THIS JUST IN — the Philadelphia Eagles don’t highly value the linebacker position.
Wow. Shocking, right?
The only team that hasn’t drafted a first-round linebacker since 1979? The team that has the lowest 2020 cap space dedicated to linebackers?
Who could’ve guessed?
Okay, so no one is actually surprised. But let’s dig a little deeper into why the Eagles operate this way.
Football Outsiders recently posted defensive personnel groupings from the 2019 NFL season. Their numbers show that dime defense (meaning, six defensive back sets) increased by 2.7% league-wide and the Eagles were among the contributing teams:
The second-most common pattern was nickel-dime-base, with teams pretty much eschewing an extra linebacker for a third safety most of the time. Some of this can be directly traced back to Bill Belichick: you have his Patriots, defenses led by his former assistants Matt Patricia (Lions) and Jim Schwartz (Eagles), and a defense led by his former player Mike Vrabel (Titans). Ex-Patriots coach Brian Flores’ Dolphins nearly joined the group as well and probably will in 2020. The Ravens, Chiefs, and Saints round out this crowd, giving us six defenses that finished in the upper half of the league and then also the Lions. Some of the heavy defensive back usage may be based on the fact that a lot of these teams were winning a lot, so their opponents were passing a lot, so more defensive backs were needed, but this wasn’t just about teams bleeding out leads with extra backs. The Patriots and Ravens, especially, made three-safety packages a huge part of their look and it paid massive dividends. It makes sense — you don’t want a third or fourth linebacker on the field because it’s no longer the 1980s, but you don’t want to lose that physicality in the box entirely, so you stick an extra safety out there to improve your pass defense without harming your run defense entirely. Maybe in ten years’ time, we’ll be listing third corners and third safeties as starters and pining for the good ol’ days where you might see a front six.
Those last couples sentences there remind me of something Schwartz said back during a September 2017 press conference.
“I go back, I’ve been around a while, when safeties were named ‘Thumper’ — and I had a guy in Tennessee, first name was Tank, and I joked — Tank was a hell of a player, Tank Williams out of Stanford. But Tank was a 235-pound safety. We saw a lot of two-back sets. He was sort of an extra linebacker in there, even though he was fast. I don’t need guys named ‘Hammer’ and ‘Tank’, I need guys named ‘Swifty’ and ‘Ball Hawk’ and ‘The Glove’. Those are nicknames we’re looking for now.”
True to his words, the Eagles haven’t been wont to invest in “old school” linebackers. Instead of focusing on strength and size, they’ve put an emphasis on raw athleticism. Look no further than 2020 offseason additions Jatavis Brown, Davion Taylor, and Shaun Bradley.
2019 in-season acquisition Duke Riley fits the mold, too.
Also look at how the Eagles have taken an interest in former safeties playing the linebacker position, such as Nathan Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill.
The Eagles clearly have a “type” at linebacker. And it’s a type that they ideally don’t want to have on the field all too often. A look back at the past three seasons reveals that Schwartz has been calling more and more dime, which again means more defensive backs and fewer linebackers:
Base — 20% — 22nd
Nickel — 48% — 23rd
Dime — 26% — 8th
Base — 18% — 25th
Nickel — 61% — 17th
Dime — 19% — 10th
Base — 27% — 25th
Nickel — 60% — 13th
Dime — 10% — 15th
Looking at the Eagles’ 2020 offseason, one could surmise that the rise of dime will only continue. Howie Roseman’s additions have the Eagles’ six defensive back packages shaping up like this:
CORNERBACK — Darius Slay, Avonte Maddox, Nickell Robey-Coleman (slot)
SAFETY — Rodney McLeod, Jalen Mills, Will Parks
The likes of K’Von Wallace, Sidney Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and Rasul Douglas could also vie for playing time. The Eagles have some options.
As far as the single dime linebacker goes, well, that’s likely where Gerry comes in. Whitesnake is a divisive player among fans but the coaching staff has expressed trust in him. Still, they’re not realistically counting on Gerry to be a bonafide Pro Bowler as much as they’re thinking they can get by with him.
It’s certainly fair to wonder if the Eagles have done enough at linebacker. There’s room for something in-between spending a first-round pick on, say, Kenneth Murray and eschewing the position as much as they have. There’s still some kind of threshold to be met; it’s not like they can succeed with me or you playing linebacker out there.
But the NFL salary cap dictates that teams are likely going to have weaknesses in some areas and the Eagles have chosen theirs to be at a position they’re gradually utilizing with less frequency.