It’s comforting to know that your football team won’t have to reach for a position in the first or second round of the Draft, because teams that reach for positions often times get a player that shouldn’t have been selected in that spot. Instead, the Eagles can simply sit back and take the best available player at No. 25, can trade up and get a player they really like, or trade down if their options at 25 aren’t palatable.
But as the Eagles prepare for the 2019 season with virtually all their needs met, outside of getting a pass-catching running back at some point before the team breaks camp, the linebacker position is still one spot where the team hasn’t done much this spring. Is that a mistake?
We all know Jim Schwartz’ 4-3, Wide-9 defense focuses on the front four, with edge rushers like Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry and Chris Long putting pressure on the QB from the outside and interior monsters like Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson disrupting things from the inside. It also focuses on a deep secondary with a run-stuffing safeties like Malcolm Jenkins and Andrew Sendejo playing close to the line of scrimmage and ball-hawking corners like Jalen Mills, Avonte Maddox and Ronald Darby trying to take advantage of weakly thrown balls under pressure.
Lost in the middle of this defensive philosophy are the linebackers. In 2017, they were a group that contributed quite a bit to the defense, even if they were the red-headed step children of the unit. With Nigel Bradham taking over for an injured Jordan Hicks at middle linebacker and playing very well, and with Mychal Kendricks and Kamu Grugier-Hill on the outside making plays, it was an effective, if unspectacular unit. But last year’s version was less so, with Hicks, Bradham, Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry, all but disappearing at times.
In today’s NFL, with a focus on the passing game and “11” personnel (one RB, one TE and 3 WRs), having an extra cornerback on the field has become more important that having three linebackers on the field. In ‘17, they played three linebackers at the same time just 27% of the time, 25th-most in the NFL (numbers for last year were not available).
Hence the lack of pursuit of a difference-making linebacker in trade or free agency thus far.
Right now, the Eagles don’t have clear answer at middle linebacker, which even in a defensive scheme that de-emphasizes the linebacker, isn’t a good thing. GM Howie Roseman did add linebacker L.J. Fort as a free agent, a back-up and special teams standout the last few seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who has never been a full-time starting linebacker. However, according to Ourlad’s Eagles depth chart (which is admittedly not official and means next to nothing), Fort is listed as the starting MIKE right now.
Could he be about to break out? Maybe. PFF graded him 19th out of 96 linebackers in 2018, and Roseman seemed optimistic at the NFL annual meetings a couple weeks ago, saying “L.J. was somebody we were really excited about acquiring. He was a guy we had our eye on throughout the season. He was a target free agent for us. We felt like he would be a really good fit in our scheme.”
Despite those praise-filled words, Fort is certainly a question mark heading into 2019, especially if the plan is for him to start at middle linebacker. It’s likely Bradham is the top choice to start at the MIKE, given his success playing there after Hicks’ injury in ‘17, however, he wasn’t terribly effective in ‘18, with a PFF grade of 64.2 that was “average” by their standards. Grugier-Hill’s PFF grade was about the same, 63.7, and Gerry’s 55.7 was a bit worse.
So should linebacker be a focus in the Draft? Should they at least consider selecting a linebacker at No. 25? If you’ve listened to our own Benjamin Solak from The Draft Network and Michael Kist from The Kist & Solak Show, you know they don’t believe this year’s linebacker class is all that impressive. And given the Eagles’ lack of interest in drafting a linebacker early, it seems a virtual impossibility they would take a linebacker with one of their first three picks.
The last time the Eagles took a linebacker within the first three rounds of the draft was in ‘15, when they nabbed Hicks in the 3rd round. Chip Kelly drafted Marcus Smith with their first round pick the year before, but disastrously tried to convert him into an edge rusher. Prior to that, Kendricks was selected in the 2nd round in ‘12, so it’s clear taking a linebacker early is simply something this team both does not believe in doing and hasn’t had much success with over the last few years.
Sure, if someone like Devin White or Devin Bush Jr. fell to the Eagles, it’s possible they’d think about taking one of them, but it’s far more likely they’ll wait until the fourth or fifth rounds to take a stab at a depth linebacker (the Eagles have no 3rd round pick). And depending on what they do in the Draft, they could also return their focus to free agency and pick up someone like Manti Te’o or Jamie Collins on the cheap, but neither would be a huge, needle-moving acquisition.
The Eagles have decided their star players will reside along the defensive line and in the secondary. If their front four can put the kind of pressure on the QB they did in ‘17, and if the secondary can avoid the catastrophic rash of injuries they suffered last season, it’s a wise strategy. Heck, they won a Super Bowl doing that.
But even given all that, the Eagles are going to need their linebackers to play better in 2019 than they did last year. They can’t disappear for games at a time. They have to force some turnovers, grab a couple picks here and there, and disrupt the offense a little more than they did.
And right now, it doesn’t look like they have the personnel to do even that.