Continuing our review of the Eagles on a position by position basis. Today, the inside linebackers.
Numbers: 62 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 3 passes defensed, 7 hurries in 12 games
Review: The Eagles front seven was outstanding this year, and the inside linebackers were no exception. A big reason for that was the growth of Mychal Kendricks. His value to the defense was made clear when he was injured. With Kendricks out, the pass rush wasn't as effective, and teams were able to move the ball better against the Eagles. With Kendricks in the lineup, opposing teams averaged 5.3 yards per play, with Kendricks out, 5.9, a significant difference. Inconsistent in 2013, Kendricks became a complete player this year. He was effective in all phases.
Kendricks' speed and agility makes him an effective pass rusher for an ILB. He was 3rd among inside/middle linebackers in sacks in 2014.
And effective in pass coverage
And the run, where those traits translate into excellent pursuit.
Kendricks' biggest area of improvement was his tackling. He's at a significant size disadvantage to many running backs. No matter.
If Kendricks can stay healthy, 2015 could be a very big season for him.
Numbers: 36 tackles, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery in 8 games
We all know DeMeco Ryans strengths and weaknesses. He's limited in pass coverage and in the pass rush, but is very strong against the run. He'll be 31 and coming off a major injury, and having suffered a previous similar injury it took him over year to fully recover. The coaching staff will certainly hope so, because his experience and knowledge was vital to the Eagles defense.
Without Ryans, the Eagles don't get their first shutout in 18 years. Once again, if it felt like the Eagles knew what the Giants were running that night, it's because they did. You can not draw it up any better than this. Mufasa at his finest.
Or this. Ryans sees something he doesn't like, and checks to a simple but safe "picket fence" coverage, forcing a fourth down. A less experienced player doesn't make this call, and perhaps the shutout is lost.
The Eagles will need a long term solution to eventually replace Ryans, but so long as he is healthy he's just as important to the coaches as anyone.
Numbers: 31 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
Review: For a backup thrust into playing time throughout the year due to injuries to starters, and after the primary backups, Najee Goode and Travis Long were also injured, Matthews had himself a solid season for a backup. For years a whipping boy, he still had plays that made you groan...
But also had positive plays.
And let's not forget that he caused Tony Romo to decide to just fall down on national television.
In their last 29 games, the Eagles are 20-9 when Matthews plays. All he does is win!
Numbers: 21 tackles
Review: Playing only 22.5% of snaps, Acho was the 4th string ILB. But a 1st string tweeter:
Emmanuel Acho (@thEMANacho) September 10, 2014
On the field, Acho, like Matthews, did what you would expect a backup to do: play inconsistently.
The second one is another good example of Ryans calling a good audible.
Matthews and Acho weren't impact players, but combined, they played two thirds of the Eagles defensive snaps. That's asking a lot of backups, and though the team was clearly better with Ryans and Kendricks healthy, when it came time for "next man up" the defense kept playing well. That's a credit to Matthews and Acho.
Goode was placed on season ending IR after tearing his pectoral muscle in Week 1. Had he been healthy, he would have been the primary backup. The coaching staff was very high on him, and his injury isn't a long term concern, so there's a very good chance he will resume that role in 2015.
Who could leave
Matthews is a free agent, but won't be in demand. He will likely re-sign and compete for a backup job again. Everyone else is under contract.
Who could sign
If the Eagles sign a veteran, it is likely to be a player comfortable with taking a situational role, but also one the Eagles feel comfortable giving significant snaps to if Ryans can not recover in time. The free agent market is thin at established starter anyway. Don't expect a recognizable player, and don't be surprised if they don't sign anyone with more experience than the practice squad.
With Ryans turning 31, a replacement plan is needed, that he is coming off major injury makes finding that replacement a higher priority. Maybe Goode can be that player, but unfortunately we don't know due to his injury. Because Kendricks is undersized, the Eagles would probably target ideal sized ILBs such as Benardrick McKinney (Mississippi State) or Taiwan Jones (Michigan State), though Eric Kendricks (UCLA, brother of Mychal) and Denzel Perryman (Miami) could be considerations even though they are smaller. With none of the backups long in the tooth: Matthews (26 this season), Acho (25), Goode (25) and Travis Long (24), it is also possible the Eagles hold on their current ILBs and do not address the position this year.
And then there is Marcus Smith. Smith will get another shot at OLB, but if the team feels ILB is a legitimate fall back position for him, then that's another young player at the position and another reason they could pass on an ILB this draft.