Eagles

Eagles

It’s not true that the Eagles have never devoted significant resources to linebackers.

They have a few times during Howie Roseman’s two terms as general manager.

But for every big-ticket free agent or premium-round draft pick, there’ve been a bus load of Moise Fokous, Najee Goodes and Keenan Claytons.

The Eagles’ linebacker philosophy under Roseman has been the source of tremendous debate among Eagles fans, and understandably so.

Do the Eagles simply not value the position? Or do they just have trouble evaluating linebackers?

Probably a little of both. The days of lining up with three backers in base defense are over. Nickel and dime defenses have become the norm as teams use more and more three- and four-wides, and these days your third corner is on the field a lot more than your third linebacker.

Still … you need guys who can play. Who can tackle. Who can cover a back out of the backfield. Who can blitz now and then.

It’s tough to argue with the Eagles’ decision to cut ties with Nigel Bradham. He was owed $8 million, he turns 31 before opening day and his level of play has dropped significantly since his terrific 2017 season.

But how are they going to replace him? 

Right now, the Eagles have only four linebackers under contract – Nate Gerry, Alex Singleton, T.J. Edwards and Duke Riley. A former 5th-round pick, an undrafted free agent from the CFL, an undrafted free agent from Wisconsin and a special teamer acquired in a trade.

 

This isn’t unusual.

During Roseman’s two tenures as GM — 2010 through 2014 and 2016 through now — the Eagles have cobbled together linebacking corps while rarely making a big commitment to the position in terms of money or draft picks.

Is it time for that to change?

Let’s take a look at every linebacker Roseman has acquired in his decade as Eagles GM, how he was acquired and what resources the Eagles used to get him.

We’ll break it down into various categories. The number on the left is how many games that player started in an Eagles uniform. An asterisk means the player was acquired during Chip Kelly's year as GM in 2015.

Premium draft picks [1-3]

74 … Mychal Kendricks [2nd-round pick, 2012]
40* … Jordan Hicks [3rd-round pick, 2015]

Hicks was drafted by Chip Kelly, so he really doesn’t count on Howie’s record. Kendricks is the only linebacker the Eagles have taken in the first two rounds since Matt McCoy in 2005, and he’s arguably the best linebacker the Eagles have had over the last decade. He was essentially a six-year starter, a starter on the Super Bowl team, active against the run and solid in coverage. 

The same could be said for Hicks, although injuries derailed three of his four seasons here. And when he became a free agent? The Ealges let him leave and sign a big contract with the Cards without even trying to keep him.

Mid-round draft picks [4-5]

1 … Keenan Clayton [4th-round pick 2010]
16 … Casey Matthews [4th-round pick 2011]

The middle rounds haven’t been kind to the Eagles. Neither Clayton nor Matthews made an impact during their brief Eagles tenures.

Late-round draft picks [6-7]

13 … Brian Rolle [6th-round pick 2011]
23 … Jamar Chaney [7th-round pick 2010]
3 … Joe Walker [7th-round pick 2016]
15 … Nate Gerry [5th-round 2016]

Gerry is a functional starter and gives great effort and will be in the mix for a starting job in 2020, but all these guys are essentially special teamers who carved out a role on defense. None are or were impact players.

Undrafted rookies

4 … T.J. Edwards [2019]

Edwards averaged about 7.0 defensive snaps per game last year and showed some promise. Will he develop into anything more than a special teamer and role player on defense? Remains to be seen.

Real free agents

64 … Connor Barwin [March 14, 2013, 6 years, $36m, $8m guar.]
58 … Nigel Bradham [March 9, 2016, 2 years, $7 million]
6 … Zach Brown [May 3, 2019, 1 year, $1.4 million]
1 … Stephen Tulloch [Aug. 21, 2016, 1 year, $3 million]

OK, here’s where the Eagles had some success. The Eagles signed Barwin to a big contract, and he was a terrific fit in Bill Davis’s 3-4 front. He made his only Pro Bowl in 2014 when he had 14 ½ sacks, and he had 31 ½ sacks  in four seasons here, including 2016 as a kind of imperfect fit at defensive end under Jim Schwartz. 

Bradham was good enough in 2016 and in the 2017 Super Bowl season to earn a new contract, and it was a big-money deal but was also very team friendly.

 

Brown and Tulloch got small deals and made little impact.

Street free agents

2 … Dannell Ellerbe [Nov. 13, 2017]

Ellerbe was actually the Eagles’ third linebacker during the Super Bowl season. The Super Bowl was the 92nd and final game of his career.

Practice squad call-ups

2 … Emmanuel Acho [Oct. 21, 2013]

Another cheap-o guy who was mainly a special teamer but had a small but insignificant role on defense for a couple years.

Trades

53 … DeMeco Ryans [March 20, 2012, from Texans for 4th-round pick]
15 … Ernie Sims [April 19, 2010, from Lions for 5th-round pick]
1* … Kiko Alonso [March 10, 2015, from Bills for LeSean McCoy]

Roseman was able to get some big-name linebackers via trades without giving up significant draft picks for any them. 

Of course the Kiko trade was Chip’s, and Howie did an incredible job flipping Kiko and Byron Maxwell to the Dolphins as part of the Eagles’ trade frenzy that ultimately landed Carson Wentz.

Ryans was by far the best of this bunch, and he did sign an extension in 2015. But that was a Chip extension and it was really more of a restructure than a huge new contract.

Waiver claims

16 … Kamu Grugier-Hill [Sept. 4, 2016, from Patriots]
4 … Najee Goode [Sept. 2, 2013, from Buccaneers]

Kamu cost the Eagles nothing. They claimed him from the Patriots, and he played his entire career here on a bargain-basement rookie 6th-round contract he signed with the Patriots. He played well during the Super Bowl season and is now a free agent.

Guys Howie inherited

27 … Akeem Jordan
22 … Moise Fokou
12 … Stewart Bradley
11 … Chris Gocong
6 … Omar Gaither
10 … Will Witherspoon
1 … Joe Mays

When Howie was named GM in January of 2010, he cut ties with Witherspoon, Mays and Gocong. The Eagles kept Bradley and Gaither through 2010, Fokou through 2011 and Jordan through 2012, but none ever got a new contract under Roseman.

Conclusion

In their 10 offseasons under Roseman, the Eagles have rarely expended significant resources on linebackers.

They’ve drafted only one in the first three rounds, spent significant money on only one free agent, acquired only one Pro Bowler via trade and given a contract extension to only one guy since Kendricks.

But those four – Kendricks, Barwin, Ryans and Bradham – have been their best linebackers over the last decade. 

Two of them were starters on the Super Bowl team.

Hicks would be on that list had he been able to stay healthy, and he too was a premium draft pick.

You can find linebackers. You can find serviceable guys who can get you through a few games or even a season in the late rounds, on the waiver wire or via trades.

But the notion that the position isn’t important? That you don’t need productive linebackers to have a decent defense? That you can fake your way to a championship with a group of over-achieving late-round draft picks, CFL converts and practice squad call-ups?

 

It’s just not true.

Just ask Barwin, Ryans, Kendricks or Bradham.

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