If there’s one word that has been prominently associated with the Philadelphia Eagles in the last 12 months, it’s versatility. The NFL is ever-changing and on Offenses across the league, players who can hurt Defenses is more than one way, or force them to account for a different kind of weapon. Christian McCaffrey for instance soared up draft boards this year before being plucked by the Carolina Panthers. Teams are constantly trying to find new ways to catch opposing coordinators off-guard, but for the Eagles…that change is happening on Defense as well, with one position in particular being a focus; Linebacker.
On the surface, the Eagles have one of the most impressive linebacker duos in the NFL. Jordan Hicks exploded in his sophomore year, finally taking over the kingdom that DeMeco Ryans left behind. 85 tackles and 5 interceptions don’t do the incredible campaign justice, but his partner in crime wasn’t far behind. With 102 tackles and a pick to his name, Nigel Bradham led the team in tackles…and his closest competition? Jordan Hicks. The two emerged as a ruthless tandem who could hit hard, cover cleanly, and anchor down the middle of the field. It’s that word “cover” that’s so important to the group moving forward. A group that’s light on depth.
When asked about how the linebacker position has changed after a Training Camp practice, Schwartz opened up on just what Defenses are having to account for now, highlighting why coverage prowess is so important in a 4-3 scheme:
“…It’s not just those guys. It’s not just the running backs that are threats in the pass game, but it’s also the proliferation of the wide receiver tight end.” Schwartz said. “You know, those guys. You know, it’s just, it puts an emphasis on multi-dimension on players. It’s hard to be a one-trick pony in the NFL. It’s hard to be a run stopper. You don’t control whether it’s a run or a pass, so you have to be a multi-dimensional player on defense.”
Those dual-threat running backs, prolific wide receivers, and explosive tight ends? All of them just so happen to be lining up against the Eagles Defense each and every day throughout Training Camp. If Iron sharpens Iron, a light Eagles linebacker corps is going to be put to the test over the next few weeks.
One of the most intriguing additions during the NFL Draft, was former Nebraska Safety, Nate Gerry. At 6’2″, 218 lbs, Gerry has the thickness of a linebacker, with the ball skills and athleticism of a Safety. Totaling 13 interceptions during his last three years with the team Gerry amassed 68 tackles last year, but he isn’t the only linebacker that Schwartz is keeping his eye on.
“We have a guy like that here also in [LB] Kamu [Grugier-Hill]. He was a safety at Eastern Illinois and he’s got some hybrid abilities to him. As much as the run game is important, match-ups in the pass game are extremely important. I don’t think you have to look farther than the Super Bowl to see that, how many catches — I think was it [Patriots RB] James White, he had like a million catches. Your ability to have guys that can match that up is an important thing. Like I said, defensively, we can call defenses, but we don’t control whether it’s a run or pass. And the thing is, really, now, even the offensive coordinator doesn’t control if it’s a run or a pass, because there are so many built in RPOs, that if there are bad looks, they can have a run called. If it’s a bad look to run into, they’re ripping the ball out somewhere. So it forces you to defend the entire width of the field defensively and makes match-ups even that much more important.”
The focus on coverage is prominent…and it largely explains why Mychal Kendricks played in just 26.8% of defensive snaps alst year.
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 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.
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. But without an option who could consistently provide that comfort, the Eagles turned to their secondary for help.
One year and a declined trade request from Mychal Kendricks later, the Eagles are in a spot of need and competition at linebacker. There’s a clear battle for supremacy…but there’s one more area that’s crucial to a player sat as a backup on the sidelines, special teams. Something Schwartz would again allude to in his press conference:
“Yeah, you know, I don’t want to speak for [Eagles special teams coordinator Dave] Fipp, but obviously special teams is a big part of that equation. Probably about, I don’t know, league wide 65, 70 percent of the game is played out of three wide receivers now. There are some games — we played the Giants, there were three wide receivers the entire game, including third-and-one and goal line. So that third linebacker that might not be getting the base snaps that he used to get has to bring something to the party, and a lot of times that’s special teams. Those young guys, they got to find a way to be productive in that. Plus, the other thing that happens, as far as substitution goes, a lot of these teams, and I’ll mention the Giants again, they make it very difficult to sub, because they’re up on the ball every snap. If you try to sub, they’re going to snap the ball and you are going to get caught with too many guys on the field.”
The Eagles themselves dabbled with some up-tempo offense last year, and every obstacle that Schwartz mentioned, will be encountered during the next few weeks at the NovaCare Complex in its rawest form. However if it’s special teams that are going to play such a vital role in that positional battle, we need only to look to the snap counts last year to gain an insight as to who may hold the keys:
The Eagles lost Bryan Braman, who in 2015 had played in 69% of special teams snaps, and in 2014 had factored in 81%. If it’s contributions to Fipp’s unit that Schwartz is looking for, then it’s Najee Goode and former Pats special teamer Kamu Grugier-Hill who carry that momentum into camp. But with the likes of Joe Walker (205 tackles during his time at Oregon) and Nate Gerry providing that coverage prowess, it’s almost a case of Fire meets Ice. Mychal Kendricks may still be left out in the Cold, but if that’s the case…who is going to step up in his absence?
“You know, the linebacker position has changed, and it’s changed because of what the offense is presenting to us.”
This is the quote that Jim Schwartz ended the discussion on linebackers with. A quote that’s so thought provoking that it brings up its own rhetoric of how the Eagles linebacker positional battle will play out. The Offense is clearly preparing the Defense to expect the unexpected and prepare for some of the most dangerous and versatile athletes and situations in the league. But do they have the personnel to do that? Training Camp and pre-season will likely give us the answers.
The NFL is ever-changing, and an intent to create a linebacker corps of coverage competency and run-stopping instincts as opposed to raw pass rushers seems to be the preference of Schwartz in his ruthless 4-3 scheme. Let the battles begin.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports