Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at linebacker?

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at linebacker?

Jordan Hicks is back after missing much of the previous season with an injury, but his return helped push Mychal Kendricks out the door.

Kendricks was released and signed with the Browns. Hicks is working his way back from a major injury. Did the 2018 Eagles linebackers take a step forward as a result of the swap, or gamble breaking up a dynamic Super Bowl-winning tandem?

Better

Playmaking

Kendricks enjoyed a resurgent season in 2017, coming off the bench and performing serviceably in his enhanced role after Hicks’ injury. Yet, the big plays were largely absent from the Eagles’ linebacker corps as a result of the switch. Kendricks recorded zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero fumble recoveries, including playoffs.

That’s unlikely to be the case with Hicks, as long as he’s healthy. The Eagles’ middle linebacker showed a knack for coming up with big plays his first two seasons, racking up seven interceptions, one forced fumble and five recoveries.

Hicks is attempting to recover from a ruptured Achilles, so there’s always a chance he’s slowed by the injury or not quite 100 percent when the season begins. Then again, he’s so much more of an instinctive player than Kendricks, even losing a step, Hicks is likely to wind up with the football in his hands more frequently. It may be only a handful of plays, but those are the ones that swing the outcomes of games.

Worse

Pass rushing

One area where Kendricks might be superior to Hicks is behind the line of scrimmage. Kendricks’ 2.0 sacks in ’17 match Hicks’ career total, and he has 14.0 in six years. Kendricks also graded as the most productive pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus with 13 total pressures in 49 blitz attempts.

Of course, therein lies one of the problems with Kendricks’ ability. Under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Eagles don’t really make full use of his elite athleticism, often preferring to rush four rather than send the house.

It’s difficult to gauge how much of a loss Kendricks’ speed off the edge will be considering he was in line to play about 25 percent of the snaps if he stuck around. Regardless, his departure creates a void in that role.

The same

Nigel Bradham

At least the Eagles managed to retain reliable Bradham, who was their biggest priority in free agency this offseason. A case could be made the seventh-year veteran is the team’s best linebacker, too — not injury-prone, like Hicks, but consistent and always plays under control, unlike Kendricks.

Bradham will miss opening night due to a one-game suspension for an off-field incident, but when he returns, the Eagles have a reliable defender who can play strongside — his natural position — or in the middle. The seventh-year player posted 205 tackles, 3.0 sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles in two seasons with the club.

The unknown

Weakside linebacker

Kendricks’ departure does create a void at weakside linebacker, and it’s currently unclear who the Eagles will choose to fill it. Corey Nelson was signed away from the Broncos in free agency, but played special teams for most of his four seasons there. Special teams ace Kamu Grugier-Hill and 2017 fifth-round pick Nathan Gerry are also in the mix, and even more unproven than Nelson.

Fortunately, the weakside spot is only on the field roughly a quarter of the time, so it’s not the biggest of holes. It was also a job in which Kendricks didn’t particularly excel.

Better or worse?

Given Kendricks’ struggles in the weakside spot in previous years, how Nelson or the competition will fare probably isn’t the greatest of concerns. The top two linebacker spots are what matter most here, and getting Hicks back is a huge boost. Kendricks does a few things very well, but is more of a liability in coverage, and the Eagles’ lack of urgency to use his ability to attack made him a poor fit. The linebackers may be only marginally improved given their depth is still a question mark, but Hicks is an upgrade. BETTER

More on the Eagles

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at running back?

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at running back?

The Eagles’ leading rusher a season ago, LeGarrette Blount, was allowed to walk in free agency. Of course, the team already picked up his replacement, Jay Ajayi, in an October trade with the Dolphins.

The changing of the guard is complete in the running backs room, but are the 2018 Eagles better for it?

Better

Younger

Blount proved there was something left in the tank, but was running on fumes by December. Over his final eight games including playoffs, the 31-year-old averaged 3.5 yards per attempt or below in all but two — a meaningless Week 17 contest against the Cowboys and 14-carry, 90-yard performance in Super Bowl LII.

The Eagles should be better served by fresh legs down the stretch. Ajayi, 25, quickly snatched the lead role from Blount with a healthy 5.3-yard average after the trade, bringing a needed explosive element to the offense. And Corey Clement, 23, is in line for more touches after racking up 616 yards from scrimmage and leading the team’s backs with seven total touchdowns.

Blount served his purpose. His bruising, between-the-tackles rushing style simply isn’t conducive for a running back’s body holding up over a full season at that age. With a split workload, wearing down shouldn’t be an issue for Ajayi and Clement.

Worse

Ball security

Somewhat surprisingly, the most troubling aspect of the Ajayi trade wasn’t his bad knee, which has been referred to as a ticking time bomb — not yet, anyway.

That’s a concern, although the more immediate question is whether Ajayi can take care of this fumbling problem. He’s now put the ball on the carpet eight times over the past two seasons, or once every 73 touches. Only Tavon Austin has coughed it up more during that span.

