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Mistaken identity: Eagles’ near-release of Alex Singleton signified the team’s undervaluing of linebackers | Jeff McLane

The Eagles linebackers haven’t performed well this season, and it’s perhaps a byproduct of the team not investing heavily into the position.

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Alex Singleton (49) before the start of a preseason game against the Jets in August.
Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Alex Singleton (49) before the start of a preseason game against the Jets in August.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Alex Singleton was once nearly cut by the Eagles because of mistaken identity.

In retrospect, the almost accidental release of the team’s now-No. 1 linebacker could be viewed merely as ironic, or from another perspective just another example of the team’s long oversight of the position he plays.

In early August 2019, Singleton was a newly-acquired ex-Canadian Football League player when he was told his eight-month tenure with the Eagles was over. He turned in his team iPad, met with the personnel department for an exit interview, and had only a physical to take before departing the NovaCare Complex.

But it didn’t take long for a trainer to realize that Singleton wasn’t the player the medical staff was told to process. That would have been Joey Alfieri, another bottom-of-the-roster linebacker, Eagles sources said.

The error was quickly corrected. Profuse apologies were made to Singleton. Alfieri was released that Friday. And business was back to normal the next day at training camp. It would not, however, be the last time Singleton was on the verge of leaving.

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Such is the life for many Eagles linebackers over the last two-plus decades. Few NFL players have guarantees, but when you’re undrafted, or drafted in later rounds, or a bargain basement free agent, or in Singleton’s case, a journeyman who last played in the CFL, you’re always expendable.

And no position on the Eagles has had as many of those types as linebacker. This season, the group includes three third-day draft picks, two undrafted free agents, two inexpensive veteran free agents, a former edge rusher who came via trade, and 2020 third-round pick Davion Taylor, the team’s “greatest” investment in the position.

The results through seven games have been predictably poor, although few foresaw how much a new scheme would further expose the unit. Obviously, general manager Howie Roseman and new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon are to be included in that company.

They likely understood that there would be a transition period with installing a new system. You can’t remake an entire unit in one offseason. But free agent Eric Wilson and two late-round shots in the dark, JaCoby Stevens and Patrick Johnson, were the only new faces added.

Gannon said he had “a lot of input” in personnel decisions in terms of setting the parameters and giving examples of how discussions would go.

“This is how we would like to play,” Gannon said Tuesday. “This is the skill set from the left corner to the right D-end to the [middle] linebacker. This is who we can play with. Here’s comps for those positions, like here’s who have played at a high level in this sort of style of defense.

“And we work to build it from there.”

Gannon’s multiple fronts and soft zone coverages, though, haven’t matched personnel in many cases. Defensive linemen are playing out of position, cornerbacks’ strengths are not being utilized, and safeties have played so deep as to often be inconsequential.

But the linebackers have been asked to do more in coverage, and because Gannon has employed so much Cover 2 and 4 zone, teams have run the ball more and capitalized on the Eagles’ devaluing of run defenders.

The Eagles’ depreciation of linebacker long predates Roseman’s term. The organizational philosophy that mostly began under former coach Andy Reid and team president Joe Banner was to invest in what they deemed as premium positions, especially quarterback and along both lines.

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Every NFL team has to make budgetary choices. Linebackers, excluding 3-4 edge rushers, fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in terms of salary cap allocation. But the Eagles have often been at the bottom third, and this season only the Bengals and Browns have invested less than the team’s 4.4% to the position.

They have spent at a higher rate, most recently in 2017, when they had Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks, and Mychal Kendricks. But they would go only so far with each.

Bradham got a second contract after being signed as an affordable free agent. Hicks, a third-round draft pick, left via free agency after a productive but injury-marred four seasons. And Kendricks, a second-rounder, was released before his second contract expired.

Hicks hasn’t missed a game in three seasons since and is still starting for the 7-1 Cardinals. But Bradham has played just one game and is out of the NFL, and Kendricks has had an up-and-down four seasons since.

But the Eagles have scraped from the bottom to replace them. Nathan Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill were late-round converted safeties. Duke Riley and Zach Brown were other free-agent discards who rolled through.

And Singleton, who bounced around the NFL for a couple of years before a three-year stint with the Calgary Stampeders, may have been the best of the lot — at least he was last season.

Error all around

The Eagles signed Singleton to a reserve-future contract in January 2019. He had stood out during spring workouts and early in camp, and when the team needed spots for cornerback Johnathan Cyprien and tight end Alex Ellis on the 90-man roster on Aug. 2, Alfieri and safety Godwin Igwebuike were chosen.

It was a scheduled day off from practice, but players were in the building. Most of the personnel department, however, was not. They were at a golf outing marking the final day before many were to hit the scouting road.

Roseman, who almost always manages the cutdown process, wasn’t there either that evening. He was tending to a family matter, an Eagles spokesperson said. So he had then-vice president of football operations Andrew Berry handle the releases. An intern was sent to the locker room, but he mistook Singleton for Alfieri, sources said. Both happened to be white.

