The penultimate article in our eight part OTA preview series examines a position of strength for the Eagles, but also one of little depth. The two Linebacker starting roles that are cemented belong to the tandem of Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks, but beyond that..it’s anyone’s guess. With a Safety moving down into the box, and an underdog not to be forgotten..the offseason will be crucial for the Eagles linebackers, and the hard work starts on May 23rd.
Can Kendricks relight a candle that’s burning out?
After a tough end to Training Camp, Mychal Kendricks found his role diminished in the Eagles Defense after playing in a meaningless fourth preseason game. With his marginal coverage skillset working against him, as opposed to his pass rush promise emerging, Kendricks spent most of last year on the sideline, with the Eagles instead opting to use Malcolm Jenkins in a nickel formation when Ron Brooks went down with injury.
After months of being subjected to trade speculation, Kendricks simply has to prove a point this season..and with no certainty beyond Bradham and Hicks, the jury is out.
For the first time in his career, Kendricks NEEDS to have a simply stunning OTA period if he is to have any chance of increasing his role on the Eagles Defense. The Birds have some interesting options beneath him, and some dominant leaders above.,,which means the once cherished pass rusher is now in limbo…and a limbo he simply needs to push through.
The forgotten underdog:
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.
Walker will enter this season with a HUGE chip on his shoulder and with that all important third LB role up for grabs, will no doubt be licking his lips at the chance to make a huge impact on Jim Schwartz. OTA’s are the perfect opportunity to set a stern one, and Walker simply has to pick up from where he left off prior to the injury.
How will Nate Gerry fare?
One of the most intriguing prospects coming into OTA’s, is linebacker Nate Gerry. After being named third-team All-Big Ten in 2016, with 68 tackles, four picks and eight pass breakups, Gerry looked set to compete at the next level. His 6’2, 218 lbs, frame certainly fits a DB prototype..but the Eagles seem intent to move him to linebacker and play him inside the box.
The Eagles were notably thin at linebacker coming into the draft, and it’s interesting that they didn’t actually draft one, instead deciding to kill two birds with one stone. It will be exciting to see where Gerry lines up during the course of OTA’s. Will he be an every-down linebacker, a situational in-the-box force, or simply start at Safety until he drops down in transition? Gerry looks to be an exciting toy for Jim Schwartz to play with, but it will fun to see how he’s utilized during his first real camp as an Eagle.
The elimination chamber:
Beyond the aforementioned names, the Eagles actually have a slew of talent looking to force their way into Schwartz’s mold. From last year’s local kid who stuck onto the practice squad, Don Cherry, to the returning Kamu Grugier-Hill who proved himself to be quite the asset on special teams last year, if the Eagles do intend on carrying four linebackers, then there’s a very good chance that one of these guys will earn that spot.
Steven Daniels joins the corp as a wildcard who simply shouldn’t be overlooked, while Najee Goode’s special teams presence is still heavily felt by Dave Fipp. Although the Eagles are light and undecided at the position, there is a LOT of competition to be had..and it all starts when the green flag drops for OTA’s.
When Simba took control of the Animal Kingdom:
Jordan Hicks built on what was sure to be a “Defensive Rookie Of The Year” campaign by posting a simply stunning season under Jim Schwartz. Not only that, but he really emerged as a vocal leader in a unit that not only lacked continuity, but numbers. Stephen Tulloch acted as the savvy veteran, but it was Hicks who made play after play, backing it up on the sidelines and in the locker room…truly taking over the Animal Kingdom.
This year, with Tulloch gone and the writing on the wall becoming more and more prominent, a very young and hungry linebacker corps will look for a leader..and that man will be the former Texas Longhorn. While many will look to see how Hicks performs during team activities, I cannot wait to see the impact he has on the players around him, and whether or not he can continue to lift the position and really take over the reins that DeMeco Ryans left behind.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports