With the off-season acquisition of Paul Worrilow and Corey Nelson and following the loss of Mychal Kendricks, there was much speculation as to who would fill the WILL linebacker spot. That question may have been answered heading into the first game of the season, and it may not be the answer most expected. After Worrilow fell to a season ending knee injury and the team released Nelson, the race to start in place of the suspended Nigel Bradham became a tale of two former safeties. While Kamu Grugier-Hill seemed to have the inside track due to his special teams value and extra season of familiarity with the NFL, Mike Garafolo reports that it will be Nate Gerry who gets the nod for the season opener.
It’s X-factor time. #Eagles LB Nate Gerry won the team’s overall workout award this offseason, as he continues to transition from college safety to NFL LB. With Nigel Bradham suspended and Mychal Kendricks gone, Gerry gets the start against the #Falcons. pic.twitter.com/ILYGU1usnr
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) September 5, 2018
There is no guarantee that Gerry will be the starter in three linebacker sets when Bradham returns, but here’s why you should be excited about the move. First, it is not common for Jim Schwartz to heap responsibilities on young players. While his hand may have been forced given the circumstances, this is not a trial by fire team. Last season we saw Derek Barnett, Gerry, Mack Hollins, Corey Clement and young players in the secondary eased into their roles. We will most likely see the same for Dallas Goedert. Therefore, the release of Nelson — which many took to be a reflection of Nelson’s ability — speaks to the faith the coaching staff has in Nate. The former Nebraska safety has done what he has to continue to inspire this belief. As Garafolo mentions in the video above, Gerry won the team’s off-season award for weightlifting and conditioning after adding 15 pounds — going from 215 lbs to 230. This will help him fight through blocks, something he struggled with in his transition to linebacker. Physically there is not much Gerry can do to prepare himself for the position switch except to add weight. The bulk of the changeover will happen mentally.
Before we dive into what the South-Dakota native brings to the table as a linebacker, let’s look at how he fared as a safety. He was a three year starter in college, registering over 70 tackles in each of his last three seasons. He was the vocal leader of the defense and took on play calling responsibilities. Entering the 2017 draft, Gerry was Pro Football Focus’ second rated overall safety behind only first-round pick Jamal Adams. He also received a 90.7 coverage grade (2nd best among draft eligible safeties), and was the 3rd best run stopping safety in FBS. While not the most athletically gifted, Gerry is a cerebral player and has a knack for finding the football. The areas he struggled with were his back-end change of direction and recovery speed. Both of these ailments are remedied by a switch to linebacker. Being an intelligent player headed to a locker room full of successful cerebral players boded well for Gerry’s transition to a new position.
However, being a cerebral player, Gerry often relies on his instincts and is liable to make the wrong read. This happened a few times in off-season practices. Gerry himself admitted, “things happen a lot quicker when you’re close to the ball . . . playing linebacker if you make that mistake right away, you don’t have much time for error.” These mistakes were probably the cause of him being cut from the team in his rookie year — later to be put on the practice squad and promoted to the active roster. To begin year two, he found himself playing on the second-team. The young man buried himself in his playbook, and took all the reps coaches would give him. Before long he was given play-calling responsibilities on the second team and was then bumped up to first team, where he took the lion’s share of reps leading up to September. “Night and day,” said Gerry when asked about the difference between year one and year two; “I feel a lot more comfortable. I got a little bit more control this year.”
His versatility alone could earn him starting reps in year two. When Coach Schwartz was asked about the young ‘backer he stated: “Nate’s played all three linebacker positions. He’s played in nickel. He’s played in dime. He’s really done a nice job . . . he hasn’t shown that there’s anything he can’t handle from a mental standpoint.”
All it will take from here is time. He only got 20 defensive snaps all of last season. One of them is featured in the video below, where he displays textbook coverage on one of the league’s more savvy route running tight ends. Even in preseason, Gerry’s performances in his second two games were much better than the first. Facing the Browns in his third preseason game, he made a fantastic effort to reroute the receiver resulting in an Avonte Maddox interception. First of all, he is able to recognize the crossing route in the snap of a finger, meeting the receiver behind the line of scrimmage. He is then able to completely eschew a grown man with a small push. Looks like that workout warrior award is no joke.
This is Jason Witten's final target. Nate Gerry ended his career. pic.twitter.com/eKduBeS8I3
— Bo Wulf (@Bo_Wulf) April 30, 2018
Gerry’s pass coverage skills will be tested early and often against the Falcons, who have a roster filled with talented pass catchers. If he delivers, he could be in store for a rise in playing time even with Bradham returning. Howie’s may have worked his magic again, finding a versatile, intelligent linebacker disguised as a 5th round safety.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports