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What the Eagles should do at linebacker

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Eagles roster outlook: position-by-position.

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Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles - Practice Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The 2018 NFL offseason has begun for the Philadelphia Eagles, which means Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson will spend the next couple of weeks evaluating the 2017 roster. It’s already time to start figuring out what this team needs to do to repeat as Super Bowl champions next year. We continue this roster outlook series by looking at the linebacker position.

THE PLAYERS

NIGEL BRADHAM

Regular season stats: 920 snaps, 61 tackles, 8 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 defensive TD, 1 sack, 3 QB hits, 6 QB hurries, 36 stops

Playoff stats: 204 snaps, 11 tackles 1 pass defensed, 1 sack, 1 QB hit, 1 QB hurry, 6 stops

Review: After a solid showing in 2016, Bradham was thrust into an even bigger role in 2017 due to the Hicks injury. He showed great versatility by stepping in a middle linebacker and playing well. Bradham’s strength was playing coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, Bradham only allowed 0.62 yards per coverage snap and 13.6 coverage snaps per reception. He ranked first in the NFL among all 4-3 outside linebackers in those categories. Bradham was an absolute monster in the Eagles-Panthers game. Go back and re-watch that to see a downright beastly performance.

Outlook: Bradham is the Eagles’ biggest free agent. It would be great for Philadelphia to keep him. The challenge is that they’re limited on cap space and another team could potentially make an offer that they can’t match. Some things working in the Eagles’ factor when it comes to leverage include: Bradham turns 29 in September, his best years have clearly been playing for Jim Schwartz, and his previous legal incidents make him prone to punishment from the league. Spotrac projects Bradham to earn an $5.9 million average annual salary in his next contract. That sounds like a reasonable figure for both sides. If the Eagles aren’t able to re-sign Bradham, linebacker immediately because a huge need for Philadelphia.

MYCHAL KENDRICKS

Regular season stats: 613 snaps, 51 tackles, 6 passes defensed, 2 sacks, 4 QB hits, 9 QB hurries, 33 stops

Playoff stats: 112 snaps, 12 tackles, 1 pass defensed, 1 QB hurry, 7 stops

Review: Kendricks has been involved in trade rumors for what feels like every offseason in recent memory. The 2012 second-round pick even admitted he requested a trade from the Eagles after only playing 27% of the team’s snaps in 2016. But Kendricks’ request was denied, and it’s a good thing that was the case. Due to the Hicks injury, Kendricks saw a big boost in playing time in 2017. He took advantage of the opportunity by playing really well. Credit to him for stepping up.

Outlook: Though it might feel like Kendricks has finally settled in as a reliable starter, it’s hard to know if that’s truly the case. He’s been such an erratic player throughout his career. Lots of ups and down. His contract also complicates his future with Philly. Kendricks currently has the 10th biggest cap hit on the team. It wouldn’t make sense for the Eagles to cut the 27-year-old, but trading him would likely net a reasonable draft pick (fourth rounder?) while also saving $4.4 million in much-needed cap space. Again, it’s important to remember that the Eagles have primarily only used two linebackers in the past two seasons under Jim Schwartz. If all goes according to plan in 2018, Hicks and Bradham should be those linebackers. Moving Kendricks would hurt the Eagles’ linebacker depth, for sure, but carrying a rotational/backup linebacker with a $7.6 million cap hit isn’t ideal. The Eagles will likely have to look into more affordable alternatives.

JORDAN HICKS

Regular season stats: 267 snaps, 19 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 2 QB hits, 3 QB hurries, 7 stops

Review: The perpetually injured Hicks got hurt before training camp even started last offseason. His broken hand didn’t cause him to miss much time, thankfully, but then Hicks got banged up early in the regular season. A lingering ankle injury first suffered in Week 3 caused him to overcompensate and tear his Achilles in Week 7.

Outlook: It’s really a shame that Hicks can’t stay healthy because he’s a fantastic talent. He was arguably one of the best cover linebackers in the league in 2016. It’ll be interesting to see what the Eagles do with Hicks this offseason. He’s eligible to be extended for the first time in his career. Maybe the Eagles will try to gamble and extend his contract now while they feel like they can lock him up for relatively cheap. He’s missed 15 games in three years, though, so they know the risk they’d be taking. Hicks might not be willing to take that offer, anyway, which means he might just have to play out the final year of his deal in 2018. Hopefully he can stay healthy because the Eagles defense can really benefit from his presence out there. In addition to being a talented and intelligent player, the 25-year-old is a good leader who plays a key role in lining up the defense as the MIKE linebacker.

