Positional Preview: Do the Eagles still need help at linebacker?

The linebacker position has been mostly overlooked in Philadelphia for the last few years. Despite the widely circulated — and completely false — rhetoric that you can win without spending at the position, the Eagles were fortunate to have a stellar cast of playmakers at their disposal in their Super Bowl-winning season. After neglecting the position for the two seasons since, Howie Roseman spent two selections on linebackers in April’s draft.

The hope is that these new faces, along with expected improvement from promising rookie T.J. Edwards and a now-healthy Nate Gerry, can make up for the loss of Nigel Bradham (who has yet to be signed) and Kamu Grugier-Hill. That means there are about one thousand defensive snaps up for grabs (not including the 268 snaps played by Zach Brown). The modus operandi for the new group of linebackers is speed and athleticism. The Eagles added a bunch of plus-cover guys with sideline to sideline speed to pair with Edwards.

The conundrum for the Eagles is that their defense is not necessarily designed for linebackers to make big plays, it is predicated on them not making mistakes. The defensive line penetrates and the backers are expected to clean up or cover the passing lanes. Until forced into it last season, Jim Schwartz’s preference is generally not to blitz his linebackers.

That is why we see players like Jordan Hicks and T.J. Edwards succeed in Philadelphia. They are heady, technically sound players that may not have the athleticism that other teams covet at the position. Nate Gerry fits into that box as well, although as a converted safety he moves very well for a backer. In support, the Birds have decided to surround their new MLB of the future with as many athletes as possible.

However, the parameters to make the final cut will be the ability to limit mistakes, fill gaps and cover — not necessarily big individual plays. For those young guys on the roster, their leash will be as short as the off season.

Starters

MLB | T.J. Edwards

Try as PSN might, Edwards didn’t nearly get the credit he deserved last season. According to our film OG Thomas, he missed zero — yes you read that right, zero — tackles last season. Now, to put that into perspective, he played only 112 defensive snaps (~11%) last season. Still, a missed tackle rate of 0.0% is impressive in any context. In fact, he was the highest rated run defender in the league according to PFF, which takes limited snaps into account. Following the theme of not making mistakes, it’s easy to see why the coaching staff likes him.

As a player, he’s everything you want from a classic MLB. He has no issue taking on blocks and reads the offence effortlessly. He’s physical at the point of attack and scrapes well to fill gaps. On the other hand, he does have his athletic limitations, however a lot of the concern is overblown.

The numbers state that he has a 2nd percentile speed score, a 21st percentile burst score and a 61st percentile agility score (per PlayerProfiler). In reality, Edwards’ incredible play recognition allows him to mask much of those shortcomings. You’ll see in the clip below that he always guesses right with his first step. There is not one false step, not one over-commitment.

Still, his lack of speed and agility does show up in coverage. In zone, his football IQ does show up. He is regularly in the right place and even if he isn’t able to affect the throwing lane, he will make the tackle. Nevertheless, he will have to improve his coverage in man. Luckily, the Eagles have a ton of players on the team with great man cover skills for passing situations. The hope is that Edwards won’t have to come off the field for those downs.

WLB | Nate Gerry

Gerry’s time in Philly has been an overall disappointment, but there are reasons to believe he could play a big role in 2020. Playing through a core injury, his 2019 season was less than spectacular. Still, he absolutely deserves credit for playing 61% of defensive snaps and 74% of the team’s special teams snaps while suffering through a significant injury. His toughness should never again come into question.

Other aspects of his game are not immune from scrutiny. For every good play, there is one that is equally as awful, or downright head scratching. Now, over the course of his NFL career, he has been asked to make a difficult switch from mid-round safety to SAM to WILL to MIKE, back to WILL. That is not the recipe for success for anyone. In fact, before last season he put on 20 pounds to transition to middle linebacker, only to barely occupy that position. Clearly the coaching staff wants to find a way to get him on the field.

That is because there are some good things that Gerry does. He’s an impressive cover man, especially when tasked with tight ends. Specifically, he understands his leverage and is incredibly pesky at the catch point, despite average length. Some plays he shows great play recognition and can really make it difficult on quarterbacks in zone. He can be adept at undercutting routes and has a knack for disappearing in the fray and popping back up to disrupt the pass.

That being said, he has far too many lapses in judgement and missteps for a starting linebacker. Even in his third year, it is clear he is still new to the position. Too often he appears tentative or just lost all together. You love his ceiling, but his floor shows itself on too many occasions.

Against the run, Gerry is a bit confusing. His technique can be dreadful, but at the same time, it can really work for him. He has surprising power for his size and stature and has the ability to absolutely blow up bigger linemen. He’s best in pursuit where he can follow the flow of the play to make the tackle.

In the hole, he misses too many must-have tackles. He also can have difficulty diagnosing when close to the line of scrimmage, which truly reminds you of his safety background.

Gerry will be pencilled in as a starter and will have a relatively long leash, but with so many players behind him waiting for their turn, he will need to step it up. It seems as if Jim Schwartz really likes him, but even the DC has a limit. Regardless, he will continue to be a massive factor on special teams.

Rotational Players

Jatavis Brown

Brown is an incredible athletic specimen that was a starter for the Chargers in 2018, before watching his opportunities fall off the deep end last season. His straight line speed is off the charts. He registered a 85th percentile speed score, 74th percentile burst score according to PlayerProfiler. He’s fast, he’s strong and he has starting experience.

