The Philadelphia Eagles’ linebacker corps is going to look different in 2020 now that Nigel Bradham won’t be back with the team. The veteran’s departure paves the way for the Eagles to add some new starting talent to the position. Let’s take a look at Philly’s options.
The Eagles currently only have four linebackers under contract for the 2020 season: Nathan Gerry, T.J. Edwards, Duke Riley, and Alex Singleton. The Eagles also have Kamu Grugier-Hill under contract until free agency begins on March 18. It’s ‘possible’ the Eagles re-sign him but I doubt it’ll happen given the way his relationship with the team has seemingly soured.
To the chagrin of his detractors, Gerry figures to have the biggest role among Eagles returning linebackers in 2020. Gerry started 12 games for Philly last season. He’s young (only turns 25 in a few days) and the coaching staff has spoken highly of his football intelligence. The Eagles primarily use two linebacker packages and I think Gerry will end up being one of those two main linebackers next season. At the very least, he’ll be third in linebacker snaps.
After carving out a role as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2019, the guess here is that Edwards ends up taking the third most linebacker snaps in his second season. You know, the old Mychal Kendricks/Grugier-Hill role when Bradham and Jordan Hicks were the top two guys. Of course, that job shouldn’t just be handed to Edwards. He’ll need to prove himself with a strong offseason.
The Eagles named Riley as their special teams captain in the playoffs just a couple weeks after Grugier-Hill went on injured reserve. One would figure Riley will retain his special teams captaincy this season and serve as a backup linebacker on defense.
Singleton, who turns 27 this year, contribute on special teams last year but didn’t log a single defensive snap. He’ll have to fight just to make the 2020 roster.
All of this is to say the Eagles don’t have a natural replacement for Bradham as the team’s No. 1 linebacker. The good news is they should be able to find a solution in free agnecy.
There are multiple free agent linebackers who could interest the Eagles.
The Los Angeles Rams’ Cory Littleton is the top linebacker on the market. There are a lot of things to like about him. Littleton is young (doesn't turn 27 until November), durable (has never missed a game), experienced (37 starts), and very productive (315 total tackles, 26 passes defensed, 20 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, six interceptions, five blocked punts, three forced fumbles, one defensive touchdown). As such, the 2016 undrafted rookie free agent will be looking to seriously cash in. The Eagles certainly haven’t been a team to invest major resources in the linebacker position but Littleton’s play-making prowess could be worth the cost.
Nick Kwiatkoski is a more affordable option to keep an eye on, as previously noted:
Kwiatkoski is a player the Eagles showed a ton of interest in leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft. The team hosted him on an official pre-draft visit, they interviewed him at the Senior Bowl, they attended his pro day, and they put him through a private workout. Kwiatkoski ended up being selected in the fourth round, between a large gap from the Eagles’ third-round pick (Isaac Seumalo at No. 79) and the Eagles’ fifth-round pick (Wendell Smallwood at No. 153). Had the Eagles had a fourth-round selection, maybe Kwiatkoski would’ve been the pick. In any case, Kwiatkoski has had a limited role with the Chicago Bears since they’ve had talented inside linebackers in Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith. Kwiatkoski could be looking for a bigger role and the Eagles could offer that to the 26-year-old.
Joe Schobert is another player the Eagles showed some interest in leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft. The team sent linebackers coach Ken Flajole to Wisconsin’s pro day to scout him. Schobert ended up being selected by the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round at No. 99 overall, which fell in that big gap between the Eagles’ picks. As is the case with Littleton, Schobert has a number of factors working in his favor. He’s young (doesn’t turn 27 until November), durable (only missed three games), experienced (49 starts), and very productive (408 tackles, 20 passes defensed, 8.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, six interceptions). Unlike the Rams, however, the Browns have a lot of cap space to work with. There seems to be optimism they’ll be able to re-sign Schobert.
De’Vondre Campbell played for new Eagles defensive backs coach and former Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel in Atlanta (2016 through 2018). Campbell often hasn’t graded out well in coverage by Pro Football Focus’s standards, so, that’s a concern. The 26-year-old does have plenty of experience under his belt with 54 career starts.
Jamie Collins turns 31 this year but he could be worth mentioning since the Eagles were reportedly interested in him last offseason. The Eagles chose to sign Zach Brown instead. I’d be as bold to say the team didn’t make the right choice.
2020 NFL DRAFT
BGN’s Ben Natan previously wrote about linebacker prospects that could interest the Eagles.
The Eagles could certainly benefit from adding a talented young linebacker to the defense. While Isaiah Simmons and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray will probably go before the Eagles pick first, there are a few names to consider in the back half of the first round and into day two.
I mentioned Zack Baun among edge prospects to consider but I think his value increases when viewing him as an off-ball linebacker. Baun is going to be the consolation prize for whichever team wants and can’t get Isaiah Simmons. Baun was a dominant player for Wisconsin in 2019 and is a true do-it-all defender. He can rush the passer off the edge, blitz off ball, defend the run and has shown ability in coverage. Baun would take some developing as a linebacker, but the upside for him would be huge.
Another name to consider later in the draft is Oregon’s Troy Dye. The senior linebacker is a solid, consistent and physical player who was a leader for the Ducks on and off the field. He would bring a vocal presence to the Eagles defense while also providing every down dependability.If the Eagles want to wait late in the draft and still hope to land a playmaker, keep eyes on Markus Bailey out of Purdue and Cal’s Evan Weaver. Bailey had his last season cut short by injury, but the speedy linebacker had tons of hype coming into this season. He is a coverage player who can also attack the run and blitz. Evan Weaver is more of a classic banger at the position, but a dependable tackling machine who is better than advertised in pass coverage.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Eagles need to sign at least one starting caliber linebacker in free agency. It should ideally be a player in his 20’s as opposed to an aging, stop-gap option who’s 30 or older.
Acquiring Littleton would be fun but could also limit the team’s ability to spend at a position of bigger need, like cornerback and/or wide receiver.
Signing Kwiatkoski to a multi-year deal seems preferable to me. His cost shouldn’t be too crazy and it seems reasonable to bet on his upside. I figure a Kwiatkoski deal would be similar to the contract the Eagles originally signed Bradham to back in 2016.
The Eagles could also afford to draft a linebacker at some point on Day 2 or Day 3 (likely the latter). The aforementioned T.J. Edwards is currently the only Eagles linebacker signed beyond the 2020 season. Time to stock the pipeline.