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Evaluating the Eagles: Part 8, Outside Linebackers

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Is Trent Cole on his way out of Philadelphia after an up and down 2013 season? Can Connor Barwin continue his solid play? Will Brandon Graham see the field more in 2014? Let's take a look.

This is part 8 of an 11 part series, this part will focus specifically on the outside linebackers on the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles and how the team can improve heading into the 2014 season. Each part will focus on a specific positional group with 11 in all (QB, RB, WR, TE, OL, DL, ILB, OLB, CB, S and ST [K, P, KR and PR]). Now let's talk Eagles' outside linebackers.

2013 Eagles' Outside Linebackers: Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham. (Travis Long and Josh Kaddu will also be discussed briefly)

How'd they do?

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Trent Cole: Ranked #7 overall 3-4 OLB according to Pro Football Focus. 9 sacks, 14 QB hits, 28 QB hurries, 2 batted passes, 40 solo tackles, 4 assisted tackles, 5 missed tackles and 42 stops in 908 snaps according to Pro Football Focus.

Also allowed 7 receptions on 8 targets (87.5 completion %) with 1 touchdown, giving up an average of 20.4 yards per reception when he was targeted according to Pro Football Focus.

In his first eight seasons with the Eagles, Trent Cole was strictly a 4-3 defensive end. He flourished at that position and was at his best when he was asked to pin his ears back and get to the quarterback. But that all changed in 2013, Cole was forced to stand up for the first time in his career as an outside linebacker in a 3-4.

Although he was still asked primarily to rush the passer from a stand-up position, Cole had to also learn to drop into coverage as well as set the edge against the run. For the first half of the season, Cole struggled a ton. He looked lost at times but continued to show a little improvement each week as he got more comfortable in his new spot.

Through the first eight weeks of the season, Cole failed to record a single sack. Which was so weird for Eagles' fans to see because that's what he's been so good at his entire career. But then, for the second half of the season, Cole went on a tear. He got his first sack of the season against the Oakland Raiders in week 9 and never looked back.

Cole then had two sacks against the Washington Redskins in week 11, two sacks and a forced fumble against the Arizona Cardinals in week 13 and finally three sacks against the Chicago Bears in week 16 under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football. Cole was back to his old self and even notched another sack in their playoff game against the New Orleans Saints.

Although he had a rough start and eventually got his old pass rushing ability back, Cole did a very good job all season against the run as well. He was great at setting the edge and then attacking the running back. But one area Cole has to work on in the off-season is his coverage. He looked absolutely lost in dropping back at times and was ranked #37 out of 42 total 3-4 OLB's in coverage according to Pro Football Focus.

If Cole can rush the passer as well as he did for the second half of the season, for all of 2014, then he may stick around. But if he continues to be up and down as a pass rusher and struggle in coverage, he may not be in Philadelphia much longer.

Overall Grade: B. Cole had an awful start to the season but eventually looked like his old self. He'll have to be more consistent next year and get better in coverage, otherwise he'll be out of Philadelphia very soon.

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Connor Barwin: Ranked #27 overall 3-4 OLB according to Pro Football Focus. 3 sacks, 7 QB hits, 32 QB hurries, 7 batted passes, 47 solo tackles, 13 assisted tackles, 5 missed tackles and 32 stops in 1,158 snaps according to Pro Football Focus.

Also allowed 18 receptions on 23 targets (78.3 completion %) with 0 touchdowns, giving up an average of 9.4 yards per reception when he was targeted. He also had 1 interception and 1 pass defended according to Pro Football Focus.

When the Eagles signed Connor Barwin as a free agent, many people questioned the signing. Barwin was coming off a down season in 2012 (3.0 sacks) after a breakout season in 2011 (11.5 sacks). But Barwin wasn't brought in to be a pass rushing outside linebacker. He was brought in because he had experience in the 3-4 defense from his time with the Houston Texans. He was a stout run defender with great size and experience in coverage as well.

Barwin was a jack of all trades because he could rush the passer, defend the run and drop back in coverage. He almost never left the field for Philadelphia since he was so versatile. Although he didn't put up a ton of sacks, Barwin was a consistent force on the Eagles' defense in 2013. He did the little things here and there that don't really get noticed by a majority of fans and viewers.

Just look at the amount of batted passes he had, 7 in total. Barwin did a great job of never giving up on a play, even if he didn't get to the quarterback, he made sure to jump up and put his hands up to swat the ball. Although, I think he learned a lot of that from playing alongside J.J. Watt in Houston.

Barwin didn't have the greatest rush numbers according to Pro Football Focus, but that wasn't what he was brought in to do. He was brought in to be a player that can do it all and that shows by his run defense and coverage rankings among other 3-4 OLB's. Barwin was #19 out of 42 players in coverage rating and #7 in run defense rating.

All in all, Barwin has one of the outside linebacker spots locked down in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future. He was a key consistent player for the Eagles' defense in 2013. Hopefully the team will bring in a solid reserve so Barwin won't have to play as many snaps in 2014, but I'm sure he'll be fine either way.

Overall Grade: A-. Barwin struggled to rush the passer but did a great job at almost everything else. He was great against the run and did a solid job in coverage as well. Barwin does all the little things incredibly well and that is exactly what the Eagles need.

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Brandon Graham: Ranked #16 overall 3-4 OLB according to Pro Football Focus. 3 sacks, 4 QB hits, 17 QB hurries, 12 solo tackles, 2 assisted tackles, 1 missed tackle and 13 stops in 331 snaps according to Pro Football Focus.