So, why was he available? Well, before the 2019 season, the Chargers added rookie Drue Tranquill and veteran Thomas Davis. They also wanted to pave the way for standout second year player Uchenna Nwosu to get some more experience. I think the Chargers believed that Nwosu had the highest ceiling and loved Tranquill’s ability to come in and play as a rookie. The addition of Davis, despite the fact that he can still absolutely play, seems like a move to add some experience and mentor-ship. That left Brown as the odd man out.

On paper, the Eagles made off with a steal. From 2016-2018, Brown played 55% of the Chargers defensive snaps. His athletic ability shines in coverage and he’s much more physical than other cover-first linebackers. He doesn’t shy away from contact, but can get lost in the shuffle. He’s more of a drag down tackler than a forceful one, but is slightly more consistent than Gerry in that regard.

While Gerry is the assumed starter in dime and nickel packages, expect Brown to occupy the other outside linebacker spot. It’s fair to assume we may see some rotation in terms of which player plays SAM or WILL. By the end of the season, it could very well be Edwards and Brown that are left out on the field unless Gerry is able to be more consistent.

Davion Taylor

This may come as a surprise to some, but there is a reason the Eagles spent a third round pick on Taylor and it’s not so he can sit on the practice squad. Taylor’s most glaring flaws stem from his lack of experience and he won’t get any in street clothes. Now, having a shortened off-season is a major blow for his development as a rookie. However, he has all the attributes to be an immediate factor on special teams regardless of if he is able to take any defensive snaps early on.

Taylor has an interesting story, which I touched on briefly in my instant analysis to his selection:

The big boss dog then knocked it out of the park with an in depth analysis on the young man. We see you working Liam.

If Taylor can get a quick grasp of the offense and develop his technique working through traffic, his incredible athleticism would be a welcome addition to this line-backing corps. His closing burst and coverage ability make him a perfect fit for the SAM position.

Hopefuls

Strangely enough, one of the hottest positional battles this season will be for the shot to play special teams. Alex Singleton and Duke Riley were special teams standouts for the team last year and rookie Shaun Bradley will look to challenge them for a spot on the final roster. Here’s how I see it shaking out:

Alex Singleton

Duke Riley may have played 60 more special teams snaps than Singleton last season, but the former CFL player wasn’t even on the roster until week seven. After that, there was no looking back. There’s a reason why he’s a PSN favorite and that’s because he’s simply fun to watch. He flies around the field making his presence felt. Riley might have more athleticism and time in the league, but there is no denying Singleton’s want-to.

Will he get his shot to prove he has what it takes on defense? Without injuries, it looks unlikely. Still, the Eagles certainly value their special teams’ aces and any spot on the roster is a good one to have. If the debate is who to keep for special teams, then it’s really one of preference. However, if the coaches believe they need to keep a player that could fill in, in a pinch then Riley will have the edge due to his NFL experience.

Duke Riley

For many of the same reasons, Riley has a big a shot as Singleton to make the final roster. As previously mentioned, he does have the edge in terms of playing experience. His athletic profile is inspiring, but he does have some work to do in terms of his play strength. He can get caught up on blocks and is guilty of arm tackles. Point blank, at 6’1″, 230 lbs, you’d hope for a little more oomph in his game.

However, you definitely can see the gears turning on film. He has the football IQ to be a very serviceable replacement backer. If the team isn’t thrilled with the idea of Davion Taylor filling in, Riley might be the better 4th LB option. With his starting experience, he may have the edge over Singleton, but I do believe Singleton is the better special teams option.

Shaun Bradley

There is no doubt about Bradley’s athleticism. Temple even tried him at running back a few times in practice because he’s just that smooth. He ran a 4.51 at the combine and looked fluid in all the drills. On tape, you do see some play recognition and the wheels are turning, but he simply seems too tentative. Perhaps some time with Eagles’ linebacker coach Ken Flajole will create some improvement.

For now, Bradley will have to fight for a spot on special teams. For that role, he has plenty of competition. You could argue that Bradley is a better athlete than both Singleton and Riley, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to special teams snaps.

What I do love about Bradley is his edge. While he may not be a contributing factor this season, he is part of the growing new age of ‘backers in Philly and I’m here for it. The next crop is athletic, intelligent and nasty. I can see Jim Schwartz loving this guy, and that alone might earn him a shot at the 53.

UDFA

Dante Olson

The Birds only brought on one UDFA linebacker after drafting two. Olson was coached by the brother of Eagles’ safeties coach Tim Hauck at Montana and the Eagles were able to watch him at the Shrine game. In his final season, he was a first-team FCS All-American. He also added the Buck Buchanan Award to his resume, as the best defensive player in the FCS. He’s led the FBS and FCS in tackles in both of the last two seasons, finishing 2019 with 172. On paper, is looks as if the Eagles got a steal.

As a player, Olson’s tackling prowess comes from his Football IQ and range. He’s all over the field and has the know-how to put himself in a good position to make the play. He’s a physical tackler with good technique that loves to lay the wood and his motor never quits. However, there are some athletic limitations that will put a damper on his ceiling. He will also have to kick some bad habits he’s developed playing at the lower level. Still, as a developmental prospect, there aren’t many more accomplished than Olson. This is a fantastic practice squad pickup for the Birds.

Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Leave a Reply