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Eagles free agent linebacker targets: Buy or Sell?

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Can the Eagles find value on the linebacker market?

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles may still be awaiting a new CBA to cut Alshon Jeffery, but that doesn’t mean they’re waiting to get work done. The Eagles informed Nigel Bradham of their intention to deny his option earlier this week, sending him into the free agent pool.

As it stands, the Eagles are now strong candidates to grab LBs in free agency for yet another season. They’ve been scraping the bottom of the bargain bin for a few seasons now, looking to add subpackage linebackers below the top tier of the waiver wire and develop them into starters to little avail. With the cut of Bradham, however, the Eagles now only boast of Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry as previous starters returning to the position. That’s rough.

Could the Eagles make a more aggressive play into the linebacker market this year? I ripped through some film on top names and compared my valuation to their projected price tag to highlight those players the Eagles might be willing to spend on when the 2020 league year opens.

Cory Littleton

Littleton is the biggest name on what is generally a quieter linebacker class. A two-year starter for the Rams, Littleton projected as a subpackage rush linebacker when he finished his final season in 2016 with the Washington Huskies. Littleton was too thin to be a full-time pass rusher, and had never stuck in an off-ball role for the Huskies.

But he hung around on the Rams roster long enough to make the permanent switch, filling responsibilities on special teams and impressing in backup play. When Alec Ogeltree left for his bag in free agency with the New York Giants, Littleton won the starting role at MIKE.

And it was awesome. Littleton’s lanky frame is a great fit for off-ball linebacker, where he suffocates passing lanes and survives contact from bigger offensive linemen with his length. Of all the players on the market that I’ve watched, Littleton has the best physical traits, and is arguably still growing into the MIKE position: he’s only played the role for two years.

Littleton’s best trait is his ability in underneath coverage, like on this play against George Kittle late last season. Watch Littleton first command the defense and push the Tampa 2 coverage after the RB motion, then get connected underneath Kittle and play through his hands into the catch point. That’s tough for a lot of linebackers to do from a recognition/technique perspective, let alone have the physical tools to pull off.

Littleton is not exactly a stout run defender, and is an inconsistent tackler relative to what you might expect for his frame. With that said, he is remarkably talented and has a positive second contract projection. However, that projection comes with a price.

Littleton is projected to make over $10M/year on the open market, and could even exceed $12M/season. It is highly unrealistic that the Eagles dole out that much money for a linebacker, which is a position they have historically approached with low-cost role players under GM Howie Roseman.

At that price tag, I’m on board with the Eagles’ approach. That’s more money than I’m comfortable spending on a linebacker, even if Littleton is a top-tier MIKE. The Eagles have bigger needs at other positions that I’m hesitant to ignore for the sake of a MIKE, especially when they likely have two starters already (Nate Gerry, Kamu Grugier-Hill), and are just looking for their third.

Cory Littleton ($12M/year): Sell

Joe Schobert

Do you like Joe Schobert? No? Well, you should.

I didn’t think there was much to the film of a fourth-round Wisconsin linebacker who profiled like the black hole at the center of a poor run defense, but that’s on me for typing fourth-round unathletic linebackers (it worked on Blake Martinez, but more on that later).

Schobert is wicked smart, and makes a ton of high-quality plays as a result of his recognition and instincts. Schobert plays play-action with as much trustworthy aggression of any linebacker in the league, and rarely runs himself out of position for his pass responsibilities. As an underneath zone defender, Schobert’s backfield vision and feel for underneath routes developing is ideal for a three-down ‘backer that makes the majority of his impact in the passing game, which is what matters in this league.

This is as cool as it gets. Schobert reads the shallow from the innermost slot receiver and understands that the single receiver is likely to cut behind him. It’s a play born of film study and executed with great timing, and it’s frequent on Schobert’s film.

Schobert’s skill is easy to see; Schobert’s value is a lot harder to suss out. He’s been over-performing relative to expectation and is a generally average athlete. The Browns’ defense wasn’t great, and a lot of Schobert’s production as a tackler (144 and 133 tackles in his last two full seasons) came as the result of cleaning up slop.

