Continuing our position by position review of the 2016 season, we turn to linebackers, arguably the best unit on the Eagles defense.
Hicks is quietly becoming one of the better middle linebackers in the league. His five interceptions were the most by any linebacker in 2016 after having two in five starts in 2015, and his 11 passes defensed were tied for the most among linebackers. He’s a playmaker at a position where those aren’t easy to come by. He’s not just a playmaker though, he’s a strong run defender, his 16.4% broken tackle rate (per Football Outsiders) was good (though not great) rate. And he could be even better next season.
2017 will be his third season, at the age of 25 and in his second year in Jim Schwartz’s defense. We should expect some improvement given any of those three factors, but even if this is what Hicks is, the Eagles have themselves a pretty good quarterback of the defense. A playoff season by the Eagles should see him get the league wide recognition he deserves.
And if he keeps it up, he’s going to be a huge pain in the ass for the Cowboys, which will make him a legend.
Verdict: Thumbs up. At his end of season press conference, Howie Roseman spoke about having centerpieces to build around who are 24 and 25 years old. He was referring to Carson Wentz and Fletcher Cox, but Jordan Hicks fits that description too.
One of the Jim Schwartz Four, Bradham had a high profile season off the field with two arrests. On the field, he was arguably underpaid on his two year, $7 million deal. Bradham had the second interception of his career, the other one coming in his other season under Schwartz, had multiple sacks for the second time in his career, the other time in his other season under Schwartz, tied a career high with two forced fumbles, the other coming in his other season under Schwartz, and had his second most tackles and passes defensed, the career highs coming in his other season under Schwartz. You can sense the pattern.
If the defensive line improves next year, he could have an even better season.
Verdict: Thumbs up. Hicks and Bradham were a formidable linebacker duo, and a second season together could see some growth.
With the league now one where nickle is the base defense, there was always going to be a linebacker that spend most of the game on the bench. When the Eagles signed Nigel Bradham as one of the Jim Schwartz Four, the writing was on the wall that Mychal Kendricks would be the odd man out. He was. Kendricks played just 26.8% of snaps, far and away a career low. He played fewer than 20 snaps in more games (8) than he did more than 20 snaps (7). He actually played a higher percentage of snaps on special teams (27.5%) than he did on defense.
His inconsistent playing time matched his inconsistent play. After playing just 9 snaps in a blowout of the Steelers, he played 26 against the Lions, and was awful. The next week against the Redskins, he had one of his better games, with a notable tackle for loss on a reverse that upon replay wasn’t actually a tackle.
And he’s not a scheme fit. Kendricks is a solid blitzing linebacker, in three seasons under Chip Kelly/Billy Davis, he notched 11 sacks. Jim Schwartz rarely blitzes his linebackers, relying on the line to generate virtually all the pressure.
Verdict: Thumbs down. A $6.6 million cap hit for a backup in 2017 is a waste. The Eagles can save $1.8 million by trading him, and they’d get an asset back to help make up for the $4.8 million in dead money.
The fourth member of the Jim Schwartz Four (he’s the tenor), Tulloch was added very late in the preseason as expensive depth at middle linebacker, making $2.5 million, over double the league minimum for a 10 year veteran. Luckily he wasn’t needed as Jordan Hicks played all 16 games.
Verdict: Thumbs down. Tulloch was an expensive insurance policy, and should be replaced with a younger, cheaper player.