With the Eagles adding Eric Wilson Wednesday, we have a pretty good idea what the Eagles’ linebacking corps will look like under new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
There’s still a chance the Eagles could draft someone or sign someone else. Certainly, signing Wilson to a one-year contract doesn’t preclude them from drafting Micah Parsons at No. 12 (although that’s unlikely for other reasons).
But it seems most probable that the Eagles will go into 2021 with a linebacking nucleus of Alex Singleton, Wilson and T.J. Edwards, which would be an upgrade over last year, when Singleton, Edwards, Nate Gerry and Duke Riley got virtually all the snaps, as well as 2019 (Nigel Bradham, Gerry, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Zach Brown).
The last year the Eagles got decent play out of their linebackers was 2018, when Bradham was still playing pretty well, Jordan Hicks was healthy for 12 games and Grugier-Hill was OK. But you have to go back to 2017, with Bradham at the top of his game, Mychal Kendricks playing very well in his last season here and Hicks playing at a high level before he got hurt to find a group that really helped the Eagles win games.
How will this group stack up?
Riley, who played 569 snaps last year, is now with the Dolphins, and Gerry, who played 479, is now with the 49ers, so that’s a lot of reps that are available.
Start with Singleton, who proved last year he can be not only a starting linebacker in the NFL but an every-down player. Singleton has always been terrific against the run – his 96 tackles the last nine weeks of last year led the league - but a few games after he replaced the injured Gerry, Jim Schwartz began using Singleton more and more on passing downs, and he showed steady improvement in that area as the year went on. The last eight games of last year, Singleton played 527 of a possible 530 defensive snaps.
That takes us to Wilson, whose strength is in coverage. He did have 122 tackles last year, which is a lot, and he is a physical player. But he also was credited with 20 missed tackles, which is too many. Wilson can play any linebacker position, but because Singleton is such a sound tackler, it makes the most sense to play the former CFL star in the middle, with Wilson outside, where he can use his athleticism to make plays and take advantage of his ability to cover tight ends and running backs.
It will be interesting to see what role T.J. Edwards has. Edwards played 490 snaps in 12 games last year, and that’s 67 percent of the snaps in the games he played. Edwards’ strength is against the run, and while he did show some improvement in coverage in his second year, I wouldn’t expect him to have a significant role anymore on passing downs.
Most teams rarely have three linebackers on the field at the same time, and if Gannon adopts the Mike Zimmer scheme, as expected, the Eagles will be in nickel and dime a ton. Possibly to the point where 4-2-5 may even be considered base.
All of this is dependent on down, distance, score of the game, special teams reps, but I’d expect Singleton to be the workhorse, on the field almost all the time, with Wilson the second linebacker in all but the most obvious running downs and Edwards getting on the field on clear running downs, either with Singleton or with both Singleton and Wilson.
We can’t forget Davion Taylor, who is currently the only linebacker on the roster who was drafted in the first four rounds. Taylor, last year’s 3rd-round pick out of Colorado, only played 32 snaps on defense as a rookie. He is very athletic but also very inexperienced, and it’s hard to tell what role he’ll have on defense if any.
The Eagles also drafted Mount Holly’s Shaun Bradley in the 6th round last year out of Temple. He played 76 snaps on defense and at this point projects as a core special teamer if he’s on the roster.
Genard Avery is still here and apparently now a linebacker, and if he’s on the roster he’ll most likely be a situational pass rusher in certain sub packages.
The other linebackers on the roster are 23-year-old street free agents Joe Bachie out of Michigan State and Rashad Smith out of Florida Atlantic, who both got to play a couple dozen snaps late last season.
The Eagles don’t have any linebackers left who were on the roster in 2018. Their opening-day starters in 2019 were Bradham and Brown, with Gerry the only other linebacker to play. As recently as last year’s opener, Gerry and Riley got most of the snaps.
So we’re seeing a real overhaul of the position. And considering how the last few years have gone, that can only be a positive.
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