Football Outsiders recently wrote about the “biggest roster holes for all 32 teams after the 2020 NFL Draft” and you won’t be surprised to see what was said about the Philadelphia Eagles.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts opens the door for some creative offensive playcalling, but with Carson Wentz on the roster, the Eagles’ selection of Hurts tends toward luxury. The team will likely feel the effects of that indulgence the most at linebacker in 2020. The Eagles addressed the position with their next pick in the third round, but in between, second-tier linebackers who could be immediate every-down players, Zack Baun and Logan Wilson, went off the board. The Eagles’ subsequent pick, Davion Taylor, has the athleticism to become a three-down player in time, but he is inexperienced. He did not play football before he turned 18 and played just two years in the FBS at Colorado. Presumed starters Nathan Gerry and T.J. Edwards have just 19 starts between them, the lion’s share by Gerry in 2019, when, according to Sports Info Solutions, he missed an alarming 29% of his attempted tackles, the highest rate among linebackers with 50 or more attempts. Should either Gerry or Edwards falter, Taylor likely will not be ready to fill in during his rookie season.
Fans polled here at Bleeding Green Nation agree that linebacker is the Eagles’ biggest roster hole. Just look at these results from last week:
The Eagles’ linebacker outlook isn’t uninspiring by accident. The team has clearly devalued the position. An overview of their investments (or lack thereof):
Nathan Gerry — 2017 fifth-round pick
T.J. Edwards — 2019 undrafted rookie free agent signing
Duke Riley — traded Johnathan Cyprien and a 2019 seventh-round pick for Riley and a 2019 sixth-round pick
Davion Taylor - 2020 third-round compensatory pick
Shaun Bradley - 2020 sixth-round pick
Jatavis Brown - minimum contract
Alex Singleton — minimum contract
Dante Olson - 2020 undrafted rookie free agent signing
The reality of the NFL salary cap landscape is that your team can’t be loaded at every position. Every roster is going to have their weaknesses and the Eagles have made their bed at linebacker.
Some of the de-emphasis can be explained by the fact that the Eagles primarily use two linebacker sets. Jim Schwartz isn’t utilizing a base 4-3 defense for the majority of Philly’s snaps; there are instead a lot of nickel and dime looks.
EAGLES LINEBACKER DEFENSIVE SNAP COUNTS
Nigel Bradham - 717
Nathan Gerry - 620
Kamu Grugier-Hill - 300
T.J. Edwards - 112
Duke Riley - 28
Nigel Bradham - 919
Jordan Hicks - 705
Kamu Grugier-Hill - 328
Nathan Gerry - 134
LaRoy Reynolds - 5
Nigel Bradham - 922
Mychal Kendricks - 614
Jordan Hicks - 268
Najee Goode - 200
Kamu Grugier-Hill - 85
Dannell Ellerbe - 76
Nathan Gerry - 20
Nigel Bradham - 989
Jordan Hicks - 970
Mychal Kendricks - 273
Stephen Tulloch - 69
Najee Goode - 2
Still, no matter how much one may try to minimize the importance of the position, there’s still a threshold to be met. And one can only wonder if the 2020 Eagles have enough given how thin they’re looking.
The optimistic projection involves Gerry and Edwards stepping up after previously showing some signs of promise. Gerry demonstrates the football intelligence that the Eagles’ coaching staff raves about. Edwards evolves from role-player to full-time stater. Either Brown or Riley moves into the old Grugier-Hill role as a rotational defensive contributor. Taylor proves to be ready to play sooner than expected. Bradley plays well on special teams and looks like a decent backup.
The negative projection paints Gerry as a missed tackle machine while the athletically-limited Edwards is overmatched by increased playing time. Brown becomes the latest Eagles free agent linebacker signing to fail to make the roster. Riley proves to be a special teams player at best. Taylor can’t sniff the field due to prior inexperience. Bradley only sticks around on the practice squad.
The most realistic projection is bound to be somewhere between those two extremes. I tend to think that — even in the worst case scenario — the Eagles’ 2020 season isn’t going to be totally derailed by a lackluster linebacker corps. But it could certainly contribute to some defensive struggles.
It’s not impossible that the Eagles could look to add more help at linebacker prior to the start of the season (whenever that might be). Howie Roseman could always swing a trade but for whom? The free agent options aren’t worth getting excited about. Does Darron Lee really move the needle for anyone? Re-signing Bradham doesn’t seem to be on the table with the team telling him they like their current linebackers and giving away his old jersey number.
The Eagles seem to be betting on their youth at the linebacker position. We’ll see if it pays off.