In what may seem like "trading a restaurant steak for three frozen hamburgers," the Eagles are facing the reality of their depth at inside linebacker. After losing team leader DeMeco Ryans to a season-ending Achilles injury, the Eagles are now set to feature a ragtag rotation of Casey Matthews. Emmanuel Acho and rookie Marcus Smith II. While it's easy to find faults in Ryans' coverage ability or speed in general, he is being replaced by three unknowns.
The most experienced of the bunch, Matthews, will likely take over the starting role moving forward. While Matthews has been in Philadelphia for four seasons, he has little to show for it. Battling the lofty expectations of being a member of the famous Matthews household, the former fourth round pick has done little to inspire confidence. However, while filling in for Mychal Kendricks earlier this season, Matthews seemed to come alive and had the best two-game stretch of his career against the Rams and Giants. Still, with him now handling some of the defensive play-calling responsibilities, the added pressure may force him out of his element.
Acho is a player that has been cut in back-to-back seasons by the Eagles. While he has shown flashes in the last two preseasons and even in regular season games this year, he still remains an enigma heading into Week 10. While the rotation of Acho and Matthews proved to be a suitable replacement for Kendricks, sharing the play-calling chair for Ryans will test their mental toughness. It's fair to question the team's confidence in the pair, because it's probably a safe bet to assume that neither would on the roster if Travis Long and Najee Goode didn't get hurt.
The true wild card in all of this is first round pick Marcus Smith II. The guy seemingly can't get on the field and had his position changed in the middle of the season. While it's important to be patient with rookies, not having your first round pick available is a detriment, whether your team is 6-2 or 2-6. When guys like seventh round pick Beau Allen and undrafted journeyman Brandon Bair are piling up significantly more snaps than Smith, it's time for concern. That said, Smith II will be exclusively playing inside linebacker for the foreseeable future (quotes from Billy Davis below) and if he is to see the field, he has to show growth in his new role. Perhaps, the Ryans injury forces him on to the field and he takes advantage.
Davis: The decision to use Marcus Smith II in at ILB earlier in the year will give us a few weeks of experience in there.— Eagles Insider (@EaglesInsider) November 5, 2014
Davis: Smith II isn't playing outside right now, and the inside position will grow him and help him grow as a complete linebacker.— Eagles Insider (@EaglesInsider) November 5, 2014
Whether the unknown trio is ready for the spotlight or not, it's coming on Monday. The Eagles are a playoff contender with a prowess for stopping the run and putting up points, but they can only go as far as the collective team can take them. The MIKE role is essential to the run game and it's on the replacements to establish themselves at the center of the defense.