Next in our ongoing series, we will be taking a look at the Eagles linebackers. This unit has been largely ignored for years as the Eagles have fully committed to nickel as a base defense. Is 2020 the year that the lack of talent finally catches up with them?
Eagles Positional Breakdown Archives
Nate Gerry was the Eagles 5th round selection in the 2017 draft. A safety for the University of Nebraska in college, Gerry was drafted to be a hybrid player for the Eagles before he ultimately transitioned to being a full-time linebacker. Last season Gerry was given a 58.3 ranking by PFF and was rated much better against the run than against the pass. He brings experience to the linebacker position after Nigel Bradham was cut and Kamu Grugier-Hill signed elsewhere in the offseason. He isn’t the most athletic or most instinctual player you will see. In fact, Gerry’s instincts are quite bad. He is overly aggressive against the run with the end result that play-action pass plays almost never fail to pull him out of position. With Gerry set to call the shots for the Eagles defense this season expect to see a lot of plays targeting the middle of the field.
Edwards signed with the Eagles as a UDFA last season and managed to get on the field for 111 defensive snaps, primarily on running downs. He has a nose for the football and always seemed to be around the ball at the end of the play recording 30 tackles in those 111 snaps, an astonishing 27% tackle rate, highest among all qualifying NFL linebackers. His PFF grade against the run was 90.3, good for 2nd in the NFL at the linebacker position. The problem with Edwards as a full-time starter, which he projects to be this season, is that his ability to play in coverage is virtually unknown. He is a very smart and instinctual player against the run, but will that transfer to the passing game? He is a very limited athlete which could impact his ability to be effective in the 2nd linebacker spot.
The Eagles traded a 6th round pick and Jonathan Cyprien to the Falcons for Duke Riley last season and then moved him from safety to linebacker. He only played 28 defensive snaps but was a solid contributor on special teams. Riley is the type of player that the Eagles like to have (safety/linebacker hybrid who is a big special teams contributor) but I’m not sure that he is anything more than that.
Brown was drafted from the University of Akron as a, you guessed it, box safety/linebacker hybrid player. Brown is a small player who is very athletic and fits with the Eagles offseason focus of adding speed. How much he will play in 2020 is anyone’s guess, but the Eagles should take a serious look at him rather than just let him waste away on the bench and then cut him like they did L.J. Fort last season.
The Eagles selected Bradley in the 6th round of this year’s draft. He was probably my least favorite pick from what was otherwise a strong day 3 by the Eagles. Bradley was a 3-year starter for Temple but is a rather slow processor for someone with that much experience. His lack of instincts made him way too easy to block at the 2nd level and he struggles to shed those blocks once he is engaged. For a team like the Eagles whose, #1 goal for the defense as a whole and specifically for the linebackers is stopping the run, I just don’t see Bradley ever making an impact.
Taylor was the Eagles 3rd round pick in the draft and was a pretty big reach by the front office. He is extremely athletic and ran a top 3 40-time among linebackers at the combine, but he is very raw and has little football experience. That lack of experience shows up on tape in the form of a lack of instincts and very slow processing. He projects to be a special team ace but I would be very surprised if he sees the field much on normal defensive situations. The condensed offseason is going to impact every rookie, but Davion Taylor is the player that will be most hurt by the lack of minicamps for the Eagles.
Position Grade and Final Thoughts
The Eagles are not a team that particularly cares about the linebacker position. In fact, in 2020 they don’t have a single linebacker on the roster with a cap number over $900,000. They have usually made sure they have one solid player there, but they have never been too concerned beyond that. This season they are trying a new strategy with no solid players at the position.
The reason the Eagles care so little about the linebacker position is twofold:
- They invest so much money at defensive tackle that they don’t need good linebackers to stop the run. Stopping the run is the only goal of Jim Schwartz’s defense. You may have heard that his goal is to rush the passer with 4 linemen but that was false. His number 1 goal is to always be plus one in the box and stop the run. So by investing so much money at defensive tackle you have to make cuts somewhere else and linebacker is that position in Philly.
- The Eagles don’t put many linebackers on the field. In 2019 the Eagles only had 3 linebackers on the field for 21% of their defensive plays. Their most common deployment was 2 linebackers (nickel) which they utilized for 50% of their plays, and on 27% of their plays they had either 1 or 0 linebackers on the field.
The Eagles also have a penchant for putting safeties in the box to play linebacker, something they did with Malcolm Jenkins for years. Jenkins is gone in 2020, which I think will be a loss felt more in the linebacking corps than the loss of Bradham, but Will Parks was signed to be another option at S/LB. The Eagles also drafted K’Von Wallace, another S/LB hybrid. The Eagles are truly moving in the direction of positionless defensive players and only time will tell if it is a viable, long-term strategy.