An in-depth look at the linebacker prospects Eagles could draft with 32nd overall pick

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Now that the confetti has settled and the Super Bowl hangover has worn off, the Eagles are beginning a journey to become back-to-back Super Bowl Champions.

With the 32nd pick in the NFL draft, the Eagles will have an abundant amount of options available to them. Depending on how the rest of free agency plays out, and on how the team perceives and prioritizes its own needs, the Eagles will more than likely be addressing one of the following positions in the first round of the draft:

  • Offensive Tackle
  • Linebacker
  • Defensive Lineman
  • Safety
  • Wide Receiver

Philadelphia will strive to maintain their Super Bowl-caliber roster via free agency, trades and the draft. While the Eagles’ cap situation isn’t in the best shape, there is little doubt that Howie Roseman is behind the scenes working his magic to re-structure deals and the like to help clear up space (i.e. Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz). Nonetheless, Philly will have some tough decisions to make as they try to work out cheap deals and make their roster cuts during the offseason. Although most of the Eagles’ Super Bowl roster will remain intact, a few of the team’s core players have already left in free agency or became cap casualties.

NOTABLE LOSSES

  • Patrick Robinson
  • Trey Burton
  • Beau Allen
  • Brent Celek

Yes, the Birds have lost some valuable players that played crucial roles down the stretch during their Super Bowl run. While that may be true, it isn’t all bad news. The Eagles were able to sign veteran LB Nigel Bradham to a five-year deal.

It’s undeniable that Nigel Bradham played a crucial role in Philly winning the Super Bowl. After Jordan Hicks went down with a season-ending Achilles injury in week seven, the seven-year vet stepped into the MLB position, and became the field general the defense needed to ascend to the promise land.

Should Bradham have been released or traded, the Eagles would’ve been very thin at linebacker. Philly was extremely wise to lock up a player with Bradham’s production and positional versatility.

The team didn’t stop there, though. They also signed LB Cory Nelson to a one-year deal. While not many Eagles’ fans know his name, Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas must have seen enough from the speedy linebacker to bring him in. Nelson is likely to compete with [or replace] Mychal Kendricks on the team’s roster.

With the signing of Nelson and re-signing of Bradham, the Eagles have done some work to stabilize the linebacker position. Even then, come draft night when the Eagles are on the clock at 32, it’s likely that the best overall talent remaining on the board could be a linebacker.

Let’s dive into a couple LB prospects who could make sense for the Eagles at pick 32.

The three LB names I’ve been hearing linked to the Eagles at 32 are:

  • Rashaan Evans, Alabama
  • Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
  • Malik Jefferson, Texas

There is a lot to like about each of these linebacker prospects, as they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Firstly, with Hicks and Bradham returning in 2018, DC Jim Schwartz will likely be looking for a linebacker that can play outside in his base 4-3. But as we all know too well, due to Jordan Hicks’ injury history, the Eagles need to do their due diligence in making sure they select a linebacker that has some positional versatility like Bradham provided them this past season.

 

Rashaan Evans, Alabama
Rashaan Evans out of Alabama is a very intriguing prospect. There are few – if any – linebackers in the class with the sideline-to-sideline athleticism that Evans possesses. While his ceiling is extremely high, Evans is still a raw product in terms of his coverage skills. The development of his coverage ability is something to keep an eye on and may very well ultimately determine his value in the NFL. Although Evans’ coverage ability is raw, his ability as a pass-rusher on the blitz will provide an immediate impact for the team that drafts him.

Rashaan Evans has exceptional speed, athleticism, agility, size and just overall athletic talent; however, while he has been consistent against the run and on the blitz, he will take some time working to stand out in coverage.

Although an un-finished product, Evans arguably has the most upside of any linebacker in the draft. If the Eagles select him at 32, he should be able to contribute early on as a pass-rusher and as a run-stopper. His development in coverage will ultimately determine his true ceiling as a player.

 

Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
In his first year starting for the Broncos, Leighton Vander Esch propelled himself into the national contention of elite linebackers. He may actually be a safer pick than Evans, due to his well-rounded game. According to PFF, Vander Esch led all FBS linebackers in both run-stops (57) and run-stop percentage (15.9 percent).

Vander Esch seemingly went from a no-name, spot-duty player to an elite first-round prospect overnight. At 6’4”, he’s got the size and length to not only play the run effectively well, but he has the potential to matchup on opposing tight ends.

Between the physical skillset, character makeup, and tape, it’s safe to say Vander Esch is garnering first-round consideration. Although he’s a bit inexperienced, Vander Esch possesses the kind of underdog mentality that led to him walking on at Boise State, and eventually, paved his way to the NFL. He looks like a true three-down linebacker that could serve the Eagles very well.

 

Malik Jefferson, Texas
A former High School Butkus Award winner, Malik Jefferson was once one of the best recruits in the nation. Jefferson is no doubt built like a modern-day NFL linebacker with his long, athletic frame. While Jefferson has the desired combination of height, weight, and speed that teams covet, his on-field production never quite matched his athletic traits.

If the Eagles are considering drafting Jefferson, they will be getting a player that is substantially better when he is coming toward the ball rather than dropping back. Even with all of the athleticism and measurables in the world, it still takes incredible instincts and demeanor to play linebacker in the NFL; the likes of which Jefferson seems to lack when forced to play in space and away from the line of scrimmage.

When it’s all said and done, Jefferson needs to be utilized as an “attack” linebacker. Similar to Rashaan Evans, it’s easy to see these two being two-down linebackers that attack instead of process and react. Jefferson clearly has the athleticism to become more, but if he remains limited and uncomfortable when covering in space, he will be restricted to a two-down role despite his potential to be a three-down star.

 

Combine Results
*Highlighted stats are best of the three prospects*

Prior to the combine, plenty of scouts thought Evans was going to test off-the-charts. The same can be said of Jefferson, too. While both Evans and Jefferson tested well more or less, Vander Esch stole the show.

Vander Esch beat out Evans and Jefferson in the following categories:

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Wingspan
  • Arm Length
  • Vertical Jump
  • 3-Cone Drill
  • 20-Yard Shuttle
  • 60-Yard Shuttle

Vander Esch narrowly beat out Evans and Jefferson in overall PFF Grade in 2017, but all three linebackers graded out in the top six in the nation.

Over the course of the last few days, the franchise has made moves to help the linebacker position and very well could look to help the position more come draft night. Depending on who you talk to, all three of these linebacker prospects could fit in nicely with the Eagles.

The Eagles have positioned their roster very well over the last couple of years and now have the luxury of taking the best player available on draft night. There’s a good chance the top player left at 32 is a linebacker and if that’s the case, it wouldn’t hurt to double down at the position.

 

Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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