I want you to imagine what the Philadelphia Eagles current linebacker group looks like. Now I want you to not bite the cyanide pill you’ve cleverly hidden in your fake molar. For as bad as things may seem, it’s only February; there’s plenty of time to make a move. However, you’re not wrong to seriously question if the Eagles will make a splash.
Looking at the Eagles history with the position, how did we get here? Taking a gamble by bringing back the injury prone Jordan Hicks certainly would’ve raised eyebrows at the time. The biggest mistake seems to be cutting LJ Fort mid-season last year, as he would quickly earn an extension with the Baltimore Ravens. Extending Nigel Bradham seemed like a solid answer while Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill were promising youth and depth. Mistakes were made.
What about the draft? I don’t blame the Eagles for passing on the 2019 class of linebackers. The consensus was there was significant drop after Devin White and Devin Bush, both of whom went in the top ten. Even then, White could be seen as a disappointment in Tampa Bay given his lofty draft status.
Mack Wilson was an oft-discussed and over-hyped target, but the fifth rounder failed to impress as a starter in Cleveland during his rookie season. Looking at the rest, Dre Greenlaw of the San Francisco 49ers was the only impressive day three linebacker out of roughly a dozen selections to impress with significant starting reps. In short, the class was as bad as advertised.
The bad news is that the 2020 crop of linebacker prospects is similarly lacking. Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons looks like a top ten lock, and for good reason. Simmons pairs his 6’4”, 230-pound frame with insane athleticism and coverage skills. Accordingly, Clemson played him all over and trusted him with everything from run stuffing in the box to the occasional single-high safety responsibilities.
It’s hard to find a comparison for Simmons to properly explain his skill set because he’s such a unicorn. Cross him out; the Eagles will be nowhere near striking distance to land Simmons.
Next in line should be LSU’s Patrick Queen. In an alternate universe where the Eagles placed high value on linebacker play and didn’t currently need all types of help at more premium positions, I’d be putting bodies through the table for Queen. He has the aggressiveness Jim Schwartz will love and is rarely out of position thanks to his excellent key and diagnose abilities.
Queen has true sideline-to-sideline range, the length to take on blockers, the smarts and trigger to get to the spot first and enough coverage skills to keep him on the field for all three downs. He’s everything people wanted Devin White to be last year and as such he’ll be higher on my board than White, who I had lower than most last year at #20 overall.
“Queen shined in the biggest moments of LSU’s Championship run, showcasing the skill set of a second level enforcer. Queen doesn’t have much in the way of restrictions, showcasing the reactive athleticism and movement skills needed to work sideline to sideline and thrive in pass coverage... Queen profiles as dynamic starter at MIKE or WILL in a 4-3 alignment that never comes off the field in sub packages.” - Joe Marino, The Draft Network
In summation, Queen’s traits and intelligence make him an easy first round grade that will likely land himself in my top fifteen prospects for 2020. He’s a great fit in Philadelphia, but will they seriously consider him? Do they value linebacker enough and will they do enough in free agency to push the need at linebacker to the forefront? That remains to be seen.
Speaking of free agency, could the Eagles find answers before the draft? The obvious target would be Cory Littleton, who spent his last four years with the Los Angeles Rams and is due a big payday this off-season.
An undrafted free agent, Littleton began taking starting snaps late in 2017 and assumed the role full-time over the last two years. PFF ranks him as their 16th best projected free agent after amassing a 90.6 coverage grade over the last two years, which ranks third best among linebackers in that span.
With those coverage skills, Littleton is a perfect match for Philadelphia’s passing down sub-packages, where they’ve struggled to replace the effectiveness of Jordan Hicks. They tried to cope with that loss by plugging in Nigel Bradham, but he produced mixed results after his excellent 2017 campaign and as such became a predictable cap casualty this week.
Another plus is Littleton’s tackling. In 2019 he missed only one (1) tackle and by a country mile led the league’s linebackers in PFF’s tackling efficiency metric. For comparison, Bradham missed 10 tackles, while Gerry checked in with a concerning 16 whiffs.
Here’s the problem… Littleton is going to come with a hefty price tag on the open market. Current projections put him in the $12-$14M ballpark and that might prove to be low if a team like the Green Bay Packers get desperate and make a substantial offer to secure his services. Those aren’t figures that give me confidence in the Eagles being competitive in a bidding war for Littleton.
Perhaps the Eagles will try to pry Joe Schobert away from the Cleveland Browns. That seems unlikely, and Schobert’s deal from the Browns will probably only be a tick lower than Littleton’s projected value. Will they fall in love with Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray? I see too many flaws in his game from a mental and coverage perspective to justify selecting him around where he will ultimately land. Are less sexy options like Green Bay’s Blake Martinez or Chicago’s Nick Kwiatkoski the droids the Eagles are looking for?
All of this is a long way to say that the odds of the Eagles doing something flashy at the linebacker position are low. This is due to their history of valuation with the position and the current options both in free agency in the draft. Regardless, something needs to be done. It’s up to Howie Roseman and company to figure it out.