Ball security is paramount. It doesn’t matter how fresh Ajayi is in January. If he fumbles at the wrong time, it can cost the Eagles their season.

The same

Darren Sproles

Technically, you can call this an upgrade, seeing as the Eagles were without Sproles since September of last season. The important thing is the Eagles know what they’re getting when they plug the three-time Pro Bowl selection into the lineup. He’s a shifty ball carrier who can get to the second and third levels quickly, and a matchup problem as a receiver out of the backfield.

Sproles is 35 and coming back from a torn ACL, issues we addressed in a previous chapter. Despite those concerns, as a special weapon getting 5-10 touches per game, he has enough short-distance quickness and veteran savvy to get the job done.

The unknown

Donnel Pumphrey

Chosen in the fourth round in last year’s draft, Pumphrey looked completely out of place in preseason action. The NCAA’s all-time leading rusher averaged 1.9 yards per carry, 5.5 yards per reception and couldn’t get much going in the return game, either.

Listed at 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, is Pumphrey too slight to play in the NFL? With 4.48 speed, is he not elusive enough to dodge hits at this level? Maybe.

It’s also possible Pumphrey was some combination of slowed by a hamstring injury (he eventually landed on injured reserve in September, though it’s unclear whether it was related), a little in over his head learning the playbook and not put in a position to succeed in the third-string offense. Yes, he needed to bulk up and needs to adapt to the speed of the game, but the Eagles felt the 23-year-old warranted another look. We’ll see.

Better or worse?

Blount exceeded some expectations last season, but the late-season declines have become a regular occurrence. It’s only a matter of time before he’s plodding and un-menacing in September, too. Give those touches to Ajayi and Clement, mix in Sproles, and maybe even a dash or Pumphrey or Wendell Smallwood, and this has the making of a much more dynamic group than a season ago. BETTER
 

More on the Eagles

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at defensive back?

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at defensive back?

Arguably the Eagles’ biggest offseason departure, Patrick Robinson jumped to the Saints in free agency, leaving a massive void at nickel cornerback. On the bright side, the secondary could receive a boost from Jones after the 22-year-old corner essentially redshirted his rookie season because of injury.

Is the influx of young, unproven talent in 2018 enough to make up for the loss of a veteran starter who was playing at a high level last season? The Eagles will soon find out.

Better

More talent at cornerback

Apart from Robinson’s exit, there’s reason to be bullish about this group of corners.

Naturally, Jones stands out. The Eagles wound up with a potential steal in the 2017 draft after Jones, a potential top-ten pick overall, fell to the second round with a ruptured Achilles. He spent all last season rehabbing the injury, only appearing in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Cowboys, and finally expects to be healthy and ready to contribute full-time in year two.

Jones isn’t the only cause for optimism. Fellow class of ’17 member, Rasul Douglas, has a full season under his belt and should continue improving. The Eagles also spent a fourth-round choice on Avonte Maddox, a potential plug-and-play option in the slot. Even returning starter Ronald Darby stands to benefit from offseason program and with last year’s dislocated ankle behind him.

Worse

Nickel cornerback

No matter who takes over in this spot, there’s likely to be some drop-off. Not only was Robinson a savvy vet with previous success in that role, which isn’t currently the case for any of the candidates. He also posted a opponents’ passer rating among 61.8 opponents passer rating in coverage in the slot, third-lowest among qualifying corners.

The Eagles will enter camp with a competition to take over in the slot, with Jones, Maddox, Darby, Jalen Mills and even De’Vante Bausby all getting looks. Surely somebody from that collection of players will do okay. Just don’t expect the level of dominance Robinson brought to the job.

The same

Safety duo

With all the changes at corner, it should be reassuring to know Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod return, lending stability on the back end. Jenkins is coming off his second trip to the Pro Bowl in three seasons, while McLeod remains quietly solid as the unit’s centerfielder.

Corey Graham is still a free agent as of this writing, but it’s highly probable he or another vet will sign with the Eagles at some point to fill the third safety job. Whenever that comes to pass, the position will look roughly the same as it did a season ago.

The unknown

Sidney Jones

While the buzz surrounding Jones is certainly understandable, the harsh reality is he’s essentially a rookie coming off a major injury. Top-ten talents miss, too, even when they show up to the NFL with both of their Achilles tendons fully intact.

One positive is Jones didn’t look like he was in over his head in very limited action for the Eagles last season. At 6-foot-0, 181 pounds, and with 4.4 speed – if healthy – he certainly has the tools to play at this level. Then again, Jones already missed a bunch of practices during OTAs, calling his durability into some question.

Until Jones gets on the field and proves it, he’s a first-year player recovering from a serious injury. Everything else is merely a projection.

Better or worse?

This is a close call. The Eagles appear to have more overall talent with the additions of Jones and Maddox, and continued development of others in the system. In theory, more talent usually makes for a better unit. Then again, it’s unclear whether any of those players can perform at a high level in the slot, where Robinson was one of the stingiest defenders in the league last year. Without a clear-cut solution there, it’s difficult to escape the feeling the Eagles got a little WORSE despite being deeper.