Drafting a linebacker early makes sense for the Eagles..but are they leaning that way?

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As the NFL Draft draws nearer and nearer, the excitement surrounding who the Eagles will take in the first round continues to build. The Birds are in a position to potentially take the best player available in a class that is absolutely loaded with talent. Could it be a cornerback taken at number 14, or potentially a running back? While these are two of the most commonly linked positions given the Eagles need for long-term playmakers at both, there is one underrated position of need that is only growing in prominence as the offseason progresses. Linebacker.

Although it’s one of the strongest overall positions on the roster, depth is incredibly light. Jordan Hicks emerged as a true leader of the Eagles Defense in 2016, following up a stunning rookie campaign that was cut short, with an even more impressive first season under Jim Schwartz. 85 tackles and 5 interceptions still don’t justify how crucial Jordan Hicks was to the success of the Eagles Defense.

Alongside him, free agency addition Nigel Bradham proved to be one of the most underrated players on the roster. Offseason issues aside, Bradham went on to record 102 tackles in his first season as an Eagle, just 2 short of his career best that was also recorded under Schwartz. Add to that 2 forced fumbles and 2 sacks..and his impact becomes crystal clear.

The combination of Bradham and Hicks made for a stern run Defense at the second level and added the side-to-side coverage ability that Schwartz covets. The athleticism of the pair made life incredibly difficult for offensive coordinators to account for. Both linebackers were just as dangerous in zonal looks, as they were identifying the running back and blitzing the quarterback.

The problem clearly isn’t starting quality..but more the concerns over what should happen if one of the linebackers go down. Prior to 2016, neither Hicks nor Bradham had completed a full 16 game season without an injury of some kind..and Hicks had his draft stock hampered by an injury suffered at Texas, seeing him fall straight into the laps of the Eagles in the third round.

As it stands, the Eagles have just two other linebackers on the roster. Mychal Kendricks and last year’s seventh round pick, Joe Walker. Kendricks has been consistently shopped by the Eagles since the end of last offseason, but his future had been painted long before the final snaps of 2016.

Kendricks suffered an injury setback in preseason, leaving the Eagles with a decision. Do they cement his starting role in the 4-3, or instead allow him to compete in the fourth preseason game that many regard as “meaningless” for starters. The writing was on the wall..but Kendricks only helped add the finishing touches as the season progressed. An inability play laterally and consistent inconsistencies saw the Eagles instead opt to rely on their nickel formation more and more. Playing in just 26.8% of snaps, Kendricks became expendable to the new 4-3 Jim Schwartz system.

Upon the injury of Ron Brooks, it would be veteran Safety, Malcolm Jenkins who would take on those duties..leaving the last line of defense down to Rodney McLeod and Jaylen Watkins, who had only just recently converted from cornerback in order to compete for a roster spot. It’s safe to say that the Eagles reason for not utilizing 3 linebackers more often was not because they preferred using nickel formations, adding even more pressure to a cornerback corps struggling already, but instead due to having their hands forced into choosing the more reliable option, a slot cornerback.

Then there’s the curious case of Stephen Tulloch. Bought in shortly after the injury that cut Joe Walker’s season short before it even began, the former Detroit Lion followed Jim Schwartz to Philadelphia, having played under him in Tennessee where he was drafted, and 3 seasons as a Lion while Schwartz took on the Head Coach role. The veteran presence was certainly felt, but not on the field. The Eagles payed Tulloch $3M, with $1.75M guaranteed to play in 6.8% of defensive snaps.

Tulloch is now a free agent and it’s widely speculated that Kendricks will be released if no suitable trade partner can be found. That leaves just Hicks,Bradham and Walker to fly for the flag.

Walker 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. As much upside as Joe Walker brings to the table and as much potential as he flashed in preseason, the need for reliable starting talent to bolster one of the most athletically explosive linebacker cores in the NFL is crystal clear.

It’s also no coincidence that of the Eagles eleven reported pre draft visits so far, three of them have been linebackers. That trend also runs back to player meetings at the combine, in which the Eagles met with three more. Here’s a list of linebackers that the Eagles have met with so far, be it at the combine, or otherwise.

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Of the prospects listed, it’s certainly worth noting just how many are projected to go inside the first three rounds. Even though the team will undoubtedly do their homework at every position of need, it’s interesting just how much attention has been paid to the linebacker spot at such an early stage of the offseason.

As tenacious as the Eagles pass rush is primed to become, a strong supporting cast is just as vital to the success of a rampant 4-3 Defense. Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham have laid a very strong foundation to build on and the addition of Joe Walker certainly adds a lot of intrigue to the position..but addressing the need in the early rounds of the Draft would not only solidify the position with another potential star, but relieve the pressure off of what is naturally going to be an incredibly young cornerback corps.

The Eagles are set to have their third different starting cornerback tandem in the last five years, and a lack of funds after a free agency frenzy, it’s almost indefinite that the Eagles will look to add starting talent to the outside in the early stages of the draft. Luckily for Howie Roseman and company, the draft is littered with strong cornerback talent..meaning a new young, hungry starting tandem could be extremely exciting to put together. But even so, making that transition to the NFL as easy as possible has to be a key thought.

Toward the end of the season, offenses schemed a much shorter style of passing attack against the Eagles, knowing that there was a glaring weakness at the line of scrimmage on the outside. Cornerbacks were consistently failing to jam efficiently, opening the window to wide open throwing lanes over the middle and on curls and comebacks. This also tremendously hurt the pass rush. If the ball is coming out much faster, the front seven have less time to disrupt the quarterback, creating a comfortable setting for the opposition. It was something Schwartz addressed during the latter stages of 2016.

Even if they don’t decide to add a linebacker in the first round, drafting one within the first three should absolutely be a priority, for a variety of reasons. Not only does it bolster a position where depth is minimal and longevity is a concern with injuries in mind, but it opens the door for plenty of defensive flexibility. The good news for the Eagles is, the front office already appear to have their eyes set on fulfilling that vision.

 

Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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