Continuing the position by position review of the defense with this year's pleasant surprise, the outside linebackers.
Numbers: 14.5 sacks, 11 hurries, 47 tackles, 2 forced fumbles
Review: Connor Barwin was a impact player last year, the Eagles best defender. He was very good in coverage and very good against the run, which adds up to a terrific player. A smart and disciplined player with a high motor, his only areas of weakness were bad hands (only 1 career interception) and poor one-on-one pass rush ability. This year, through a combination of better play and the coaches making even better use of him, he didn’t just improve as a pass rusher, he led the NFC in sacks. Most of Barwin’s sacks came from him putting his hand in the dirt and using his athleticism to get to the QB.
But also improved his one-on-one pass rushing, utilizing both a spin move...
...and using speed and power.
Of course it wasn't just his sacks that made him so valuable to the Eagles, he's also a very smart player. Here he sees that DeMarco Murray is open before Tony Romo does.
Barwin's sack total might decline next year, it probably will, but he'll be no less valuable a player. He already was one of the best players on the defense in 2013 without the counting stats.
Numbers: 6.5 sacks, 12 hurries, 40 tackles, 3 forced fumbles
Review: At 32, Trent Cole isn't the player he once was, but he isn't a complete shell of himself either. As a pass rusher, he still made offensive linemen look silly.
And can still bring it in the open field.
But at 32, his age is showing.
One of the questions facing the team this off-season is how much does Cole have left in the tank? He can still play, but he's no longer an every down player. Is it time to move on, or do they keep him in a situational role?
Numbers: 5.5 sacks, 35 tackles, 4 force fumbles.
Review: Seemingly a spare wheel going into the season, 2014 was a breakout year for Brandon Graham. Playing only 43.1% of snaps, primarily on passing downs until Trent Cole's broken hand kept him out of the last two games of the season, Graham was the most effective pass rusher among OLBs. He got to the QB using speed, strength and technique.
How about that Cowboys o-line?
While Graham was efficient in getting at the QB, he was not good in coverage, as you would expect.
But that's not the type of player he is, to expect him to succeed in that role is asking too much.
Review: It would be foolish to write off Smith as a bust after one season. On one hand, his inability to get on the field at outside linebacker was in part him being a victim of circumstance. Similar to fellow rookie Taylor Hart at DE, there was no reason to take Barwin, Cole or Graham off the field just so that a rookie could get some playing time. No shame in being stuck in a log jam at a position that is producing. On the other hand, Chip Kelly's comments about how Smith looked in practice were not confidence building. Though it was born out of necessity, that the coaching staff felt that Smith had the ability to play inside linebacker is encouraging, that the team isn't exactly sure what position his future is at is equally discouraging. It also presents a dilemma for the front office and (slash) coaching staff, which we'll get to later.
Braman was brought in to fulfill one role: kill, maim, destroy on special teams. He did just that.
The Eagles special teams were a dominant unit, and Braman was a key cog, blocking a punt himself and contributing to other blocked punts, and bulldozing blockers on kickoffs.
Who could leave
Brandon Graham is a free agent and last we heard, he and the team were not close on a contract extension, and that was before the Eagles front office shakeup. A 4-3 DE, Graham should test the market. Pass rushers are always in demand, and it's in his best interests to go to a team that won't make him drop in coverage. Trent Cole is due $10M in salary, which is obviously far too much for a part time player. He will either take a pay cut or be released. It is possible that neither Cole nor Graham will be retained.
Who could sign
The OLB free agent market could be rich this year.The Eagles had interest in signing Jason Worilds last year, but the Steelers gave him the transition tag and effectively took him off the market. About to enter salary cap hell, the Steelers likely won’t be able to sign him, and he will likely be the Eagles top target. The Browns' Jabaal Sheard is 25 and an unrestricted free agent, and Pernell McPhee of the Ravens will be 26, they will be in demand. Brian Orakpo might also hit the market, or the Redskins could be the Redskins and just give him a ton of money. Jerry Hughes rescued his career in Buffalo, but he could be available. Brooks Reed may be a salary cap victim, and being a white guy from the Texans the Eagles may have interest. Sam Acho, brother of Eagles ILB Emmanuel, could be available because the Cardinals are also about to run into salary cap problems and he is coming off a broken leg.
Free agency will set the scene, as the Eagles have options. If a starter is signed, then there is little room for a rookie. Marcus Smith will enter camp as an OLB, but his future is unclear, if Trent Cole is retained and they sign a free agent, then they may decide to just move him to ILB, where as Dan Klausner pointed out he may have a long term future. Or they may decide to enter the draft with Cole and Smith opposite Barwin and see how the draft plays out. This scenario is unlikely. Expect the Eagles to sign someone, making drafting an OLB an extremely low priority, and putting Smith's long term future in doubt.