As the Eagles prepare to scatter until training camp in six weeks or so, after they wrap up minicamp Thursday, Ken Flajole presides over what might be the most unsettled position group.
Flajole, the team’s linebackers coach since 2016, was asked this week about one of his players, if he might be trying to find what spot is best for the guy.
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“I’m trying to figure out what spot a lot of guys are best fit for. We’ve got a lot of moving pieces right now, and it’s going to be fluid all the way through training camp,” Flajole said. “We’re going to play guys at a lot of different positions,” in an attempt to find “who’s the best mix for us.”
Some of this is natural, Flajole noted. NFL teams that run 4-3 defenses generally carry six or maybe seven linebackers for three spots, so it’s not like you can afford several guys who can only play, say, in the middle, where they don’t have to run as much. Versatility is crucial, even before you factor in that linebackers who aren’t starters tend to be leaned upon heavily for special teams work.
Versatility and special teams acumen helped Kamu Grugier-Hill make the Eagles as a rookie in 2016, after the Patriots released their sixth-round draft choice from Eastern Illinois. But Grugier-Hill has always wanted much more than a limited role, has worked and yearned to be a key figure on Jim Schwartz’s defense, and this year, he might finally get there.
Jordan Hicks is gone to Arizona in free agency. Grugier-Hill is heading out to Arizona to visit Hicks when minicamp wraps up Thursday, but Grugier-Hill said he also knows that “him being gone is just an opportunity for me to step up. … I’m so far beyond ready. I’m excited to be a huge part of this defense, and be the guy, really.”
Nigel Bradham has missed the spring work after undergoing surgery for the thumb he broke in three places last year. D.J. Alexander and LaRoy Reynolds have moved on as free agents, B.J. Bello was released last week.
So in OTAs and minicamp, the two stalwarts have been Grugier-Hill and 2017 fifth-round pick Nate Gerry. Veteran Paul Worrilow, who signed with the Eagles last year and promptly tore an ACL, is working in with them but has missed time with knee swelling. The Eagles picked up a higher-profile vet, Zach Brown, late in free agency this spring, but Flajole noted that Brown is just starting to learn the defense, and is not yet penciled in for a starting role.
There is Canadian Football League standout Alex Singleton, and former Steeler L.J. Fort, and there are a couple of undrafted rookies, Stanford’s Joey Alfieri and Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards, who have impressed both Flajole and special teams coach Dave Fipp, but they are a long way from even making the team.
Flajole said that at 25, Grugier-Hill has “shown a lot of good growth. He’s made incremental progress, I think, every year that we’ve had him here. I fully expect him to be able to take the next step and be more than just a special teams guy and a spot player on defense. I’d like to think that he could be a real factor for us.”
That process really started after the Eagles released Mychal Kendricks last spring, and then Hicks missed four games with a calf injury. Grugier-Hill recorded the first 10 starts of his career and played 32 percent of the 2018 defensive snaps, up from 8 percent in 2017 and one defensive snap in 2016. He managed his first NFL interception, his first sack, and his first forced fumble.
The Eagles play nickel or dime packages most of the time, so the path to more snaps for Grugier-Hill involves convincing Flajole and Schwartz he can be one of two linebackers on the field, or in some cases, the only linebacker on the field, at 6-foot-2, 230.
“He runs great, he’s a great space player. The way that we’re gettin’ offenses nowadays, where everybody spreads you out and forces you to defend all the field, this really plays to his game,” Flajole said. “He’s done a nice job as far as trying to get his body weight up and his strength up. He’s not a safety playing linebacker anymore, he’s actually fitting into a linebacker body.”
Grugier-Hill said he gets good work at practice in the kind of coverage linebackers are asked to do today, often battling tight ends who are offensive focal points. The Eagles have a tight end named Zach Ertz who set an NFL record last season by catching 116 passes.
“Luckily for me, it’s been something that’s kind of come a little natural, something I work on every day. Me and Zach go at it a lot,” Grugier-Hill said. “I almost feel better, because when we play a game … I feel like I’m able to strap them up a little, because I’m going against Zach every day in practice.”
Flajole is very much aware of Grugier-Hill’s aspirations.
“I think he’s always felt like he wanted to be out there more, that he deserved more to play,” Flajole said. “Part of it is his gaining our trust in him, and him gaining trust with Jim Schwartz. I think he’s done that. He’s not a finished product yet -- none of our guys are -- but if he continues to work, he’s got a chance to have a nice year for us.”