Eagles

Looking deeper into Eagles’ training camp battle at linebacker

Eagles

It’s the final full week before Eagles training camp begins so we’re taking a closer look at five notable camp competitions.

We’ve already looked at left tackle, cornerback, running back and receiver.

Up today: Linebacker

For a first time in a while, the Eagles’ situation at linebacker heading into this season doesn’t look all that dire.

That’s not to say the Eagles are stacked at the linebacker position. They’re not. But with the steadily increasing usage of sub packages in the NFL, the Eagles at least seem to have two pretty decent linebackers in Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton.

It looks likely that Wilson and Singleton — who both had breakout seasons in 2020 — will be the Eagles’ top two linebackers in Jonathan Gannon’s new system.

That’s a decent start.

But there is a position battle brewing for playing time after that. And, remember, the reason Wilson and Singleton had breakout seasons last year is because guys in front of them in Minnesota and in Philly got hurt. So the depth chart behind the top two guys definitely matters.

Gannon seems to be a pretty smart DC, who will be focused on getting the most out of his players. So it would even make some sense if he has different players in different packages depending on situations. So on its face, the Eagles will have three linebackers in their base package, two in nickel, one in dime, but there might be some mixing and matching too.

 

So there’s plenty of reason to watch this position during the 2021 training camp. It feels pretty safe to put Wilson and Singleton atop the pecking order, but it’s also worth taking a closer look at the other players fighting for jobs and playing time:

T.J. Edwards

Age: 24

Experience: Year 3

Size: 6-1, 242

The Eagles have gotten quite a lot out of Edwards in his first two years after they signed him as an undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin. Right now, Edwards feels like the third linebacker, the guy who will be out there with Wilson and Singleton in the base package. While Edwards isn’t the best cover linebacker, he’s just a solid all-around player. He wasn’t drafted, likely because he doesn’t possess ultra athletic qualities, but his awareness and instincts are good enough to sometimes make up for it. He’s always in the right spot, he rarely makes mistakes and he’s a sure-tackler. It’s easy to see why coaches tend to like him. And he has more upside than he gets credit for. Just look at his game against Dallas last year: 13 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF.

After starting four games in 2019, Edwards was a full-time starter in 2020. He played in 12 games and started all 12. He had 70 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 5 TFLs and an interception. He was one of just nine linebackers in the NFL last year with 70 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles and the only one to do it in fewer than 14 games. Sure, he might be limited, but Edwards is good enough to have a role.

Davion Taylor

Age: 22

Experience: Year 2

Size: 6-1, 230

In a lot of ways, Taylor is almost like the opposite of Edwards. He was a third-round pick last year largely because of his raw athletic ability. But he still has a long way to go as a football player. He began his football career late after not really playing in high school but still went on to play pretty well at Colorado. But the Eagles drafted him knowing they probably wouldn’t get a ton out of him as a rookie and they were right. Taylor played just a total of 32 defensive snaps last season.

The really frustrating thing about Taylor’s lack of usage last year was that the Eagles weren’t great at the position. It’s not like there was much blocking him from seeing the field more and he still couldn’t get out there. Sure, he played 40% of the Eagles’ special teams snaps but that’s not why they used a third-round pick on him. A problem here might be that Taylor has more upside but Edwards is a better player. How do the coaches handle a situation like that?

 

Shaun Bradley

Age: 24

Experience: Year 2

Size: 6-1, 240

The Eagles used a third-round pick on Taylor last year and then came back in the sixth round and drafted Bradley, who actually played more on defense than his fellow rookie. Bradley still didn’t see a ton of action but he did play 76 defensive snaps. But he also played 284 snaps (64%) on special teams. That alone is worth a sixth-round pick and Bradley will have a roster spot this year at least for special teams purposes.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that Bradley was ahead of Taylor last year. While Taylor has all the raw tools to become a very good cover linebacker, Bradley played a lot of college football. He might not have the upside but he is at least solid and he did run a 4.51 at 235 pounds so he at least has plenty of speed.

JaCoby Stevens

Age: 23

Experience: Rookie

Size: 6-1, 212

These next two players are Eagles’ draft picks but they’re very different. They’re both listed as “linebackers” but that’s really just a title. Stevens, a sixth-round pick, was listed as a safety at LSU but he handled a lot of the same hybrid responsibilities we can probably expect from him in Philadelphia. There are plenty of these safety-linebacker hybrids in the NFL this year and the Eagles haven’t been shy about eyeing that type of role for him. The fact that the Eagles took him at all at least points toward them having some sort of role in mind for him.

While it’s no guarantee that Stevens makes the roster, I like his chances as the sixth guy. Like I said, I think they have a specific role in mind for him on defense and coming from a program like LSU, I think he’ll be able to acclimate to the NFL a little easier than most. And if nothing else, he has the potential to be a special teams contributor.

Patrick Johnson

Age: 23

Experience: Rookie

Size: 6-2, 240

Johnson was a seventh-round pick out of Tulane and is another player who gives us the feeling that the Eagles have a specific role for him in mind. Although, I’m less confident about his likelihood to win a roster spot. Johnson was a defensive end in college and the Eagles are listing him as a linebacker, so it sounds like he’s going to be a standup rusher with some limited opportunities to drop into coverage.

I could see Johnson landing on the practice squad as the Eagles grow their defensive scheme. But between the Johnson pick and the reported news that Genard Avery was moving to linebacker, it seems like this could be a niche in Gannon’s defense, at least at some point.

Rashad Smith

Age: 24

Experience: Year 2

Size: 6-1, 220

Smith went undrafted out of Florida Atlantic a year ago and after some time with the Bears and Cowboys, he joined the Eagles’ practice squad in early November. He was elevated for two games and played 23 defensive snaps and 12 on special teams. Because of the players in front of him who were drafted, it feels like Smith has an uphill battle to make the roster.

 

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