T.J. Edwards knew where the question was going before the reporter even finished asking it.
“The perception of your unit is . . .
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“Yeah, I know,” he said.
“. . . that it’s the weak link of your defense. How do you feel about that?”
To borrow one of Joe Biden’s favorite words, Edwards thinks that assessment is malarkey.
“We’re a talented group,’' the second-year Eagles linebacker insisted. “A very fast group from top to bottom. Really strong and athletic and can make a lot of plays.
“Right now, there’s a lot of competition going on, and that’s only going to raise the level of play. I’m really confident about what this group can do this year.”
The Eagles put a lot of money into Jim Schwartz’s defense in the offseason. They added two cornerbacks – Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman – via free agency, giving Slay a hefty three-year, $50 million contract.
They signed another big-money defensive tackle, Javon Hargrave, giving him a three-year, $39 million deal.
As for linebacker, well, their most notable offseason moves were outgoing rather than incoming. They showed the door to their two most experienced ‘backers, releasing eight-year veteran Nigel Bradham and choosing not to re-sign free agent Kamu Grugier-Hill.
Their most significant offseason addition at linebacker, Jatavis Brown, did a U-turn a week and a half ago and decided to retire after just four NFL seasons.
They did add a pair of speedy linebackers in the draft – selecting Colorado’s Davion Taylor in the third round and Temple’s Shaun Bradley in the sixth. Taylor ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the predraft scouting combine, and Bradley was clocked in 4.51.
But even Schwartz acknowledged this week that it could be a while before either of them is ready to make a significant contribution beyond special teams.
“Linebacker and safety are two of the most difficult positions for guys to get up to speed with,” he said. “And that’s when you have a full offseason program for rookies – OTAs, minicamp, and a full preseason schedule.”
The Eagles have seven linebackers on their roster at the moment. Three are rookies – Taylor, Bradley, and undrafted free agent Dante Olson of Montana. The other four – Edwards, Nate Gerry, Duke Riley, and Alex Singleton – have 35 total career starts between them.
The 2020 cap cost for the Eagles’ seven linebackers is $5.1 million. The team has nine players on its roster with bigger individual cap charges. Their top four defensive linemen have a combined 2020 cap charge of nearly $38 million.
“As far as household names, maybe there’s not a lot of that at that position,” Schwartz said. “But we have guys who have 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. Whether it’s a T.J. Edwards or our draft picks or a guy like Duke Riley. All of those guys are in the mix. All of those guys we’re excited about.”
The truth is, the way Schwartz plays defense, he doesn’t necessarily need a great linebacker unit or even a very good one. And general manager Howie Roseman isn’t going to spend a lot of money building one given the emphasis the team places on its offensive and defensive lines.
The defensive line is the engine that makes Schwartz’s defense go. And he has stocked his secondary with versatile players who can line up almost anywhere, including linebacker.
Last year, the Eagles played a three-linebacker base defense just 20 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders. That was the 11th-lowest percentage in the league.
They played a one-linebacker dime sub-package 26 percent of the time. Just seven teams played more dime than the Eagles last season.
“You have to be able to run the football, but teams are into throwing the ball across the yard,” Gerry said. “A big part of our job is covering the running backs [in the passing game], and a lot of these running backs aren’t your 245-pound backs any more. They’re making moves. They’re running laterally. So we’ve got to be able to run with him.”
Last month, Pro Football Focus rated the league’s 32 linebacker units. They ranked the Eagles 27th, ahead of only the Packers, Dolphins, Bengals, Browns, and Rams.
“We do see a lot of people overlooking our group,” said Gerry, a former college safety at Nebraska who the Eagles converted to linebacker. “But a lot of people don’t really understand the speed and athleticism that we have.
“We may not have the most experience. But the last 3, 4 years, I’ve been soaking in all the information I’ve learned from Coach Schwartz and [linebackers coach Ken Flajole] and Nigel [Bradham] that I’m trying to pass down to some of the younger guys now.”
Gerry started four games last year and played a career-high 630 snaps. Only Bradham played more snaps at linebacker (732).
But Gerry has his limitations. Even though he’s a former college safety with pretty good speed, he has just average cover skills.
Edwards, who was an undrafted free agent, is a smart, instinctive linebacker but lacks great speed. He was a tackling machine at Wisconsin, but managed to run only a 4.77 40, which is why he went undrafted.
Edwards, who led the Eagles in special teams tackles last season, made four starts as a rookie. But his speed limitations make it tough for Schwartz to use him in subpackages where he would have to cover the Alvin Kamaras and Christian McCaffreys of the world.
“T.J.‘s been doing a great job,” Gerry said. “He makes all the right calls at the MIKE position. Last year as a rookie, he was far ahead of other rookies I’ve seen at that point, including myself. He’s a good football player. He’s upped his game.”
The Eagles understand the importance of speed in today’s game on both sides of the ball. It’s why they drafted wide receiver Jalen Reagor in the first round rather than LSU’s Justin Jefferson, and why they added two more vertical threats – John Hightower and Quez Watkins – in the later rounds.
And it’s why they drafted Taylor and Bradley. Taylor is raw. He didn’t play high school ball and played just two years of Division I football. He started 24 games at Colorado and didn’t force a single turnover, which is concerning. But he can fly. So can Bradley.
“We have some real speed at that position,” Schwartz said. “All of our guys have different skill sets, but we made a point of adding speed. I think we’re a faster group than we’ve been in any of the previous four years I’ve been here.