Eagles could be reliant on versatility or veteran infusion at linebacker against Seahawks

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The Eagles released their final injury report of the week today, with the biggest takeaway being the questionable status of Joe Walker.

Walker has played in 14.2% of defensive snaps this year and 37.8% of special teams snaps. The former Oregon Duck’s sophomore season has seen him contribute in times of need for the Eagles, but if he’s unable to play on Sunday, their depth will once again be called into question.

In the event Walker is unable to play, the Eagles will instead turn to one of two options. First, Najee Goode. A linebacker who has played in 15% of defensive snaps and a whopping 61.9% of special teams, Goode filled in when Walker limped off the field with a stinger injury on Sunday, amassing two tackles against the Bears and helping massively in stopping the run. The second option however, is a complete wildcard.

“Joe is questionable, obviously, and he’s been progressing nicely.” Doug Pederson told reporters on Friday. “Right now at this time, he’s still learning, Dannell. Ellerbe is still kind of getting the pieces of the defense together. When you look at Joe’s productivity, he’s about 12 to 15 snaps a game in our base defense right now, so it’s not a lot, and we don’t do a ton schematically in our base. He’s still picking up some of the nuances of that, and we’ll see where he’s at again on game day.”

Ellerbe was signed by the Eagles back in November and could be set to play his first NFL game since the end of 2016. He was placed on IR due to a foot injury back in July by the New Orleans Saints. Subsequently released, Ellerbe did not catch onto another team. The 31-year old spent the last two years with the Saints, playing in 15 games and racking up four sacks in 2016. Ellerbe worked out with the Eagles just over two prior to the season-ending injury sustained by Jordan Hicks and was signed promptly after.

Signed as a UDFA by the Baltimore Ravens back in 2009, the connection to Joe Douglas shines through. The Eagles continue to build on the culture that is flourishing within the locker room. Ellerbe spent four years with the Ravens prior to bouncing to Miami and continuing his career there.

This isn’t the first time the Eagles have turned to vets for help at linebacker. Last year saw the arrival and later departure of Stephen Tulloch. Ellerbe’s presence is a little more important however. Instead of mentioning the group and helping to implement a scheme, Ellerbe could see plenty of in-game action depending on how confident the coaching staff is in his ability.

“He’s still improving.” Schwartz said earlier this week. “He got some practice time last week. I told all our guys, no matter what role you have, you’re going to have to contribute in some way. I’m confident that he’ll be ready when his time comes, whenever that is.”

The role of the middle linebacker may be even more important against a Seattle team whose leading rusher is their quarterback and who drive traffic over the middle with the powerful Jimmy Graham. If Joe Walker is absent, the Eagles will need to decide whether Najee Goode can hold the fort, allowing him to further his development with the team, or instead infuse the leadership and experience of somebody who has been there and done it. With eight years of league experience, Ellerbe is no stranger to the Seahawks or big games…and sometimes that presence is all that’s needed in tight situations.

Alternatively, the Eagles may decide to run less three linebacker sets. The versatility of Corey Graham and Jaylen Watkins has allowed Malcolm Jenkins to come down into the box and wreak havoc. Priding himself on matchups against tight ends, Jenkins is a player who commands respect wherever he lines up. It may be that the Eagles opt to run their nickel package a little more, something Schwartz has already alluded to in the past.

With 53 tackles and 2 interceptions to his name, Jenkins has enjoyed debatably the best form of his career. With a lack of middle linebacker help, the Eagles may rely on the heartbeat of their defense a little more.

“He’s played that spot in all our coverages anyway.” Schwartz mentioned when discussing the impact Jenkins has had this season a little while ago. “It’s just a different personnel group. He’s played safety for us, well-documented; he’s played nickel for us, well-documented; and he’s played the dime and he’s played sort of a linebacker-type role, so he’s a do-it-all player. He’s good in the box. He’s good in the deep part of the field. He’s a very valuable guy to have and he gives you a lot of flexibility to be able to handle things that come up within a season, within a game plan and in the course of a game.”

However the Eagles decide to approach the potential loss, the “next man up” mentality will owner again be paramount. It’s carried the Eagles this far and it’s become the heart and soul of the locker room. With Jenkins able to plug in anywhere, the potential return to the NFL for Dannell Ellerbe, and the development of Najee Goode, the Eagles have options. Which options they decide to use however will be an interesting thing to watch and a key to the game on Sunday.

 

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

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