, Kendricks failed to get to the quarterback for a sack.
A Kendricks trade may not yield much in return, unless a team falls in love with his flashes of brilliance and feels that would become consistent in their defensive system.
The Eagles also have two young linebackers who will be looking to push for a starting position should Kendricks get traded. Don Cherry, a former Villanova standout, spent 2016 on the Eagles practice squad after signing on as an undrafted free agent and was signed to a futures contract following the season. Joe Walker, the Eagles seventh round pick in 2016, tore his ACL in the preseason and spent the season on IR. The rookie had six preseason tackles before his injury. Both of these linebackers are relatively unknown. They both measure in at 6-2 and 235-240 pounds apiece and will look to earn a roster position at a pretty barren position group.
The team had signed Stephen Tulloch as an insurance policy, just in case the lack of depth stung the Eagles late in the season. The veteran linebacker who spent years under Jim Schwartz earned a nice $1.75M paycheck..but played in jut 6% of snaps. It’s unlikely that he will be bought back moving forward given his durability concerns, but this could also leave the Eagles light on depth should they decide to move on from Mychal Kendricks too.
The Eagles played a lot of downs with just two linebackers in 2016. With Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin transitioning back to defensive line after a few seasons at linebacker, they were often in a two-point stance, serving as a rushing linebacker. The Eagles felt so poorly about Kendricks’ play that they felt they were better off with him off the field. He played just 26.8 percent of the snaps to Bradham’s 97.1 and Hicks’ 95.2.
The Eagles will likely address the linebacker position on day three and perhaps in free agency. If Kendricks is traded, the priority level will go from medium high to high.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports