T.J. Edwards, on paper, should be the type of linebacker Eagles fans embrace: a hard-nosed underdog who’s more substance than flash.
But “on paper” has probably been one of the primary reasons why it’s taken so long for Edwards to be an every-down linebacker. He ran a slow 40-yard dash at his pro day, went undrafted, and played mostly on run downs in his first two NFL seasons.
Jonathan Gannon continued the trend of employing Edwards in base defense when he chose his initial personnel this season. But it took almost half the season before the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator determined that the 25-year-old was his best linebacker.
Edwards, having been overlooked before, said he understood.
“In my position, people don’t really know what to expect from me,” he said last month. “So I love just proving every single day, showing them some things that maybe they didn’t think I could do. … But I always know that if I’m not playing well, it won’t be for long.”
Edwards has yet to give Gannon any reason for a demotion. In fact, the Eagles’ defensive improvement over the last two months can be traced directly to his promotion in Week 8. The statistical improvement, from yards and points to advanced analytics, has been dramatic.
But the only numbers that matter, as Gannon stated Tuesday, are in the win-loss columns, and the Eagles are 6-2 since Edwards’ playing time increased. There are myriad reasons for the turnaround, from the emergence of the run offense to an easier schedule, but his individual contributions can’t be disregarded.
Since Week 8, he’s ranked fifth among linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus’ calculations. Following his performance in the win over the New York Giants on Sunday he finished first in PFF’s rankings for last weekend’s games.
And Edwards’ numbers support PFF’s evaluation: He’s had the sixth-most tackles and third-most pass breakups over that span.
“He’s physical. He’s in the right spot. He’s extremely intelligent,” Gannon said recently of Edwards. “What we ask the [middle] linebacker, from a communication standpoint with the front mechanics, with the back seven mechanics, we put a lot on his plate each week, and he handles it well. He doesn’t make mental errors.
“He might miss a play every once in a while that nine out of 10 people miss, but his production is high right now.”
There’s little dispute that the Eagles have benefited from playing subpar teams and quarterbacks for most of the last two months, just like good teams and quarterbacks hindered them over their first seven games.
But the defensive issues were manifold, from scheme to personnel. The Eagles have long underinvested in linebackers, but Gannon’s soft coverages placed greater emphasis on the position and the unit was exposed.
Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton opened the season as the starters with Davion Taylor and Edwards employed in certain sub-packages. But the top two linebackers struggled and by Week 8, Wilson was waived, and Edwards and Taylor jumped to the top of the depth chart.
“We started playing a bunch of different guys in different packages thinking we’re going to put them in the right spots for their skill sets a little bit,” Gannon said, explaining why it took so long to start Edwards. “Just with what T.J. has done is, when we evaluated it, whenever we sat down, we wanted to see what improvements could we make moving forward.
“He was a guy that stuck out that we said, ‘We really can’t afford to take this guy off the field.’ ”
Edwards’ three-season path to top linebacker has followed a similar trajectory for many undrafted starters. He was a productive four-year starter at Wisconsin, but he ran a 4.87-second 40 that would have been the third-worst among linebackers had he participated in the NFL combine.
He made the Eagles’ roster, though, and played mostly special teams as a rookie. But he logged around 100 snaps on defense, and a year later, then-defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz kept using his more. Despite playing less than 50% of the time, Edwards finished with 64 tackles, five for loss, two sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble in 2020.
He would have to win over a new regime this offseason. He seemingly had a strong training camp. But he was among the players the Eagles dangled on the trade market before final cuts, league sources said.
“I think people look at my 40 time from three years ago and think, ‘No way he’s gotten faster, so he probably can’t cover, can’t play the pass, can’t tackle in space,’ ” Edwards said last month. “I love all that stuff because I know the things that I’ve worked on for a long time.
“I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do at the MIKE linebacker.”
Edwards claimed that he has “no doubt” gotten faster than his pro day 40 time.
“I would like to think I’m a 4.6 guy for sure,” he said.
Either way, Edwards’ intellect often helps him compensate for what he lacks in speed. He’s rarely in the wrong spot and makes few mistakes. Are there times when he fails to make lateral stops or tackles in space? Sure.