DANNELL ELLERBE

Regular season stats: 76 snaps, 6 tackles, 5 stops

Playoff stats: 26 snaps, 2 tackles

Review: The Eagles signed Ellerbe in mid-November. He spent a few weeks as a healthy scratch before eventually taking over as Philadelphia’s middle linebacker in their base defense. The Eagles didn’t use their base much, though. Ellerbe wasn’t great but he wasn’t a disaster, which is probably what the Eagles realistically desired.

Outlook: Ellerbe will be a free agent. He turns 33 in November. He might retire now that he has two Super Bowl rings.

NAJEE GOODE

Regular season stats: 200 snaps, 12 tackles, 2 QB hurries, 9 stops

Playoff stats: 8 snaps, 1 tackle

Review: Goode made some good contributions on special teams but he wasn’t a reliable defender. Except when he was shutting down Ezekiel Elliott in a meaningless Week 17 game, which was good/random.

Outlook: Goode is going to be a free agent. He turns 29 in June. Unless he’s signing a minimum deal with no guaranteed money, it’s time to move on. Even then, the Eagles should aspire to upgrade.

KAMU GRUGIER-HILL

Regular season stats: 85 snaps, 8 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 QB hit, 1 QB hurry, 4 stops (plus 1 touchback on 4 kickoff attempts)

Playoff stats: None

Review: I liked what I saw out of Kamu during last offseason’s practices. Then he made his presence felt early in the season ... with his postgame actions such as pouring Gatorade on Doug Pederson after a Week 1 victory over Washington and carrying Jake Elliott off the field (along with Kendricks) in Week 3. Kamu was a special teams beast all year long. He really took it to the next level by being the Eagles’ emergency kickoff specialist when Jake Elliott got hurt in the first Cowboys game. He even had a touchback! Kamu ended the season the right way with dumping Gatorade on Pederson again, this time after the Eagles’ Super Bowl win.

Outlook: Call me crazy but I think Kamu could handle some playing time at WILL. He might be a question mark in run defense but he can cover. At the very least, Kamu is a very good special teams contributor for the Eagles to have moving forward.

JOE WALKER

Regular season stats: 97 snaps, 4 tackles, 1 pass defensed, 1 QB hit, 3 stops

Review: Walker was up and down in training camp. He noticeably struggled in coverage when he was thrust into action in the regular season. His faults led to the Eagles signing Ellerbe. Walker was placed on injured reserve late in the season due to a groin injury.

Outlook: Walker probably has an up-hill battle to make the roster in 2018. The 2016 seventh-round pick needs to have a strong summer.

NATE GERRY

Regular season stats: 20 snaps

Playoff stats: 1 snap

Review: Gerry played safety in college but the Eagles drafted him with the plan to transition him to linebacker. The 2017 fifth-round pick showed nice coverage skills during training camp, but the Eagles didn’t feel he was ready to be on the roster so they stored him on their practice squad. Gerry eventually got called up to the main team and really only served as a special teams contributor.

Outlook: Moving forward, Gerry has the potential to take over the weakside linebacker position, especially if Kendricks isn’t back. Again, his coverage skills are good. It’s just a matter of whether he can handle defending the run and being physical. Having a full offseason to gain weight and better learn the position should help his development. Gerry will be an interesting player worth watching in offseason practices this year.

WHO COULD SIGN?

The hope is that the Eagles can retain Bradham. If not, they’d be wise to bring someone in via free agency. Bills linebacker Preston Brown played for Jim Schwartz in 2014. Tahir Whitehead played for Schwartz in Detroit and drew interest from Philadelphia in the 2016 offseason. Josh Bynes is a player who has ties to Joe Douglas with the Ravens. The recently released Jerrell Freeman signed with the Bears while Douglas was still in Chicago. 36-year-old Karlos Dansby has been productive and reliable despite his age. He would be a stop-gap option. Eagles linebacker coach Ken Flajole coached Danbsy for two years on the Browns. Another stop-gap option would be 35-year-old Derrick Johnson, who was released by the Chiefs. Johnson obviously overlapped with Doug Pederson in Kansas City.

Even in the worst case scenario of the Eagles not being able to re-sign Bradham, they do have some free agent options. If Bradham IS retained, they could still bring in a guy like Johnson or Dansby to be the 2018 version of 2017’s Dannell Ellerbe or 2016’s Stephen Tulloch. Those vets could potentially come on the cheap as they hope to chase a Super Bowl ring before retiring.

NFL DRAFT OPTIONS

BGN’s Ben Natan laid out some linebacker options for the Eagles in the 2018 NFL Draft.

It’s been a long time since Philadelphia drafted a ‘backer in round one; you have to go all the way back to Jerry Robinson in 1979. With the position being a big need and the Eagles being limited on cap space, however, they might be more willing to go in that direction.

Even if the Eagles don’t go linebacker at No. 32, they’re likely bound to pick one at some point. The ideal situation would be for that player to not have to start right away with Hicks hopefully healthy and Bradham hopefully returning.