It’s worth noting that 7 forced fumbles and 6 INTs in the last three seasons are not the product of playing on a poor defense.

I don’t know what exactly Joe Schobert’s going to demand on the open market, but I like him better than I like Littleton, and I’d take him at the same price tag if I could. As it stands, the Eagles may be reticent to deal out another big contract to a linebacker, but I’d hope that at any number under $10M, they’d be willing to pay it out.

Joe Schobert ($10M/year): Buy

Blake Martinez

Schobert and Littleton represent the big names on the 2020 LB market; besides them, we’re looking at role players who aren’t likely to see the field for all three downs. Among those names, the most recognizable are those like Patrick Onwuasor, Reggie Ragland, Darron lee, and Blake Martinez.

I kinda get it with Blake Martinez. You have to have some valuable skill set to lead the league in tackles across the 2018 and 2019 seasons combined, which is what Martinez did, at 188. Martinez’s greatest tools are his physicality, density, and block deconstruction; he regularly makes tackles he shouldn’t make because he’s so stout in gaps and adept at maintaining his base and tackle radius through contact.

But Martinez is a clearly limited player who is more valuable as a rookie glue guy than he is a second-contract veteran contributor. In that Martinez was found in the fourth round by the Packers, you should be able to find a Martinez or two every year in the fourth round. (That’s what the plan likely was with Joe Schobert.)

Martinez is a low-quality coverage player who struggles to fill his responsibilities in short zones. Here in Invert 2, a coverage that the Eagles run all the time, Martinez incorrectly drops into the middle hole when he should be working to the weak hook to his right, where the route develops.

Martinez is a two-down player that only makes sense if you fill out your safety depth and are comfortable going Big Nickel on second down and Big Dime on third down to adequately defend the pass. In late game, clutch situations, Martinez likely won’t see the field, as you need rangier players with better coverage instincts to stop the opponent’s last-ditch effort.

How much do you want to pay that player — the one you’re taking off the field when it matters most? Because Spotrac sets his value at around $16M/year.

At even half that value, I’m out.

Blake Martinez ($16M/year): Sell

Patrick Onwuasor

Patrick Onwuasor has put together some impressive stretches for the Ravens as another late LB gem from the Baltimore factory, and once again began this year the starter. But by the playoffs, he was getting out-snapped by Josh Bynes and *gulp* L.J. Fort, who was picked up off the street after being cut by the...you know, it doesn’t matter who he was cut by.

Anyway, Onwuasor is a weird evaluation who runs very hot and cold and seems to struggle heavily with play recognition and communication in Baltimore’s complex and fast-paced defense. Spotrac gives him a $4.8M/year projection, which feels a bit steep given that he was ousted from a starting role for poor play, but Onwuasor does have a higher ceiling detailed by his 2018 performance as a blitzer, zone cover defender, and rangy middle linebacker.

Onwuasor is a cheap option I can get behind, but only as a competitor for the MIKE and WILL roles in camp; not necessarily an entrenched starter, and certainly not paid like one.

Patrick Onwuasor ($4M/year): Buy

A.J. Klein

Klein is my “sure, why not?” buy. Nothing about Klein is sexy, but he’s a trustworthy veteran (7 years experience) who won a starting job in New Orleans after rotating behind Carolina’s stable of talented linebacker for the earlier part of his career.

Klein played the MIKE and the SAM for the Saints at times in 2019, which was something the Eagles liked in Bradham when he was playing well here. Klein also danced on- and off-ball in various blitz packages, which was another role Bradham frequently filled that is left open in the Eagles “Diamond” front.

Klein isn’t the quickest dude, and his man coverage reps can be disappointing at times. But I really like his drop angles when working to cut off throwing lanes — he’s a smart dude — and he has quality size to fill those throwing lanes and discourage passing attempts.

Klein figures to be relatively cheap: he signed for $6M per with the Saints and should demand a very similar figure in 2020, as a low-end starter with positional versatility. If the Eagles want to keep their current LBs in undisturbed roles, Klein is their best play.

A.J. Klein ($6M/year): Buy

Mychal Kendricks

Nah I’m just playing.

Mychal Kendricks: No