Jordan Hicks

From street free agent to Eagles' starting LB in 6 weeks

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Photo: NBCSP

From street free agent to Eagles' starting LB in 6 weeks

In a matter of six weeks, Dannell Ellerbe appears to have gone from street free agent to the Eagles' starting middle linebacker.

After lining up for all of one defensive snap in his first five games with the Eagles, Ellerbe popped up in a prominent role in the 19-10 win Monday over the Raiders. The veteran made the start at MIKE and was on the field for 39 percent of the plays.

From the sound of things, this wasn't a one-off, either. The middle linebacker job appears to be Ellerbe's.

"It's probably more the way we're leaning going forward," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Wednesday.

While Ellerbe's expanded role was somewhat unexpected, Schwartz indicated the move had been in the works for some time.

"He had a lot of things we liked, it just wasn't an overnight thing getting him in there," Schwartz said. "But he's worked really hard at it, and I think it showed in the game."

The Eagles have been searching for a solution in the middle since Jordan Hicks was lost for the season to a ruptured Achilles in Week 7.

Nigel Bradham has taken on Hicks' play-calling responsibilities, but he and fellow starter Mychal Kendricks are natural outside linebackers. Second-year player Joe Walker auditioned in the middle but had not played since suffering a stinger against the Bears in November. Special teams ace Najee Goode got some looks as well.

Yet it seems Ellerbe was being groomed to take over from the beginning. Signed during the Eagles' bye week, the 32-year-old just needed time to get up to speed.

"Just like any other player," Schwartz said, "he's still got a long way to go, but I like the way he's trending, and we think that he can help us going forward."

Ellerbe wasn't with an NFL team during training camp or OTAs, and he likely needed time just to get back into football shape. Schwartz's scheme was also new to Ellerbe, who primarily played weakside linebacker in stops with the Saints, Dolphins and Raiders.

With the playoffs quickly creeping up, it was time to see what the Eagles' new toy could do vs. the Raiders.

"He's a tough, inside-run defender," Schwartz said, "used his hands well, was active, stepped up, and made a big tackle for a loss in that game."

In what was essentially his Eagles debut, Ellerbe finished with four tackles in 27 snaps and played four snaps on special teams as well.

Despite being named the starter, Ellerbe may not play as prominent a role every week. Bradham and Kendricks remained the linebackers in the Eagles' nickel package, which means Ellerbe's workload will hinge on how opposing offenses choose to attack.

Even in a limited capacity, Ellerbe brings something to the MIKE spot his competition did not: experience.

Ellerbe has appeared in 89 games, including playoffs, making 50 starts. He won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012 and has been a productive player in the league for a long time. Injuries were the only reason he was on the street in the first place.

Apparently healthy and up to speed, Ellerbe is ready to make an impact for the Eagles, exactly as Bradham predicted at the time of the signing.

"For us following the game for some time, we've all seen him play," Bradham said back in November. "He's a physical, hard-nosed linebacker. He has speed. He's going to be a great addition for us, and he added depth. We're even deeper now."

Quite a Christmas present coming for Jordan Hicks

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USA Today Images

Quite a Christmas present coming for Jordan Hicks

It won't be a surprise, but Jordan Hicks is going to get a pretty great Christmas present this year. 

He won't find it under his tree either. 

Hicks, who has been recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and surgery, will hit another big milestone in his recovery on Dec. 25. That's the day the walking boot comes off of his right foot. 

"Real good present, right?" Hicks said. 

Hicks, 25, tore his right Achilles on the second play from scrimmage against Washington on Oct. 23. Having already torn his left Achilles in college, Hicks knew immediately that his season was over and a long recovery was ahead of him. 

But Hicks has no doubt he'll return to being the same player he was before. He thinks he'll be even better. 

"Oh there's no question about that," Hicks said on Friday, speaking to a group of reporters in the Eagles' locker room for the first time since the injury. "There's no question about that. I'll be fine. I did my left Achilles in college and came back better. I know more, the advancements are better. There's no doubt in my mind I'll be a better player when I come back."

Hicks said the normal recovery time from an Achilles rupture is six to nine months. The six-month mark will be April. He expects to be back for training camp and be completely ready for next season. 

Before suffering this Achilles tear, Hicks had been dealing with an ankle injury on his left leg. Hicks, who has been labeled as an injury-prone player since college, was very proud of playing all 16 games in 2016. So when that ankle injury popped up earlier this season, he tried to play through it. That ankle injury led to a calf injury in his right leg and then the Achilles popped. Hicks thinks overcompensating for the initial injury led to a more serious one. 

