Little change was made to the Eagles linebackers during the offseason. In fact, the only meaningful transaction was selecting Nathan Gerry in the fifth round of the draft – and he played safety at Nebraska.
It’s another year of Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham holding down the fort, and from the looks of things, another year of Mychal Kendricks largely standing by and watching. That being said, nothing is ever truly static in the NFL, so is this group of linebackers better or worse than last year’s?
Some observers felt Hicks’ play warranted a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2016. It was certainly a nice season with 85 tackles, 1.0 sack and 5 interceptions – although he padded those numbers somewhat with a couple of picks in a meaningless Week 17 finale. Still, a solid campaign by any measure.
There’s also reason for optimism that Hicks, who turns 25 next week, could be well on his way to a bigger year and the national recognition that comes with it. First and foremost, he made it through ‘16 without major injury, and therefore didn’t spend the offseason rehabbing. Not only that, but it’s Hicks’ second season under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, so he should be comfortable and familiar in his role in the middle of the Eagles defense.
Both good health and continuity are relatively unfamiliar for Hicks, who has been through a lot injuries and systems going back to his college days, often consecutively. For a third-year player of this caliber to have the benefit of a full offseason program, putting work in with a scheme he’s already experienced, this alone has the potential to accelerate development.
Assuming Kendricks isn’t traded – dangerous, but we’ve been waiting two years for speculation to become reality – the Eagles got a little bit deeper behind Hicks and Bradham.
Kendricks and Najee Goode remain the top backups, and are a pair of capable, experienced veterans who can fill in relatively seamlessly. However, behind them is a group of intriguing, young players that may give the Eagles quality options even if Kendricks is moved.
Kamu Grugier-Hill was claimed last September after the sixth-round rookie was waived by the Patriots and appeared exclusively on special teams. Seventh-round choice Joe Walker missed all of his first season with a torn ACL, but rejoins the squad after a year on injured reserve. The Eagles added Nathan Gerry to the mix as well, and while he’s transitioning from safety to linebacker, the club is high on the 22-year-old.
Last year, Walker was on IR, Gerry was in college, and Grugier-Hill was the equivalent of a walk-on with no NFL experience, and no offseason work in Schwartz’s scheme. Whatever the pecking order winds up looking like in 2017, the Eagles appear to have more talent to choose from on the back end of the bench.
Possible suspension for Nigel Bradham?
The good news is Bradham expects to be cleared of assault charges and any legal issues stemming from that incident in the near future. The bad news is Bradham hasn’t been cleared yet, so a positive outcome is not assured. Furthermore, even if Bradham is cleared, he is still subject to a potential suspension from the NFL. Even if it’s only for one game, that would be one game without a starter at linebacker – and a very good one at that.
As good as Hicks was last season, an argument could easily be made Bradham was better. The sixth-year veteran had more tackles (102 to 85), more tackles for loss (10 to 6), more sacks (2.0 to 1.0) and more forced fumbles (2 to 0). It was a really strong year for the free-agent acquisition from the Bills, only to be overshadowed by his legal issues.
It no doubt helped Bradham has been in the league for longer. He also had a career year in Schwartz’s system while the two were Buffalo. The simply reality is the scheme suits Bradham’s abilities perfectly. He’s big and physical, and able to take on blocks and fill gaps behind a wide-nine front, but can also use his size and athleticism to cover tight ends down the field. At 28 years old this September, Bradham probably isn’t going to improve much at this stage of his career, but should also have plenty of prime years left.
The biggest question is will he or won’t he be here come Week 1, but that’s not even the only question with Kendricks. Is he a fit in Schwartz’s scheme? Will he be healthy for 16-plus games? Will Kendricks ever return to form as one of the top playmaking linebackers in the NFL, or was he a flash in the pan who struggles in coverage and tackling in space?
Kendricks truly is one of the biggest mysteries on the roster. In 2013 and ’14, the former second-round pick recorded 8.0 sacks, 3 interceptions and 5 forced fumbles. In 2015, he had 3.0 sacks, no interceptions and 1 forced fumble, and looked clueless while doing it. Last season, Kendricks played only sparingly, and failed to record a single sack, pick or forced fumble.
Part of Kendricks’ issue last season, aside from lack of playing time, is his best trait goes essentially unutilized in the Eagles’ scheme. He’s an outstanding pass rusher, but Schwartz seldom blitzes. That being said, Kendricks also seems to have regressed in coverage – size was always an issue against bigger tight ends, but he’s frequently out of position. Tackling was never his strong suit, either, but seems to have gotten worse.
At this point, Kendricks doesn’t want to be a member of the Eagles, and it’s had to blame him. There apparently hasn’t been much interest the 26-year-old around the league, though, which is not terribly difficult to understand, either. After all, who is Mychal Kendricks really?
BETTER OR WORSE?
If Hicks’ development continues, he could take a big step forward in 2017, which is saying something. Stardom is not out of the question there. Bradham isn’t likely to miss more than a couple games at most and gives the Eagles an excellent combo at linebacker. The depth is clearly better as well. Now, if Kendricks gets traded, this group as a whole is going to look significantly worse on paper. As they’re comprised right now, the Eagles should be marginally improved, at minimum. Better