Amid the chatter (absurd, most of it) about the Eagles and their reported interested in moving way, way, way up in April's NFL draft to get in position to select Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and the urgent pleas from the fans to revamp, overhaul, just do whatever needs to be done to upgrade the defensive secondary in free agency and the draft, there is a sense here that some are overlooking one of the greatest, if not the No. 1, need for this football team.
When the Eagles lost inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans in the November 2 win at Houston, they lost the heart and soul of the defense, the leader of the locker room and a damn fine football player. A tackling machine, Ryans recorded 10 or more tackles in 20 of his 41 games as an Eagle, including three of the first seven games in 2014. Moreover, Ryans set up the defense, calmed the hyper talents of linebacker Mychal Kendricks and gave the Eagles a chance in coverage against running backs and crossing tight ends in the passing game.
The loss was a devastating blow to the defense, but give defensive coordinator Bill Davis and inside linebackers coach Rick Minter some credit. They were able to mix and match the personnel and get some decent football from Casey Matthews and some solid play from cornerback Nolan Carroll II when he was used as a quasi-linebacker when the Eagles used six defensive backs on the field.
But there was no question the loss of Ryans impacted the defense, both directly and with a ripple effect. In the final eight games of the season, only the performances against Carolina (for three quarters) and Dallas on Thanksgiving Day were satisfying defensively. Green Bay did what it wanted to do in the blowout loss at Lambeau Field. Tennessee put up 17 points in the second quarter and passed for 345 yards. Seattle had 440 total net yards, including 188 on the ground, and 28 first downs.
Dallas, Washington and the Giants had a lot of success offensively against the Eagles in that tough December. Ryans was missed, without question.
I'd love to say with certainty that he will return in 2015. That's hard to do, however. An Achilles tendon injury is maybe the nastiest in sports. It took Ryans two full seasons to come all the way back from the one he suffered in 2010, when he played for the Houston Texans.
Can the Eagles count on Ryans next season? Furthermore, how do they address a position that also lost Najee Goode to a torn pectoral muscle in the opening-day win over Jacksonville, and also played without Travis Long, a young prospect who may have beaten out Matthews on the 53-man roster had he not torn an ACL in the final preseason game against the Jets?
Inside linebacker, then, is a huge need. Marcus Smith, as I see it, is an outside linebacker and he's going to have to make in the NFL off the edge. Matthews played his best football, but he certainly doesn't change games. Goode has a chance, but he's got to be healthy and show he can be an all-around player at the demanding position.
I'm on board with settling the quarterback position - I say without hesitation that Nick Foles will be the starter, by the way - and that the Eagles sure do need to improve a lot in the secondary and eliminate those "X" plays (plus-20-yard gains) in the passing game. Shore up the offensive line, find another weapon for the passing game and make sure the backup quarterback position is secure and the Eagles will have had a great offseason.
Just don't forget inside linebacker. The Eagles need impact here, because the player they have and the one they're relied on so much since he was acquired in a trade, DeMeco Ryans, is no sure bet to be the player he was prior to his Achilles tendon injury.