T.J. Edwards does not have a flashy nickname.
In the Eagles' last game before the bye, Edwards played a career-high 62 defensive snaps, out of a possible 79, with Nate Gerry -- the only linebacker the Eagles' coaching staff seems to really trust to play three downs -- on injured reserve with an ankle problem.
It was easily the most impressive effort by an Eagles linebacker this season – 13 tackles, two tackles for a loss, and a crucial strip-sack on which safety Rodney McLeod picked up the ball and scored the touchdown that put the game away.
Gerry does have a flashy nickname – “Whitesnake,” which defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz often shortens to “Snake.” Gerry also has run a faster 40 – 4.58 seconds, compared to Edwards' 4.78 at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, and his 4.87 at his Wisconsin pro day.
Other than that, there seems to be little reason to prefer Gerry, 25, to Edwards, who is 24. Edwards is listed at 6-foot-1, 242, Gerry at 6-2, 230, which frankly seems a bit generous for Gerry, a converted Nebraska safety who was a fifth-round draft pick in 2017.
We don’t know the extent of Gerry’s injury, but we do know that by the 2020 IR rules, he must miss the next two games, at the Giants and at Cleveland. Maybe by the time Gerry returns, we will understand why the coaches consider him the focal point of the linebacking corps. Or maybe Edwards will make that narrative impossible to maintain.
“I think I definitely can do it,” Edwards said Monday when asked if he thought he could play all three downs. He prefaced his answer with the obligatory disclaimer about letting the coaches make the decisions. “I have all the confidence in the world in that. … when you get your number called, you have to be ready to make a play. … So, whenever that time is, I’ll be ready.”
Schwartz, despite his tireless defense of Gerry, doesn’t seem anti-Edwards.
“He’s a strong player. He can fill those interior gaps. He’s probably our best linebacker when it comes to being physical at the line of scrimmage and taking on guards and tackles and taking offensive linemen off of double teams and things like that, and he’s a reliable tackler,” Schwartz said Monday. “Made a big play when it counted … he was able to not just get the sack, but get the strip, and we were able to get the score off of it. That game was in the balance right there.”
The speed factor kept Edwards from being drafted; he was characterized as a downhill, hard-hitting “box” linebacker. Twenty or 25 years ago, that was a good thing to be in the NFL. Stopping the run was the majority of an inside linebacker’s job, and usually there were four defensive backs on the field, rarely more than five. Not so much today. The Eagles and other teams worry much more about pass coverage, and rarely play three linebackers at a time.
Indeed, Edwards' 56.5 Pro Football Focus coverage grade, on just 83 coverage snaps this season, isn’t very good. But it is way better than Gerry’s 36.7 in that category, though Gerry’s number is compiled from a much larger sample size, 258 coverage snaps. Schwartz has maintained that Gerry runs over to try to mitigate coverage busts and gets blamed for things that aren’t really his fault.
Other than in coverage, Edwards' PFF grades this season are 68.4 overall, 70.2 against the run, 82.7 as a pass rusher, 59.4 as a tackler. Gerry comes in at 44.4, 58.2, 70.7, and 70.3.
When Schwartz was asked if Edwards could be a three-down linebacker, he declined to answer and said reporters should ask Edwards.
“I think he was a very productive player at Wisconsin,” Schwartz said. “He didn’t run a great 40 time.”
Schwartz pointed out that Edwards played mainly on special teams last year as a rookie, and missed three games this year with a hamstring strain, returning for the Dallas game. He said he doesn’t avoid calling defenses that would put Edwards in coverage when he’s out there.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had to limit my calls with him in the game,” said Schwartz, who likened Edwards to a linebacker he coached in Buffalo, Preston Brown, a productive player who got the job done in coverage despite a poor 40 time (4.79).
“You didn’t even call the game as if you were trying to cover him up, and that’s the way I feel about T.J.,” Schwartz said. "Everything we’ve asked him to do, he’s been able to do, and there’s a difference between a guy that tests well and a guy that plays football well.
“I think that T.J. is a guy that plays football well. Our scouts really did a great job with him getting him as a free agent. A lot of our scouts had him marked as one of their red star players, which means that’s one of their favorite players in the draft, and we made a strong effort to get him after the draft. I’m very thankful for that. Being able to get a guy like that without having to spend a draft pick was a great addition for us.”
Edwards was a standout at Wisconsin after he redshirted as a freshman to add bulk, having played quarterback and safety in high school in Illinois. After his senior season, he did not expect to go undrafted – he’d considered entering the draft the previous year, came back to school to strengthen his grade.
Though the Eagles touted his signing and indicated they expected him to make the roster last year as a rookie, going undrafted is “something that I use” as motivation, Edwards said. “I think I’ll always use it, to be honest with you. … Thirty-two teams passed on me, and I get to go out there, every single day in practice, every day in the weight room, and prove to them why they made the wrong decision.”