Singleton was brought upstairs at the NovaCare and met with various parties of the front office. But because of confusion, or because they, too, didn’t recognize one linebacker from the other, Singleton was signed off and handed to the training staff.

Fortunately for the Eagles, they avoided further embarrassment when a trainer recognized the mistake. Singleton, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has recounted before the many other travails he has faced in his professional career.

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An undrafted rookie in 2015, he was signed and released by the Seahawks, Patriots, and Vikings within a year before jumping to Canada. He experienced another release three years later — this time for real — when the Eagles cut him before the 2019 season.

But they brought him back on the practice squad, and by October he was on the active roster and played 10 games, plus one playoff game, exclusively on special teams. The following year, he continued to perform well in camp and the preseason, but the Eagles had drafted Taylor and Shaun Bradley in the sixth round that spring.

The coaching staff was told that Singleton was likely on the outside, sources close to the situation said, but then-defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz fought for his return. Taylor and Bradley were far from ready, and with each week Singleton’s playing time increased.

By the second half of the season, he was on the field for every down. And despite playing just 68% of the snaps, finished with 114 tackles, 30 more than the next Eagles defender. As a result, he earned an additional $464,296 — the highest in the league — through performance-based pay.

Singleton had his deficiencies, but his aggressive tendencies were well-suited to Schwartz’s scheme. He also had two sacks, five tackles for losses, seven quarterback hits, an interception, a pass defensed, and two fumble recoveries.

Schwartz’s penetrating 4-3 front played to downhill linebackers and his single-high coverages often allowed for a safety in the box. Singleton acknowledged last week that Gannon’s heavy-Cover 2 zones have been an adjustment.

“Playing Cover 3 is easier on us. It’s not as mental,” said Singleton, whom the Eagles signed to a one-year, $850,000 exclusive-rights contract in March. “You’re always a ‘hook’ drop. You don’t really have to match coverages and you do all that stuff, and obviously we’re doing a lot more of that this year.”

Schwartz had also increasingly used dime personnel (six defensive backs) to account for high pass rates, and the athletic skills of tight ends and running backs, but also because of the linebacker personnel.

Gannon has mostly stuck with two linebackers, which has put stress on them, especially when offenses have gotten receivers matched up against them in 3-x-1 or 3-x-2 empty sets. The most egregious example came against the Chiefs, when Tyreek Hill caught an easy touchdown pass against Wilson.

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Wilson, who signed a one-year, $2.75 million contract in March, has been a disappointment. He was with Gannon in Minnesota in 2017 and had played well in coverage in an expanded role last season, but he was one of Pro Football Focus’ lowest-ranked run-defending linebackers.

Roseman has advised his scouts to emphasize coverage ability over run defense in their linebacker evaluations to reflect the passing explosion in the NFL. But Gannon’s defense has opposing offenses rushing more against the Eagles — at an average of 32.4 carries a game — than they have in 22 years.

Gannon’s 3-4 front has also altered the linebackers’ gap responsibilities and asked them to play more sideline-to-sideline. Singleton’s team-high 74 tackles have him on pace to exceed last year’s output, but in the “others” department he has only one tackle for loss and one pass defensed.

Wilson, meanwhile, is last out of 96 qualifying linebackers in PFF’s run- defense rankings. Gannon, as a result, has decreased his snaps on potential run downs, and utilized a rotation also with T.J. Edwards, a former undrafted free agent, and Taylor.

“Certain guys you can’t afford to take off the field,” Gannon said.

Lack of instinct

Clearly, the Eagles have been lacking in linebackers they can take off the field. They had hoped Taylor would develop into that guy, but the second-year linebacker, who started playing football only five years ago, has been perhaps the defense’s greatest liability when on the field.

He was drafted mostly because of his speed. Beyond his sub-4.5 second 40-yard dash, some scouts loved his makeup and willingness to learn. But some others, like then-linebackers coach Ken Flajole, had the Colorado product ranked low among 2020 prospects, two sources said.

Many on the Eagles’ personnel and scouting staffs accepted that Roseman was unlikely to expend high draft picks on the position. But they also believed that too much emphasis had been placed on measurables and not on innate abilities such as instinct and intellect.

As for the recent lack of spending in free agency, salary cap restrictions have had the Eagles scouring the bargain basement more than ever. The pandemic didn’t help, but neither did some of Roseman’s contracts and the largest dead money hit any team has ever taken after he traded quarterback Carson Wentz in March.

Taylor could hardly get on the field as a rookie. A calf injury sidelined him for most of camp and early in the season, but he started the last two games and played around 50% of the snaps.

The Buccaneers and Raiders went after the 23-year-old. They played on his unawareness and often used play-action to get him out of position. The coup de grace came late in Las Vegas, when little-used fullback Alec Ingold caught a 29-yard pass downfield.

There was no mistaking which Eagles defender was at fault. It was a linebacker, and it was Taylor. He bit on a play fake and had misidentified a pass for a run.