Few argued when the Eagles decided not to re-sign linebackers Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham.
Hicks had been a productive player when healthy, but $20 million in guarantees was a lot to pay a player who had missed 21 games in four seasons. Bradham had been the team’s most reliable linebacker for three seasons, but he regressed last year and at 30 was expendable in the youth movement.
While there is still a segment of Eagles fans who view linebacker through the lens of Chuck Bednarik, Bill Bergey, and Jeremiah Trotter, most understand the devaluing of the position as it relates to usage and to Jim Schwartz’s scheme.
If you’re going to spend money with the defensive coordinator’s aggressive system in mind, linebacker is at the bottom of the list. But the Eagles didn’t have to dig deep into their pockets to replace Hicks or Bradham. In fact, they had two players on their roster last season who would likely have been upgrades over this year’s unit.
L.J. Fort was with the Eagles for only four games last season. He didn’t have a large role, but he was released primarily because he wouldn’t have factored into the compensatory draft formula past a certain date. The Ravens picked him up, and Fort has since become a valuable piece on their defense.
“Some of those guys we released during the season [to obtain comp picks], they’re good players, and they were good players for the teams they went to after they came to us,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said in February. “But for us going forward, to have those picks, and to know we had those picks, was important.”
Kamu Grugier-Hill’s four seasons with the Eagles were marked by steady improvement and increasing contributions on defense. He dealt with various injuries last year, with his and the team’s handling of them boiling over into public, but he was a team captain and two months shy of his 26th birthday when he became a free agent in March.
The Eagles didn’t make an offer, though, and Grugier-Hill signed a one-year, $3 million contract with $2 million guaranteed with the Dolphins. In Miami’s win over the Jaguars in Week 3, he was the defensive player of the game for his seven-tackle, one-sack performance.
Neither Fort nor Grugier-Hill is an every-down linebacker, but few are in today’s NFL with defenses matching pass-happy offenses with more nickel and dime than base packages. Considering their price tags – Fort signed a two-year, $5.5 million contract with $3.25 million guaranteed last November – both come at good value.
As with safety Malcolm Jenkins, it’s not so much the decision to part ways with Hicks and Bradham that is hurting the Eagles, it’s how they replaced them, especially when they already had two cost-effective options on the roster.
They have always gone cheap at the position, but every current linebacker on the team is on his first contract. Only the Bengals ($4,306,705) and Patriots (5,175,624) have devoted less salary cap space than the Eagles (5,367,894).
They can’t pay everyone. And the cap crunch from investments made toward winning the Super Bowl, but also from poor deals handed out by Roseman has forced the Eagles to turn over some of the roster to get younger and cheaper.
But they still have one of the most expensive and oldest teams in the league. And at positions where they opted to go the youth route, like linebacker, the results haven’t been good.
“As far as household names, maybe there’s not a lot of that at that position,” Schwartz said in August before the season. “But we’ve had guys who’ve put a lot of time on the grass and in our meeting rooms in our program. It’s time for us to see those guys play.”
Nate Gerry is the senior member of the group and the most used, but he has struggled with the calling of plays added to his responsibilities. A former college safety, he’s been one of the worst cover linebackers in the NFL, and when targeted has allowed 13 of 13 completions for 158 yards and two touchdowns, per Pro Football Focus.
Duke Riley, who was acquired in a minor trade last September, was the No. 2 guy in the first two games, but the undersize linebacker had trouble against the run in the loss to the Rams. T.J. Edwards had a larger role last Sunday against the Bengals, and the Eagles' run defense improved.
Schwartz said that he wanted to get a bigger body on the field, which could mean that Edwards' promotion was temporary. But all three linebackers should see the field a lot Sunday. The 49ers utilize personnel to match up against base defenses and use two-tight-end and two-back looks to target weak linebackers.
A week ago, following the loss to Los Angeles in which the Eagles allowed 37 points and 449 yards, Schwartz was asked if he had good enough talent at linebacker.
“I’m very confident in our players,” he said. “I look at most of the plays in that game as I need to put them in better situations.”
Schwartz might have been responsible for some of the moments in which players were out of position, but there were far too many examples of linebackers biting on fakes or reacting late to assignments for there not to be fault directed at the players.
However unlikely it may have been for Schwartz to throw his linebackers under the bus, it’s important to note that he isn’t at the mercy of Roseman’s moves. The coordinator is as involved in personnel decisions as any coach. For instance, Schwartz pushed the button for linebacker Zach Brown rather than Jaime Collins to be signed last year.
This offseason, the Eagles signed Jatavis Brown to a one-year, $1 million contract with $550,000 guaranteed. It would be their lone free-agent linebacker addition, and with no apparent fault of their own, he retired during training camp.
As much as the Eagles have devalued the position, they almost always have had at least one or two proven talents. Gerry, a 2017 fifth-round pick, was the most experienced with only 15 career starts.
“You are going to select guys and add guys that are, number one, going to add depth to your roster and they’re going to add talent to that position,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Friday when asked about linebacker. “We feel like we’ve done both.”
The Eagles expended two draft picks on linebackers, third-rounder Davion Taylor and sixth-rounder Shaun Bradley, but both have been limited to special teams. Taylor is relatively new to football, and thus a project, but third rounders typically need to contribute right away.
Schwartz lowered expectations during camp when he said that linebacker was one of the toughest positions for rookies to learn. But that doesn’t negate the fact that 11 other rookie linebackers have played at least 25 snaps on defense this season.
“All those guys are really working hard on scout team and those things and refining their technique and paying attention and being ready to play,” Schwartz said Tuesday. "Coaches have said for a long time, the hardest thing playing in the NFL is being a backup because you’re expected to go out there and perform when the game’s on the line when you haven’t have any reps in practice.
“But we have confidence in those guys. I like where both of those guys are progressing. And as they get a little bit more experience, their opportunities will increase.”
Pederson, when asked about the linebackers, again mentioned the truncated offseason and how it has affected player development. Certainly, no one’s offering final evaluations on Taylor or Bradley, but it’s not as if the starters ahead of them have performed well.
Gerry said that the most difficult challenge of taking the lead in the linebacker room after the exodus of three key players has been getting the communication right.
“Jordan, Nigel, Kamu, when those guys were all in the system for three, four years, we all played together, we all kind of knew how we worked well with each other, what things we can do together,” Gerry said Thursday. “And this year, we got a lot of new bodies out there.”