The NFL is an ever-changing landscape. What works offensively one year, may end up costing you dearly the next and when you look closely at the most successful teams in the league, adaptation is the one thread connecting them all. The Philadelphia Eagles are no different, having caused a few head scratches when they drafted Nebraska Safety Nate Gerry in the fifth round, only to announce the pick as a linebacker. It seemed clear that the intent was to move Gerry to a linebacker spot that lacked depth, but his role is far more complex than simply dropping inside the box.
Following the arrival of Jim Schwartz, the Eagles Defense changed more than many expected. While the transition to a 4-3 saw the injection of tenacious tackling and hungry pass rushers, it was the reliance on the nickel formation that surprised many, making Mychal Kendricks seemingly expendable in the process.
When Ron Brooks went down with injury, cutting his season short, it was expected that the Eagles would roll with three linebackers on a more frequent basis. However, a lack of coverage consistency from Mychal Kendricks saw Jim Schwartz turn his back on the formerly esteemed pass rusher, instead opting to use combinations of Malcolm Jenkins and Jalen Mills in the slot to cover bigger wideouts and tight ends.
With the Eagles leaving four or five defensive backs on the field at any given time, it handed Schwartz a blessing that would later turn into a curse. The perks of running a nickel defense speak for themselves, from not having to rotate in and out of sub packages, to ensuring that there’s never a mismatch with a thicker linebacker on a receiving tight end, it ensures that the team are better prepared to deal with what Offenses throw at them. On the flip side, it does require competent coverage…something that the cornerbacks struggled with in press situations.
From a lack of aggression at the line of scrimmage to constant burns that saw the Birds give up a total of 1,024 passing yards on routes of 20 yards or more last season, the most in the NFL.The Eagles were simply stuck between a rock and a hard place. Moving forward, that chapter appears to be over…and that’s where Nate Gerry comes in.
Gerry’s position isn’t something new to the Eagles, in fact, the way they intend on utilizing his versatility is extremely reminiscent of how they used Kurt Coleman. While his time in Philadelphia was less than impressive until a 93 tackle 2012 season, the fashion in which he was used may be replicated and refined. A Safety who can hold his own in cover-2 situations and drop into the box. It’s not like Gerry will be relied on as the lone Safety, given that the tandem of Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod have the potential to be so dominant, opening up Gerry’s role massively.
The obvious dots to connect would be between the the 6’2, 218 lbs, hybrid player, and the likes of Deone Buccanon, Mark Barron, Kam Chancellor and Tyrann Mathieu. A big bodied athlete who has an eye for the football but isn’t afraid of contact and can contribute all over the defensive backfield.
In fact, it’s former Eagles Kurt Coleman who may be among the finest comparisons. He wasn’t known as a ballhawk prior to his Carolina days started, but Coleman has since been a vital cog for the Panthers, especially during their incredible 2015 campaign. Gerry meanwhile was a captain of the Nebraska Defense, totaling 13 interceptions during his last three years with the team, but like Coleman, is also a hard hitter. From an 11 tackle game against Iowa, to 68 tackles last year, Gerry simply excels when he’s closer to the Football.
Interestingly, his role may have become even clearer when he was asked about blitzing in college in the moments after being drafted by the Eagles.
“No, I didn’t blitz very much. I guess when I played for Coach Belini [former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini] my freshman and sophomore years, I blitzed a little more, but under Coach Riley [current Nebraska head coach Mike Riley] and Coach Danker [former Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker] they didn’t have me blitzing as much.”
With a 4.58 40-yard dash time under his belt and the ability to move laterally rapidly, Gerry is a threat as a coverage linebacker who can drop back, or as a defensive back who can be a threat from all angles. The Eagles hadn’t revealed which linebacker position Gerry would be competing for, but it’s clear that his versatility could be his biggest weapon.
The South Dakota native won a state title in both the 100m and 200m runs, while also being named to the all-state baseball team. It’s that level of athleticism that could see him unlock the next level of the Eagles Defense. The Birds were previously a 3-4 Defense that was primarily built with bigger inside linebackers and more bully-like edge rushers on the outside. In just one season under Schwartz, the Defense has had to adapt to a new style of play. Jordan Hicks was joined by Nigel Bradham at linebacker, while Brandon Graham flashed his true potential in his first year under the former Lions Head Coach. The drafting of Derek Barnett only further cemented the move to a leaner, meaner, green machine.
Nickel formations don’t necessarily mean that a slot cornerback is replacing a third linebacker, and given that nickel looks were used in 63% of snaps during the 2015 season, it’s clear that more and more teams are having to find ways to outshine others and force mismatch advantages. It could be that the team insert a third Safety to drop into the box, blitz from the slot, or even just have Gerry sit in the pocket between the linebackers as an extra defensive back over the middle. It’s that optionality that simply wasn’t available last year, given that Malcolm Jenkins was having to take on slot duties and Mychal Kendricks couldn’t be relied upon.
The NFL is a passing league and it always has been, but now offenses are evolving at a rapid rate. Receivers are getting quicker, (just ask John Ross) and taller, while the threats of screens and spread formations are catching defensive coordinators off guard all too often. Third and short is now a passing play on many occasions, and teams have no problem opening a drive with four wide receivers lining up. If Defenses aren’t prepared to counteract this new growing trend of explosive plays and shorter threats, then it’s simply all too easy for the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, and Carson Palmer to throw to their first read each and every time without any hassle.
Then of course, there’s the tight end. Travis Kelce, Hunter Henry and O.J Howard will be three of the names to accompany Zach Ertz of dominant tight ends to watch moving forward and like wide receivers, their role has changed hugely. Having one thumper linebacker on a tight end all game is now a huge risk. Someone like Gerry, who brings the best of both worlds means the Defense can tick more boxes without compensating elsewhere on the field.
While Gerry may start his transition learning the linebacker position, it was the Eagles secondary coach whom he met with first…which certainly says a lot about how the Eagles regard his future. For the instinctive defender, the transition is something that is going to be embraced.
“It’s going to be tough, but I think it’s going to be an easy fit for me. Like I said, I played linebacker my freshman year in college. I started half a season at linebacker and I had never played linebacker in my life [at the time]. We just had a lack of depth so the coaches asked me if I would be willing enough to switch positions and I was. I just think that it took me a week or two just to understand the scheme. But I think the transition for me is going to be just being able to communicate well with the defensive line, whereas at Nebraska I wasn’t giving a lot of directional calls to the defensive line, [I was giving more direction] to the linebackers and the secondary.”
So yes, the Eagles may view Gerry as a linebacker. But given how often the team ran the nickel in 2016, opting to actually bring down Jenkins into the slot as opposed to utilizing Mychal Kendricks, it’s safe to say the role of Gerry is reminiscent of a growing trend in the NFL. Teams want optionality and versatility. They want players who can shut down those big receiving threats without compromising in tackling or coverage. The hybrid role is one that saw Khalil Mack enjoy a scintillating campaign in Oakland a few spots down, while it’s helped create a new and vital niche for players like Deone Buccanon.
The Eagles didn’t draft a linebacker in Nate Gerry. They didn’t draft a safety in Nate Gerry. They drafted the key to unlocking the true potential of a 4-3 Defense.
Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports