The eighth of 10 parts previewing the Eagles’ 90-man roster, as the team continues to conduct virtual offseason workouts.
With NFL offenses spreading defenses out with three- and four-wide receiver sets and throwing the ball more than ever, defensive coordinators have countered with more five- and six-defensive back sub-packages. For a lot of defenses, including the Eagles’, the result has been a de-emphasis of the linebacker position.
Last year, the Eagles used their three-linebacker base defense just 20.7% of the time. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz used two-linebackers 49% of the time and one or none 26.8%.
The Eagles had just two linebackers who played more than 305 defensive snaps last season – Nigel Bradham (732) and Nate Gerry (630). And Bradham was a February salary-cap casualty. The Eagles currently have eight linebackers on their 90-man roster. Not one of those eight has a 2020 cap number higher than $890,000. By comparison, the average cap number for the five projected offensive line starters charged with protecting Carson Wentz this season is $7.2 million.
Playing so many nickel and dime packages didn’t have a detrimental effect on the Eagles’ ability to stop the run last season. They finished third in run defense (90.1 yards per game) and 11th in opponent rush average (4.1).
Who’s back: Gerry, T.J. Edwards, Duke Riley, Alex Singleton.
Gerry, a converted safety whom the Eagles took in the fifth round of the 2017 draft, started 12 games last season. He played OK, finishing third on the team in tackles and notching 2 ½ sacks. Pro Football Focus ranked him 61st overall among the league’s linebackers – 70th against the run and 44th in coverage. He also played a team-high 335 special-teams snaps. Unless the Eagles re-sign Bradham, Gerry likely will handle the defensive play-calling duties.
Edwards, a 2019 undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, isn’t the most athletic guy in the world (he ran a 4.87-second 40 and had a 32.5-inch vertical jump at his pre-draft Pro Day), but he’s a smart player with a nose for the football. He was a core special teams player as a rookie who led the team in special-teams tackles. He also played 10 or more defensive snaps in six games. You don’t really want him on the field in passing situations, but he has a good chance to be their third linebacker in base packages.
Riley was acquired in an October trade with the Falcons. He played just 29 defensive snaps last season, but made his mark on special teams. Singleton, who spent three year in the CFL, played in 10 games last year, all on special teams. He played 198 special-teams snaps and finished fifth in special-teams tackles.
Who’s gone: Bradham, Kamu Grugier-Hill.
Bradham, who will turn 31 in early September, had a 2020 cap number of $9.7 million. The Eagles saved $4.4 million in cap space by releasing him. He was slowed by injuries last season and didn’t play nearly as well as he did in his first three seasons with the Eagles.
He never completely recovered from the torn toe ligaments he suffered in the Eagles’ 2018 playoff loss to the Saints, then tore his shoulder labrum in Week 1, and later missed four games with an ankle injury that lingered through the second half of the season.
He still hasn’t signed with anyone, which leaves open the possibility of him returning to the Eagles on a team-friendly one-year deal. Particularly since the COVID pandemic has hindered their ability to properly prep the three rookie linebackers on their roster.
Grugier-Hill was a better special-teams player than he was a linebacker. He started 10 games in 2018 and played pretty well, but couldn’t stay healthy last season, missing six games with knee, head, and back injuries. He signed with the Dolphins.
Who’s new: Jatavis Brown, Davion Taylor, Shaun Bradley, Dante Olson.
Brown, who signed a one-year deal with the Eagles, is an athletic linebacker with sub-4.5 speed. He played 600-plus snaps in each of his first three seasons with the Chargers. But he hurt his ankle in training camp last year and was mainly used on special teams. As a rookie in 2016, he was rated the top pass-rushing linebacker in the league by PFF.
The other three newcomers at linebacker – Taylor, Bradley and Olson – all are rookies, who really could have benefited from spring field work.
Taylor, the Eagles’ third-round pick out of Colorado, is the most intriguing of the three. Like Brown, he’s fast. He ran a 4.39 40 at his Pro Day. But he’s raw. He didn’t play high school ball and played just two years of Division I football. He played in 24 games for the Buffaloes and didn’t force a single turnover, which is a little disconcerting. His best hope for playing time as a rookie will be on special teams.
Bradley, one of the team’s three sixth-round picks, was a three-year starter at Temple and led the Owls in tackles last year. He has good pursuit speed, but short arms, which is going to hurt him trying to get off blocks. He will probably spend his rookie year either on special teams or the practice squad.
Olson, a University of Montana product, is an undrafted free agent who played for Bobby Hauck, the brother of Eagles assistant Tim Hauck. Olson led the FCS in tackles last season with a school-record 176, including 67 solos. He had a 42-inch vertical jump at the February scouting combine, which tied for the best jump among all defensive players in Indy. But he only ran a 4.88 40, which is why he wasn’t drafted.