Through five games this season, the Eagles have been playing Nate Gerry, Duke Riley, T.J. Edwards and now Alex Singleton at linebacker.
For the most part, their draft picks have stayed on the bench.
The Eagles used a third-round pick on Davion Taylor out of Colorado and a sixth-round pick on Shaun Bradley out of Temple this spring. Both have been active for every game but have combined for just 14 defensive snaps, all of which have come from Bradley.
Because the linebackers in front of them on the depth chart haven’t played particularly well — in fact, linebacker is arguably the weakest position on the team — fans are understandably ready to see if these draft picks can help. It’s not an unreasonable question.
So … how close are these rookies to actually playing?
“They’re all making progress, they’re physically talented,” Eagles DC Jim Schwartz said on Tuesday. “When we can work them in, we’ll work them in when it makes sense to the 11 guys on defense.
“We’re in the business of doing whatever we can to win games and doing what we think is best to win games. When it’s time for those guys that we think it’s best for us to win games with them on the field, we’ll do it.”
Now, we all kind of understood the situation with Taylor when the Eagles drafted him. He was athletic but extremely raw after not really playing high school football. And Bradley is athletic too but was a sixth-round pick for a reason, right? Additionally, Schwartz has stressed that linebacker is one of the toughest positions to learn in his defense.
But the problem is that on Tuesday, when Schwartz rebuffed the idea that the Eagles haven’t prioritized the linebacker position, he brought up those two draft picks, along with the free-agent money they spent on Nigel Bradham years ago.
“We have the guys that we have,” Schwartz said. “We’re going to work hard to put those guys in good position. But I don’t think from anyone’s standpoint it’s not a priority for us.”
C’mon, Jim. No one is buying that.
We all understand that the Eagles haven’t prioritized the linebacker position for years and in 2020 they took that to a new extreme. This season, the Eagles are spending the least on linebackers of any team in the league. They’re at just $3.8 million, according to Spotrac.
While Schwartz certainly has more personnel say than your average defensive coordinator, he was happy to punt on a question about the resources allocated to the linebacker position among players who are actually on the field this season.
“I’ll leave team-building stuff and roster management stuff to Doug (Pederson) and Howie (Roseman),” Schwartz said. “I really can’t answer your question right there. I’m confident in the guys we have. We’re getting the young guys up to speed. I think our emphasis is on 11 guys playing better, not any one position.”
It’s pretty clear the Eagles haven’t emphasized the linebacker position in recent years. They have continually gone with bargain-bin options that haven’t worked.
Look at their linebacker free-agent additions and draft picks in the last five years:
2016: Deontae Skinner, Brandon Hepburn, Najee Goode, Nigel Bradham, Stephen Tulloch
2017: Goode, Steven Daniels, Carlos Fields, Dannell Ellerbe
2018: Corey Nelson, Paul Worrilow, LaRoy Reynolds
2019: Alex Singleton, Worrilow, L.J. Fort, Zach Brown, Chris Worley
2020: Jatavis Brown
2016: Joe Walker (7th round)
2017: Nathan Gerry (5th round)
2020: Davion Taylor (3rd round), Shaun Bradley (6th round)
So the only significant free-agent money the Eagles have spent at linebacker in recent years went to Bradham. They also let Jordan Hicks walk in free agency after 2018 and let Kamu Grugier-Hill walk in free agency this past offseason as they also cut ties with Bradham.
They tried to replace Bradham and Grugier-Hill this season by promoting from within and signing Jatavis Brown, who abruptly retired before the season. Even if Brown played this year, it’s far from a guarantee that he would have played well.
The Eagles finally spent a Day 2 pick on a linebacker this year but they took a player who wasn’t ready to make an immediate impact. Maybe Taylor becomes a great player but that doesn’t help them now.
So that leaves Bradley, the sixth-round pick from Temple. I don’t know if he’s really ready for a bigger role on defense, but based on what I’ve seen so far from this linebacker position, I’m ready to find out.