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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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