Nigel Bradham’s lingo changed when he started calling plays for the Eagles defense.
Previously a strong-side linebacker with little responsibility in terms of communication, he used to jaw at his opponents before a play. But since becoming Jim Schwartz’s mouthpiece on the field, Bradham has had to relay the defensive coordinator’s call to his teammates, get the defensive front set, and bark out any additional commands all before the ball is snapped.
Which has left little time for trash-talking, and he misses it.
“It’s a lot more communicating now. I got to do everything,” Bradham said. “When I was playing [strong-side], I could just play, I could be in my zone more, and I could talk more trash and [stuff] like that. No joke. That’s real. But now I got responsibilities. Then I didn’t have no responsibilities.”
Bradham doesn’t remember how he became the Eagles’ middle linebacker; it just sort of happened over time. While his transformation reflects Schwartz’s trust in him, it also speaks to the sea change at linebacker in the NFL.
Linebackers have increasingly become interchangeable. Bradham, for instance, may play all three spots over the course of a game. The days of specialization are waning. Offenses are almost as likely to throw on first down as they are third down, which has placed an emphasis on versatility.
But Bradham’s standing is also a reflection of the decreasing importance of linebackers in the league, at least in their traditional sense, and of how the Eagles value the position. Bradham’s cap number more than doubles that of any other linebacker on the team, and yet he makes well below the median average for a position that is among the lowest paid.
He’s still Schwartz’s best all-around linebacker, but his performance has seemingly slipped. Is it just a natural regression from his advancing age? Or has the full-time switch to play-caller affected not only his vocal stylings but his ability to be the consistent game-changer he was once for the Eagles?
“I like both positions,” Bradham, 30, said this past week. “But I just think there’s a difference in the two. It kind of depends on the scheme because maybe if I wasn’t in the scheme that I’m comfortable, in, who knows how it would go? I’m so comfortable in this scheme.”
Bradham’s comfort in Schwartz’s defense was one reason he followed the coach from Buffalo to Philly. It was a prominent reason why the coordinator pounded the table for the Eagles to re-sign him in 2018. And even though Bradham’s cap number skyrockets from $4,635,000 to $9,767,500 next year, it could be why he returns in 2020.
He is a “Schwartz guy:” tough, football smart, and, even if lacking in elite skill, confident enough to overcome various shortcomings. And because Schwartz typically gets what he wants inside the NovaCare Complex, Bradham has survived various transgressions, most recently skipping the final preseason game.
When he missed the bus trip to North Jersey without notifying the team, some within the organization wanted him released, sources close to the situation said. Bradham would later claim that he was sick and coach Doug Pederson would say only that it was “an internal issue” and that he and the player were “in a good place.”
Bradham recently said that he was fined by Pederson, although he declined to give an exact amount.
“He’s been great. He’s bought in,” Pederson said Friday. “He’s been awesome in practice, awesome off the field. Yeah, he has no instances since that time.”
While his play has been inconsistent through the first four games, Bradham did notch the game-clinching interception against the Packers when he caught cornerback Craig James’ deflection in the end zone. He also dropped a sure pick-six earlier in the game.
Bradham has played every snap except for one this season. Schwartz’s increasing usage of his dime personnel (six defensive backs) has turned the second linebacker spot into a part-time job. Zach Brown has filled that role and played 68 percent of the time.
Brown has had his problems, as well, particularly in coverage. Signed to a one-year deal in May, the eight-year veteran had played inside linebacker in 3-4 schemes in his previous five seasons. While Bradham said that he expected Brown to become the MIke linebacker – “Because he’s heavier,” he said – the Eagles weren’t looking for a specific type.
They had narrowed their possibilities down to Brown or Jamie Collins, sources familiar with the Eagles’ thinking said. Collins had also played most of his career in a 3-4, but as an edge defender. But he’s been more of a hybrid linebacker – one who could rush off the edge and drop into coverage.
The Eagles opted for Brown, who signed for $1.5 million, while Collins signed a one-year, $2 million deal with his former team, the Patriots. Collins has been one of the more productive linebackers this season – he already has 3½ sacks, 6 tackles for loss, 5 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions -- although he has likely benefit ed from his familiarity with New England’s scheme.
The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Brown is built and plays like a traditional, run-thumping linebacker. He started out in training camp behind Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry – the newer breed of college safeties-turned NFL linebackers – but moved up the depth chart when the former suffered an MCL knee sprain.
Grugier-Hill returned in Green Bay and could play more as the season progresses. There are only so many snaps to go around. The Eagles have played three linebackers in their base defense only 26 percent of the time, two in nickel 42 percent, and one in dime 32 percent.
Schwartz is often just matching personnel as offenses use more three- and four-receiver packages. But he needs interior defenders who can play both the run and pass because there is no such thing as a run-down anymore and run-pass options stress the need for versatile linebackers.
“It’s limited the one-trick ponies,” Schwartz said in July. “You could have a guy in the pass that the only thing he did was third down. The problem is that tempo and everything else, that guy has to get out and play. Same thing with the run-stopper. Even sometimes the offensive coordinator doesn’t control if it’s a run or not. The ball gets ripped out and thrown.”
But even the hybrid linebacker is losing snaps, often to safeties like Malcolm Jenkins, because of the mismatches receiving tight ends and running backs create. Some offenses can be effective on the ground with two-tight end packages against nickel and dime, like the Eagles were against the Packers, but defensive coordinators are often willing to take that gamble.
Ultimately, it has devalued the position for most teams.
“We’re kind of like the running back of the defense as far as value,” Bradham said. “But at the same time, we’re the quarterback of the defense. You can’t play without us.”
The Cardinals were willing to give Jordan Hicks a five-year, $34 million contract in March, but his injury history and the Eagles’ reluctance to pay linebackers made his departure inevitable. But having Bradham, who had started calling plays in Hicks’ absence in 2017, also helped grease the wheels.
Bradham didn’t initially play middle linebacker, per se, but he did move inside when Hicks missed another four games last season. He spent most of the offseason recovering from foot surgery and said he didn’t learn that he would return to the middle and calling plays until late in training camp.
“It didn’t really change nothing because at the end of the day I was still doing the same thing,” Bradham said. “Even though they didn’t give me the title, I always knew that’s what it was. It just wasn’t on paper.”
As Schwartz said in August, the lines between the linebacker positions “have been completely blurred anyway.” Jenkins is another quarterback on the field, but wearing the headset, as Bradham does, and calling plays does add more responsibility.
“Any time Jordan was down, Nigel went in and did that,” Schwartz said then. “He’s a real good communicator. He’s good against the run and the pass. He’s tough. I think he runs our show really well. Jordan ran our show really well. We didn’t have any setbacks.”
The Eagles, of course, won a Super Bowl with Bradham in that role. But aside from the gifted interception, he hasn’t been as productive this season. It’s early, but he’s averaging more than one fewer tackle per gam, and has yet to record a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit, or a sack.
Bradham agreed to a contract restructuring during the offseason. The Eagles reduced his 2019 salary by $3 million to create cap space and he received in return $4 million in guarantees, including a $3.07 million signing bonus. But the remaining $26 million of his deal isn’t guaranteed in the last three years.
He hasn’t missed a game to injury in four seasons, although he was suspended by the league for last year’s opener, likely because of an assault charge – Bradham eventually completed a deferred prosecution program -- following a July 2016 incident at a Miami hotel.
“That suspension was some [nonsense], by the way,” Bradham said.
However, if he wants to return in 2020, it’s likely Bradham will have to be open to reworking his contract.