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Eagles linebackers: the fight for WILL

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Eagles training camp positional preview: linebacker

NFL: Denver Broncos at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles training camp 2018 is almost here. Players report to the NovaCare Complex on Wednesday, July 25. The Eagles’ summer schedule, including information on practices open to the public, can be found by clicking here. As we count down the days together, Bleeding Green Nation will be previewing every position on the Eagles roster. We conclude today by taking a look at the linebackers.

The Players

Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks, Nate Gerry, Corey Nelson, Kamu-Grugier Hill, Joe Walker, LaRoy Reynolds, Asantay Brown, Kyle Wilson

There is exactly one (1) sure thing when it comes to Philadelphia’s linebacker in camp, and it’s name is Nigel Bradham. Unfortunately, one of the sure things about him is that he’s suspended for the first game of the 2018 regular season, but beyond that, Bradham’s been an ironman for Philadelphia. He has started every game across two seasons (besides the inconsequential Week 17 meeting with Dallas), racking up 128 tackles and 13 (!!) passes defended. Other LBs with such stats over two seasons: Ryan Shazier, Deion Jones, Alec Ogeltree (basically a safety), C.J. Mosley, Eric Kendricks, and Telvin Smith.

That’s good company, folks. Inked to a big new deal—let’s not forget that Howie made big time moves, signing both Alshon and Bradham to new deals—Bradham should slide back into his long-term role as SAM with Jordan Hicks healthy. One of the best coverage backers in the league, Bradham’s man reps were limited when playing quasi-MIKE in Hicks’ absence.

Speaking of Hicks...oh, what to do with Jordan Hicks. Now entering his fourth season and contracy year, Hicks has ended a season on IR (2) more frequently than he has finished a season altogether (1). When he finished his stellar sophomore campaign, I was #madonline that he got 1 measly All-Pro vote; a season later, and I’m wondering if he warrants retaining beyond 2018. Talent wise, it’s not a question. But how much money are you willing to poor into a player of extremely questionable longevity. Let’s not forget: Hicks had injury problems in college as well. If Hicks can’t stay on the field, and Philadelphia continues to see their offense survive and thrive without him...he should walk.

After those two...well, things get murky. After the Mychal Kendricks dance finally ended, Philadelphia was left with a gap at WILL and three potential names to fill it: Nate Gerry, Corey Nelson, and Kamu Grugier-Hill. Each has a clear indicator of the coaching staff’s interest in their development. Gerry was drafted in the fifth round despite little pre-Draft fanfare and an anticipated position shift; Nelson, a fringe starter already, was acquired in free agency even before Kendricks was cut; Grugier-Hill has already earned the favor of the coaching staff by fighting his way into playing time after being picked up off waivers in 2016.

What do you look for in your WILL? In Jim Schwartz’s 4-3, the first thing you’d like to see is explosiveness. Your WILL must see and attack open spaces quickly to knife into the rushing lanes developed by the offensive line, while the SAM and MIKE have more responsibilities in terms of block deconstruction. With 2 ex-college safeties (Grugier-Hill, Gerry) and one natural fit WILL in Nelson (6’1 224), none of these players are wanting for burst. As of right now, I would argue the best in-game explosiveness belong to Nelson.

You also need strong coverage ability in space, which is where Nelson and Gerry alike should shine. Grugier-Hill isn’t a poor cover man from the limited tape of him on Sundays, but it isn’t yet a strength of his; he hasn’t seen enough time to develop strong instincts. WILL backers often have to deal with releasing RBs and even slot receivers, as the SAM (Strong side) is often aligned to the offense’s TE. As such, quickness is again the name of the game.

It will be interesting to see how much of a premium Schwartz puts on pass rush ability in his new WILL. He rushed Kendricks 14% of the time in 2017, almost twice his 2016 figure (per PFF Signature Stats)—was that a product of new defensive ideologies, or just protecting Kendricks’ weak coverage game? If Schwartz is looking for an effective blitzer in his WILL, that’s another storyline to watch during the camp battle.

My totally made-up odds for the battle

Corey Nelson: 45%

Kamu Grugier-Hill: 40%

Nate Gerry: 15% (I like Gerry as a player; I’ll believe he’s ready when I see it)

Outside of the fight for WILL, it’s widely camp bodies and depth pieces. The remaining notable player is Joe Walker, a third-year player from Oregon who has ended up on IR (2) for more seasons than he’s finished (0). To again be considered the back-up MIKE, Walker has not only got to stay healthy, but show improved instincts from last season’s reps in relief of Jordan Hicks. They were not great.

Directly pressuring Walker for that sixth spot is LaRoy Reynolds, acquired in free agency from Atlanta, where he was the backup MLB. Reynolds also has the added benefit of being the only other LB on the roster over 240 lbs besides Nigel Bradham. Last year’s backup SAM, Najee Goode, is no longer with the team—so, in all of the WILL hullabaloo, that spot also requires a name to rise up and earn it. Reynolds has some experience as an outside backer, and could represent a potential backup for both Hicks and Bradham, which puts a lot of heat on Walker to show out in camp.

Two rookie UDFAs fill out the training camp roster: Asantay Brown of Western Michigan, and Kyle Wilson of Houston. Someone needs to get Brown a sandwich: he comes into camp at 215 lbs. Don’t be surprised if he flies around the field at that weight; you have to wonder if he’ll get any quasi-safety looks with that frame. Wilson was acquired following the Paul Worrilow injury and release of Kendricks, so he is a super longshot. Also shout-out Paul Worrilow, likely backup MIKE who was injured in mini-camp and now wastes away on IR. Oh, what could have been.

How will it play out?

We will all over-react to every play Gerry/Nelson/Grugier-Hill makes. Jim Schwartz will not be helpful during pressers. The Eagles defense will crumble.

In all seriousness, we’re replacing a player who only broke 50% of a game’s snap counts once before Jordan Hick’s injury. This is a sub-package position on Philadelphia’s defense. Whoever gets the spot (again, I’m betting Nelson, hedging with Grugier-Hill) will be protected.

Expect both Grugier-Hill and Nelson to make the roster, with LaRoy Reynolds also securing a coveted backup spot. With Hicks as injury prone as he is, you’ve gotta keep six. That spot will likely come down to Joe Walker v. Nate Gerry, with Walker having an edge as he can give you more meaningful reps at MIKE/SAM, while Gerry is limited to WILL play.

As such...

Who could be a surprise cut?

Gerry. The Eagles felt comfortable exposing him to waivers last season (and he made it through), so he isn’t super valued by anyone right now. If his position transition is still ongoing, he may find a better fit on a team with more steady play at WILL right now; Philadelphia does not have the luxury of a solid starter behind whom to develop a potential player. If he doesn’t show strides, Philadelphia can try to stash him again on the practice squad.

Poll

On a scale of 1-10, what is your confidence level in the Eagles’ linebackers (10 is the highest.)

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    10
    (20 votes)
  • 2%
    9
    (25 votes)
  • 15%
    8
    (155 votes)
  • 34%
    7
    (352 votes)
  • 26%
    6
    (274 votes)
  • 11%
    5
    (118 votes)
  • 5%
    4
    (53 votes)
  • 1%
    3
    (17 votes)
  • 0%
    2
    (7 votes)
  • 0%
    1
    (6 votes)
1027 votes total Vote Now