"I think a couple weeks could have helped me, but it's always easy to look back," Hicks said. "Hindsight is 20/20. I wouldn't change anything just because it's my personality. It's who I am. All I want to do is be there for my teammates. Every time I step out there, the biggest goal for me is to have my teammates know that I'm their leader and I can be accountable. For me to sit here and say I shouldn't have been out there those weeks, it's hard for me to say that because all I want to do is be out there."

Hicks lasted just a couple plays in that Washington game before his Achilles popped, which put him right back on that road to recovery. And initially, it wasn't easy. Jason Peters joined him in the locker room a quarter later with his own season-ending injury and tried to raise his spirits, but that didn't change the fact that Hicks' season was over.

And for the second time in his three-year career, he knew he would end the season on injured reserve. 

"The grief set in," he said. "For the first week or so, it was tough, but man, there's no time for that. There's no time to sit here and sulk. There's no time to think about what could have been. ... All I'm focusing on is making sure I'm better and ready next year for my guys. That's all it is. For me, it's about accountability."

While Hicks made a rare appearance in the Eagles' locker room during media time on Friday, he's been around the building plenty. He and the Eagles' other injured players have remained involved despite their injuries. In fact, every week, Hicks studies opponent film to see how they handle blitzes. And every Friday, he gets in front of the defense to present it. 

After the injury, Jim Schwartz came to him and asked him to do this. 

"It's easy to isolate yourself in situations like this," Hicks said. "For him to come up to me and ask me to do that was big. I try to keep guys' spirits up and share my perspective." 

For the last month and a half, Hicks has been around the team but has been forced to watch games on TV, which he said is really tough. He hopes that's about to end. He'll be in North Jersey this weekend for the Giants game and hopes he'll be back on the sideline. 

"It's tough," Hicks said. "It's never easy to go through something like this. It tests your patience, this tests your character. You learn a lot through these times because it is so difficult. You have to really grind through some hard times. Put your head down and I think your character is really shown through this."

Doug Pederson adamant Eagles can overcome the ultimate loss

Doug Pederson adamant Eagles can overcome the ultimate loss

Remember when the Eagles lost Jason Peters and Jordan Hicks and Darren Sproles and plenty of folks thought the season was over? 

Doug Pederson does. 

Sure, this isn't exactly an apples-to-oranges comparison. Losing a left tackle or a middle linebacker or a running back isn't the same thing as losing an MVP-level quarterback entering his prime. It would be unfair to suggest they're the same. 

But Pederson has seen his team hurdle over every obstacle this year. With the biggest one yet now in front of it, it's his job to convince his team it can do it again. 

On Monday, Pederson tried to convince fans who have prematurely canceled Christmas. 

"To the fans out there, you can't lose faith," Pederson said. "This has been a resilient football team all season long. If there's ever an opportunity for me as a head football coach to rally the troops, now might be the time. 

"We just came off a tremendous victory to win the NFC East. Guys are riding extremely high. It's a little bittersweet. But you know what? We've got the Giants this week and we've got an opportunity to ... if you win Sunday, you get a first-round bye. There's still a lot to play for. That's what's exciting about this season. We're still playing for the opportunity to hopefully be in that game."

Pederson, just after delivering news of a torn ACL, was adamant that his team can overcome the loss of Carson Wentz

"It sure can," he said. "Heck yeah." 

It won't be easy. Before leaving Sunday's game, Wentz threw his 33rd touchdown pass of the 2017 season, breaking the Eagles' franchise record that had stood since 1961. But more than touchdown passes, Wentz made special plays seemingly every week, plays that only a handful of quarterbacks in the world can make. 

Nick Foles is a pretty adequate backup, and he did a nice job when called upon against the Rams. But he ain't Carson Wentz. Everyone, including his teammates, knows that. 

It's just that they don't have time to wallow in the loss of their superstar leader. Next weekend might be huge. 

A win against the Giants would earn the Eagles a first-round bye. A win against the Giants, paired with a Vikings loss, would earn them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. After another obstacle was dropped in front of them on Monday morning, the Eagles can still help themselves. 

Pederson's role in all this is vital. He has to be the guy to hold it all together.  

"It's huge," he said. "I think even the guys felt it after the game yesterday. We just rally and we support the next guy. From my standpoint, you don't waver, man. You don't let people see you sweat, you just put your head down and you go to work. You get everybody ready to play. It was evident yesterday when Carson was out of the game, you saw Nick come in and come back and lead us to victory in that game. That right there is a great step in the right direction."