But quarterbacks have hardly taken advantage of Edwards in coverage. Even the one quality starter the Eagles faced in the second half — the Chargers’ Justin Herbert — only completed three passes for 14 yards when targeting the linebacker.
Edwards, though, has stood out most as a run defender, the physical type Philadelphia has long celebrated. The Eagles did reward him with a contract extension through next season that’s worth up to $3.2 million with $2.15 million guaranteed.
Others have recognized his contributions, too, but a late-season and postseason charge could garner him more appreciation. Here’s a closer look at the film and what he’s already done this season:
The days of the Jeremiah Trotter-sized middle linebacker are long gone. The NFL’s increasing emphasis on the pass, the restrictions made to contact, and the need for speed, speed and more speed have all but made 250-pound-plus inside linebackers extinct.
Edwards is listed at 6-foot-1, 242-pounds, but he can bring the thunder.
“That’s just kind of how I’ve always been taught to play,” Edwards said last month. … “If I can thump somebody, I’ll definitely be ready to do that.”
The Eagles have converted safeties and stressed 40 times in trying to find cost-effective linebackers who can cover ground. Wilson was signed as a free agent partly because of his coverage skills.
But with the Eagles he couldn’t get off blocks in the run game, which seemingly affected him overall. The linebacking unit as a whole made few plays early in the season, and one of them came from Edwards (No. 57) when he sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
But it took three games before Edwards started, and four before he led the linebackers in snaps played.
Edwards came in unblocked on this Alvin Kamara carry in the Saints game, but he pounded one of the NFL’s hardest running backs to tackle.
Edwards has yet to force a fumble this season, but coach Nick Sirianni predicted that one was coming based upon the way the linebacker attacks the ball.
“He plays with great physicality,” Sirianni said Monday. “He’s constantly ripping at the football.”
Since Week 8, Edwards is PFF’s No. 1 run defender among linebackers who have played 50 percent or more of the snaps. His 10.8 “stop percentage,” which accounts for when he was responsible for a run stop, is third-best.
A lot of his success can be traced to how he reads his keys and flows to the ball before second-level blocks.
And when Edwards meets ball carriers, he often brings them down. He’s missed only two run tackle attempts since Week 8.
Edwards’ three pass breakups are third most among qualifying linebackers since Week 8. His 10 “forced incompletions,” according to PFF, is tied for second. He has only one penalty, overall and in coverage, when he was called for holding against the Saints.
Linebackers will often play more zone than man when in coverage. Edwards’ split is about 67-33 in favor of zone. Having eyes on the quarterback and diagnosing routes is paramount in making plays, as he did here when he intercepted New Orleans quarterback Trevor Siemian.
“It was honestly reading the quarterback’s eyes and I saw the ‘over’ [route] out coming behind me,” Edwards said after the game.
He’s had the occasional misread, as Gannon referenced above.
But Edwards is often in the correct spot, whether he’s cutting off passing lanes or getting depth so that passes aren’t going over his head.
“It’s a lot of recognition, pattern reading,” Edwards said. “Honestly, experience helps out a lot with that.”
Edwards attributed this third down pass break-up against Washington to film study, although the athleticism it took to make the play shouldn’t be discounted.
There may be times when Edwards struggles laterally or to change direction. Both were evident when he was late to cover Washington running back Antonio Gibson in the flat in Week 15.
But Edwards might not flash as much in person, or on film, because the plays he makes can often be attributed to his instinct and intellect. On the below bubble screen against the Lions, for instance, he was already moving to his right at the snap.
And he blew up this running back screen against the Giants even though it was designed to counter his blitz and the Eagles’ aggressive rush.
Edwards has shown he has a knack for the ball dating back to his rookie season when he played mostly on special teams. Earlier this season, the Eagles probably don’t rally to beat the Panthers in Week 5 without his blocked punt.
Edwards has proven to be more than just a special teamer, though. He’s become Gannon’s eyes and ears on defense — and one of his top playmakers.
“You hear me talking about being emotionally stable,” Gannon said. “He’s one of those guys that every once in a while I’ll juice him in his ear and he just gives me a thumbs up. ‘I got you, Coach.’ Or, ‘TJ, get this done.’ ‘I got you, Coach.’”
He offers more than just what’s on paper.