Eagles may be stuck in linebacker limbo, but solidifying safety depth holds keys to success

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“You know, the linebacker position has changed, and it’s changed because of what the offense is presenting to us.” A Jim Schwartz quote from last season that rings louder than ever at the end of May one year later.

It was a strange week for the Philadelphia Eagles. In the space of 24 hours, veteran linebacker Paul Worrilow tore his ACL, Mychal Kendricks was released and Brian Dawkins announced he’d be leaving his full-time role with the team. There’s never a dull moment in the City of Brotherly Love, but there are now several questions that need answering.

Do the Eagles need to replace Mychal Kendricks? How much of a hole will Paul Worrilow leave behind? Finding answers to of these questions will be integral to the team’s defensive success, but they don’t necessarily have to come at the linebacker position.

The Eagles do have a flurry of developmental talent at the position and while few may be ready for a full-time starting role, the Birds’ wouldn’t need any of their current players to take that leap right away, at least at OLB.

Do the Eagles need to go out of their way to find a replacement for Mychal Kendricks?

Kendricks was likely going to see a decrease in snaps with the return of Jordan Hicks and if that was the case, paying $8M for a player who would be on the field less than 30% of the time didn’t make a tremendous amount of sense. However, the hole behind Jordan Hicks could be a little more frightening.

Hicks has only completed one full season of football since being drafted in the third round of 2014 NFL Draft. He fell into the lap of Chip Kelly to begin with due to severe injury concerns coming out of Texas. With Worrilow out for the season, if Hicks were to go down with an injury in his contract year, the Eagles are without some much needed starting caliber talent to step up to the plate.

What is interesting is that aside from the signing of Kyle Wilson, an undrafted linebacker out of Arkansas State, all seems to be quiet on the Western Front. The reason could be to do with the fact that both Howie Roseman and Jim Schwartz have a plan after all.

The picture at Safety is just as interesting for the Super Bowl champions. On the surface, a starting tandem of Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod seems lethal, but it was the combination of Jaylen Watkins and Corey Graham (who combined for 51% of defensive snaps last year), that made them so dominant.

Of the 948 snaps played by two-time Super Bowl Champion, Malcolm Jenkins, 42% of them were at linebacker, or inside the box. You may be wondering why this is important.

1) Jenkins almost acted as a third linebacker at times. Whether he was rushing the passer, blowing up the run-game or covering tight ends, the veteran Safety was the perfect versatile weapon for Jim Schwartz and his role only increased when there was added pressure on the linebacker corps.

2) While Jenkins was causing havoc inside the box, Corey Graham and Jaylen Watkins were holding the fort over the top, hence their high snap counts and an emphasis on safety depth. Watkins found greener pastures in L.A and Graham now remains unsigned.

3) Nigel Bradham stepped up emphatically in 2017, calling signals for the defense and very much becoming the heartbeat of the team. Kendricks had a great season, but with Joe Walker, Najee Goode and Dannell Ellerbe all playing minimally in comparison, it really showed just how much weight was put on the shoulders of Jenkins in comparison.

So, why does this matter?

The Eagles currently have an open competition for the recently vacated third and fourth Safety roles. Tre Sullivan and Jeremy Reaves may well be the two leading names at such an early stage, but it would be too early to rule out a cornerback looking to escape the congestion in the room, just as Jaylen Watkins did back in 2015, beating out Blake Countess for a spot on the roster.

If the Eagles are unable to find reliable players to assume those key roles, Jenkins will be pinned back on the top line, which is absolutely fine, except he plays incredibly well inside the box. The Eagles have also shown an intent to bring in ‘hybrid’ talent in the vein of Jenkins, or even former Eagle Kurt Coleman. The desire to run nickel looks and have versatile defensive backs who can pack a punch has only been emphasized in the last year, with the drafting of Nate Gerry and potentially Avonte Maddox, who had 7 sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss during his time at Pitt.

The Eagles scheme calls for a lot of 5-DB formations, meaning nickel situations and man-coverage throughout the game. In 2016, the team spent roughly 70% of last season in the nickel formation, which largely explains why Mychal Kendricks saw his role became marginalized. One year later, injuries and such enabled the exciting resurgence to come to fruition, but that ceiling was lowered with the return of Hicks. Versatility and explosiveness is what Schwartz covets and the prototype for that skillset is Malcolm Jenkins.

“He’s played that spot in all our coverages anyway.” Schwartz mentioned when discussing the impact Jenkins has had last 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.”

It’s very rarely that all three linebackers will be on the field at the same time for the Eagles, who have found great success by utilizing their inherent depth at the defensive back position. As the NFL changes and offenses continue to demand more and more out of the modern day linebacker, those ‘do-it-all’ players become even more valuable.

Should Gerry step up to the plate after carving his niche on special teams and beyond during his rookie year, or Maddox prove himself just as explosive lining up as an outside linebacker, then the Eagles won’t really need to panic about replacing Jenkins. If either of these players can shine, it relieves weight off both the linebacker and safety position, both of which are light on depth.

Alternatively, solidifying the Safety role will free Jenkins up to come firing down into the box as he did one season ago, lightening in the load for the dominant duo of Hicks and Bradham, eradicating the void left by Mychal Kendricks and allowing Rodney McLeod to roam free with help by his side.

Losing Mychal Kendricks will undoubtedly sting the Eagles. But whether it’s through bolstering the Safety position, letting the existing depth battle it out, or adding some extra ‘hybrid’ players to their arsenal, solidifying the Safety spot holds all of the answers when it comes to negating that loss.

 

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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