Are the Eagles headed for a landscape-changing crossroads at linebacker?

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The Philadelphia Eagles stride into the offseason with their first ever Lombardi Trophy held close to their chest. The ‘Post Super Bowl Brain Drain’ has already commenced, with both Frank Reich and John DeFilippo being poached by opposing teams. The next focus will be on the free agent market which is set to open in a few weeks and it’s safe to say Howie Roseman will have his hands full.

The linebacker position has been an interesting to watch this season. Jordan Hicks suffered a season-ending injury for the second time in two season’s having come out of college with those same durability concerns and perhaps the most underrated player on the team, Nigel Bradham is now set to wade through free agency waters.

Bradham led the Eagles in tackles for the second consecutive season, enjoying his two best year’s in the NFL. Bradham is the perfect Jim Schwartz prototype and having already flourished under his guidance in 2014, it was always likely Bradham was going to enjoy that same success. But with -$9m in cap space, it’s not like the Eagles are in a great place to offer the big-money that the FSU product deserves.

To make things even tougher for Roseman, Najee Goode, Bryan Braman and Dannell Ellerbe are all at the end of their contracts in Philadelphia. This may not sound like a big deal, but both Goode and Braman have proven to be exceptional special-teamers during their time in Philadelphia, with Braman returning to the Eagles in the heart of the regular season for that reason alone.

Then of course, there’s Mychal Kendricks. There was undoubtedly tension between Kendricks and the Eagles following two full offseason of being shopped and seeing his name featured in just about every trade scenario imaginable. His role drastically diminished in 2016, but Kendricks bounced back in a remarkable way this season. After a breakout preseason that saw him catch the eyes of many, Kendricks would go on to register 77 tackles, 2 sacks and 6 passes defensed. No longer was he a liability in coverage, the Cal graduate flew around the field and was a key cog in the Eagles dominant run defense, especially post-Jordan Hicks injury.

The question for Kendricks now becomes does he want to force a move away? The chip on his shoulder was inherently clear from the moment preseason arrived, especially considering he was forced to play in the fourth preseason game just one year ago. The Eagles will have plenty of interest for Kendricks, who has two years left on his current deal and it would not be surprising to see the completely rebuild the position around Jordan Hicks.

That’s a scary prospect however. Heading into the Draft with anywhere up to five linebackers having departed the team in some way or another, in a worst-case scenario leaving them with Jordan Hicks, Nate Gerry, Kamu Grugier-Hill and Joe Walker. So what options do the Eagles have?

We learned from last offseason that Howie Roseman now wants to target free agents around the age of 27-29, with plenty of Football left under their belt. We also know that the Eagles can’t paint the illusion of cap luxury and will have their hands forced into ‘prove-it’ contracts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just ask Chris Long, Patrick Robinson and company.

Here are a few free agents that the Eagles could be looking to target:

 

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Kevin Minter
After being drafted in the second round back in 2013, the 6’0, 246 lbs linebacker became the team’s starting inside option, starting in all 16 games in back-to-back seasons. With 4 sacks and 175 tackles in that time, including 16 for a loss, Minter became a prized free agent entering last offseason.

The Bengals brought Minter in on a ‘prove-it’ deal, but he eventually landed on IR due to a hamstring injury, previously missing four games with an elbow injury. Ending his lone season in Cincinnati with 32 tackles, the 27-year old would be the perfect ‘prove-it’ candidate, however if it’s durability the Eagles want, that could be money more wisely spent.

 

Tahir Whitehead
Whitehead is a name that will be linked with the Eagles for one reason and one reason only; his time spent with Jim Schwartz. Drafted in 2012 by the Lions, Whitehead has gone on to carve quite the career. After moving back to weak side linebacker after the Lions drafted Jarrad Davis to take over the MLB role, Whitehead stunned, amassing 110 total tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception and 3 passes defensed, not to mention four recovered fumbles.

Whitehead is by no means perfect. He can struggle in coverage at times, but his tackling reliability is something that has become a standout strength. His 132 combined tackles in 2016 were the 8th most in the NFL. The beauty of this move would be that while he also fits the prototypical ‘Schwartz mold’, he wouldn’t cost top-tier money and could be a perfect replacement for Nigel Bradham.

 

 

Zack Brown
Perhaps one of the most highly touted linebackers on the market, Brown leaves the Redskins with an interesting predicament. After four years with the Titans and a brief stint in Buffalo, Brown landed in Washington and picked right up where he left off. One year removed from leading the NFL in tackles, he was on course to do just that once again before a heartbreaking season-ending injury sustained in week 14 put the brakes on that race. A 2016 Pro-Bowl selection, Brown has proven to be an exceptional run-defender which fits hand-in-hand with the team’s #1 ranked run defense. Brown is going to come at a hefty price tag.

Or so it would seem. With that in mind, Kevin Minter was still a free agent in March last year, as was Brown. While he’s deserving of a gracious payday, team’s aren’t as hasty in handing out those tasty lump sums as they are with pass-rushers: Cc Nigel Bradham.

Poaching Brown may be the move of the offseason if the Eagles could somehow find a way to get it done, but it would be anything but easy.

 

Navarro Bowman
It’s likely that the Raiders will want to retain Bowman, of course, they haven’t exactly had long to get to know him after picking the 29-year old up from San Francisco in the heart of the regular season. However, with 89 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 10 games as a Raider, Bowman adapted quickly to his new surroundings. There’s no questioning Bowman’s talent and he may be one of the higher priced linebackers in the market who is seeking a longer-term deal…but still, an option worth mentioning.

 

Demario Davis
The veteran linebacker is coming off of an astounding 171 tackle season where his 13.5 tackles for a loss led the Jets. Playing in every single defensive snap, Davis was durable, disruptive and dangerous. The man needs little introduction, but he may need a big contract if he is to take a trip up the I-95. As appealing as Davis would be, this signing is one of the more unlikely of those listed.

Then, there’s the draft itself. The Eagles are without a second/third round pick as of this article which means that if they want an impact performer, then pick #32 will likely be spent on a linebacker. Alabama’s Rashaan Evans is certainly a likely candidate for the Eagles here. With the prototypical length and speed for a modern linebacker, Evans comes from the ruthless Nick Saban defense. Starting in 12 games last year, he led the team with 74 tackles and amassed 13 TFL, 6 sacks and 3 pass breakups. It’s safe to say that Evans would be a great fit in the Philadelphia defense, but we’ll have much more on him over the coming weeks.

The Eagles need to act briskly and concisely to ensure they bolster a linebacker position that could be set to have the life sucked out of it through no fault of their own. The team-building mindset of Joe Douglas and Howie Roseman will undoubtedly be put to the test over the next few months and the fate of the linebacker position may well depend on it.

 

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Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

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