Was it a good move? Each of our four Eagles writers gives his take.
This is a solid signing that helps the Eagles in two areas – special teams and defensive sub-packages. Fort will be a core special-teamer for Dave Fipp.
He’s also a fast, athletic linebacker that the Steelers used as a cover guy in their nickel and dime sub-packages in the second half of last season. He played 43.2 percent of the defensive snaps in the last 10 games.
The Eagles, like most defenses, are playing more nickel and dime and less base. That has increased the value of linebackers such as Fort, who can cover running backs and tight ends.
One other thing. The Steelers wanted Fort back. Which means the Eagles not only offered him a little more money but told him he’ll get a legitimate opportunity to compete for playing time.
L.J. Fort isn’t the kind of linebacker some Eagles fans long to see, but he is the kind the front office tends to sign.
A good many fans want to see another Jeremiah Trotter or maybe a Seth Joyner -- some big dude who wrecks running backs and also wrecks quarterbacks as a blitzer. But, this being 2019, linebacker play is different. There is a lot more pass coverage. There still are dominant linebackers -- the Cowboys drafted one last year in Leighton Vander Esch -- but you don’t see them come up that often in free agency. Also, in Jim Schwartz’s system, there often is just one true linebacker on the field. Also, Schwartz doesn’t blitz much.
Fort had a good year for the Steelers as a part-time linebacker and core special-teams guy, and that tends to be the type of linebacker the Eagles target in free agency or trades. Versatile, inexpensive, good in coverage. Nigel Bradham is more of a thumper than anyone else the Birds have had at the position in quite a while. Fort, at 6-feet, 232, is built a lot like former Eagle Mychal Kendricks. Like Kamu Grugier-Hill, he can excel on special teams.
To that certain segment of the fan base -- alas, Brian Urlacher has retired.
If you’re jogging your memory trying to think of an L.J. Fort connection to the Eagles, here it is: Fort started in his NFL debut against the Eagles in 2012 as an undrafted rookie, and he intercepted Michael Vick that day. That also was the last time he had an interception – and just one of three games he’s ever started in the NFL. On one hand, it’s impressive that, eight seasons later, he signed a three-year contract. On the other hand, that shows that Fort is unlikely to be the answer at linebacker. This shouldn’t be Jordan Hicks’ replacement. He profiles more as a depth or sub-package linebacker who will contribute to special teams. That’s a solid role and one that’s needed. If he pushes to start, like he did for two games last season in Pittsburgh, it probably means the Eagles haven’t prioritized upgrading the position or replacing Hicks.
That’s why I’m neither thumbs up nor thumbs down on the signing. It’s like when the Eagles signed LaRoy Reynolds or Corey Nelson last season. (Paul Worrilow had more starting experience when he signed.) I’m still waiting to see what the Eagles do at linebacker. Do they trust Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry to take on bigger roles? Do they add an established starter? They don’t play base defense often, so they can mix and match depending on the matchup. But they can’t ignore the position, and there’s a long-term need. Whatever the answer is, I’d be surprised if it’s Fort.
I’m going to be honest here: I didn’t know much about Fort until the Eagles signed him, but I watched some film from last year, did some research, and he looks like a solid signing, especially considering the price tag (three years, $5.5 million, only $1.9 million guaranteed). He’ll likely help on special teams and could be a surprise addition to the defensive rotation.
Fort worked his way into the Steelers rotation last season and was on the field in certain sub packages. He can cover, but the Eagles need strong inside run defenders with Jordan Hicks off to Arizona. I’m not sure whether Fort will be the answer. The Eagles are likely to do more at linebacker, but they’re not digging deep into their pockets, and it’s unlikely they will expend an early-round pick on the position.