Also allowed 1 reception on 1 target (100.0 completion %) with 0 touchdowns, giving up an average of 0.0 yards per reception when he was targeted according to Pro Football Focus.

Brandon Graham was in a tough spot heading into 2013. He had a promising end to the 2012 season after finally getting a chance to start but the team was shifting to a 3-4 defense in 2013. Graham doesn't have much experience standing up so he was in a similar situation as Trent Cole was. He was at his best rushing the passer with his hand in the dirt but he doesn't have the size to be an end in a 3-4. Graham was forced to play rush outside linebacker and played limited snaps behind Cole.

Although he played just 331 defensive snaps, Graham did his best to make the most of them. He was surprisingly good against the run and was great at getting in the backfield as well. In such limited time, Graham was still able to generate 17 QB hurries and consistently drew holding penalties because he would burst past offensive linemen.

But Graham was never really asked to drop back in coverage and that was mostly because he can't. He is similar to Cole in that he is great against the run and rushing the passer but he cannot drop back and play well in coverage. He will have to work on his coverage to get consistent opportunities to play in 2014 and stay around longer.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Graham traded to a 4-3 team that needs help at defensive end. The Eagles already have Cole and his coverage deficiencies, they'll need to bring in another outside linebacker or two that can both rush the passer at a high level and hold their own in coverage.

Overall Grade: B-. Graham looked good in limited time but his inability to drop back in coverage may mean his time in Philadelphia will be up very soon.

What's next?

The Eagles currently have Travis Long and Josh Kaddu under contract but I'm not sure either will make the 2014 roster. Kaddu is a former Oregon Duck and has the size the Eagles love. He was released by the Miami Dolphins in October of 2013 but it looks like he might have a chance to make the Eagles' practice squad in 2014.

Travis Long is intriguing and I think he has a chance at making the final roster in 2014. Long was an undrafted free agent that the Eagles signed during training camp. He had a great senior year at Washington State, finishing with 9.5 sacks but suffered a torn ACL at the end of his senior season that likely left him undrafted. Long has great size at 6-4, 245 lbs. and I believe he'll be battling for a roster spot in 2014.

Although the Eagles currently have five outside linebackers on their roster, I believe it is a weakpoint besides Connor Barwin. Cole and Graham are inconsistent and lack coverage ability. Long and Kaddu are inexperienced with no real playing time in the NFL. The Eagles should be looking for more outside linebackers in both free agency and the draft.

Free Agency:

The Eagles have quite a lot of money to spend in free agency and I believe they should spend a nice chunk of it to upgrade the outside linebacker position. Before Brian Orakpo and Jason Worilds went back to their old teams, I believed they would be perfect targets for the Eagles. But here are a couple of names that I still think would fit well in Philadelphia.

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Former Minnesota Viking Everson Griffen might be listed as a defensive end but he has the size and athleticism to stand up and play outside linebacker in a 3-4. Griffen is currently 6-3, 273 lbs. and would likely have to shed a few pounds to play outside linebacker. But he has already shown an ability to rush the passer at a high level but has been stuck behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison in Minnesota. He is still young at just 26-years old and could come at a relatively cheap price. Griffen has said he wants the opportunity to stand up and rush the passer and the Eagles would certainly love allowing him to do so in Philadelphia.

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Former Seattle Seahawk O'Brien Scofield is one of my personal favorites on the free agency market. He was waived by the Cardinals in July of 2013 and I wanted the Eagles to claim him then. Philadelphia passed on him then and the Seahawks claimed him. Schofield has battled injuries throughout his career but if he's healthy, he can be a difference maker on the field.

He is great at rushing the passer with 11.5 sacks in mostly back-up roles through his four-year career. Schofield was a nine-game starter in 2012 for the Cardinals and started to have a breakout year with 34 tackles and 4 sacks but it was cut short by an ankle injury. Schofield shouldn't cost much but he'd certainly be a welcome addition to the Eagles' defense.

2014 NFL Draft:

Here is where I think there's a real possibility that the Eagles address the outside linebacker position. There are quite a few prospects that fit what the Eagles want on their defense that should be available at all different points of the draft. Here are a few names that really catch my eye.

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Bringham Young's Kyle Van Noy is a very special player. He has great size at 6-3, 243 lbs. and can do it all at the linebacker position. He can rush the passer at a high level, hold his own in coverage as well as make plays sideline to sideline against the run. What is especially intriguing about Van Noy is that he can potentially play all four linebacker spots in the 3-4. Van Noy could rotate in and out behind Cole on third down for help in coverage, he could also eventually replace DeMeco Ryans at inside linebacker as well. He is incredibly versatile which would make him a perfect fit for Philadelphia.

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Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu is a raw player that needs to improve his technique. But he is such a promising player because of his athleticism and size at 6-3, 252 lbs. Attaochu has had back to back double digit sack seasons at Georgia Tech and is great at rushing the passer. Attaochu is a violent player that really sends a message whenever he is around the ball. He doesn't have the experience in coverage that Van Noy possesses but is more athletic and better at rushing the passer. I believe the Eagles will have a hard time passing on Attaochu if he's there for them on day two of the draft.

That's all for Evaluating the Eagles: Part 8, Outside Linebackers. Be sure to check out the rest of the series in the following days leading up to free agency!

If you'd like, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @Anthony_DiBona. Thanks for reading!

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