Why Are the Eagles Looking at Inside Linebackers?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

During last week's Senior Bowl practices, the Eagles paid a lot of attention to inside linebackers. What is the thinking behind this?

Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans each had 100 or more total tackles, four sacks, at least two interceptions and at least five tackles-for-loss. Those are pretty impressive numbers for a starting inside linebacker duo. Eagles fans would have killed for linebackers making that many plays in recent years.

So why were the Eagles checking out inside linebackers so thoroughly down at the Senior Bowl?

There are two main reasons. First, due diligence. You never know when a player is going to get hurt or get in trouble and suddenly create a huge hole on your roster. Jason Peters got hurt in the offseason a couple of years ago and that had a devastating affect on the Eagles. Aaron Hernandez was an NFL star on the rise at this time last year. Then the bottom fell out of his world and the Patriots were missing a key offensive star.

The other issue is more specific. Ryans is slated to make $6.8 million next year. I don't need any special sources to know there is no way the Eagles will pay him that kind of money. Ryans had a good season in 2013, but he's just not the kind of player you pay that much money to.

The Eagles will likely try to get him to take a pay cut. Ryans could balk at that and if so, the Eagles need to be prepared to make inside linebacker a priority position in the draft.

Evaluating both Kendricks and Ryans is tough. They each had moments this year when they looked like Pro Bowl players. There were other times when they were less impressive, to put it mildly. Kendricks really developed as a playmaker, but his tackling is still way too erratic. He's so focused on making "wow" plays that he will turn some simple plays into "what was that crap" moments.

Kendricks has had a new position, scheme and/or coach for each of the past four seasons. 2014 will be his first chance to play the same spot in the same scheme with the same coaches in a while. That will hopefully lead to him playing more consistently. There is no question of talent with Kendricks. The coaches must get him to settle down and play more under control.

Ryans looked really good at midseason. He was a tackling machine and played the run very well. He had some punishing hits on runners and receivers. As the season wore on, Ryans seemed a bit slower and more sloppy. There was a play in the Dallas game when Dez Bryant ran away from Ryans as if he was stuck in quicksand. No one expects Ryans to stay stride-for-stride with a star receiver like Bryant, but Ryans looked like a statue on the play and that's not good.

There were also a few pass plays where Ryans seemed to leave his guy open. Without knowing the specifics of the call on that particular play it is impossible to know for sure, but Ryans was the one guy involved in several busted coverages. Fair or not, it didn't look good. The coaches will know who was definitively at fault and will hold that player accountable.

Ryans is a tricky subject because of his age and experience. He will turn 30 in July. That's bad in the sense that players start to go downhill in that age range. But his age is also a good thing because Ryans is such a respected veteran and leader. The players love him. The coaches love him, too.

This is where the coaches, scouts, Chip Kelly and Howie Roseman will have to get together and decide what Ryans value is and if now is the right time to replace him. While it may seem crazy to some, the football adage that applies to this situation is that "it is better to get rid of a player a year too soon than to keep him a year too long".

In an ideal world the Eagles would get Ryans to take a pay cut and would also be able to add a talented inside linebacker through the draft. The Eagles need more speed in the middle of the defense. Part of that will be addressed by improving safety, but having someone else to help in the nickel defense could be beneficial.

Rookie Jake Knott had some good moments in the preseason, but I don't know how high expectations are for him. Is he going to be a good backup and special teams star? Could he ever challenge for a starting spot?

Najee Goode opened some eyes with the way he played when Kendricks missed almost two full games. Goode showed the ability to be a playmaker (a sack and three pass deflections), but the Eagles still don't have a good feel for whether he can be a full-time starter. He might be able to get on the field in the nickel defense next year. Goode was a pleasant surprise.

The Eagles checked out Christian Jones, Kyle Van Noy, Lamin Barrow, and Chris Borland down in Mobile. They may have met with other players that they consider inside linebacker targets. Part of this was Rick Minter doing his job since he's the inside linebacker coach, but Minter did this with a sense of purpose, as if it was important that he seek out the players and talk to them on the field after practices.

A couple of years ago the Eagles did the same thing with defensive linemen and then ended up taking Fletcher Cox in the first round and Vinny Curry in the second.

Maybe this means something, maybe it is just the Eagles being thorough. The vibe I got is that the team could absolutely look for a young inside linebacker to add to the mix.

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