Good morning, Eagles fans. Happy belated Valentine’s Day. Hopefully you didn’t forget to buy flowers. It’s probably not too late to grab some heavily discounted chocolate at your nearest general store. Grab me a Reese’s heart. As you’re well aware, we are in the throes of the offseason. Hopefully the XFL is scratching your football itch. If you haven’t checked it out yet, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.
After the Eagles cut Nigel Bradham on Tuesday, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out the front office is watching the XFL to find linebacker help. More on that later.
— EJ Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Eagles have a hole in the middle of their defense after cutting bait with veteran linebacker Nigel Bradham, but how do they fill it?
Bradham was the highest-paid linebacker on the team last year even with his modest $4.47 million cap hit. The money invested in the position is indicative of the Eagles front office’s devaluing linebackers as a whole. When Bradham missed time last season with an ankle injury, the Eagles got by with promising performances from young linebackers like Nathan Gerry and T.J. Edwards.
Gerry took over Bradham’s play-calling responsibilities last season and drew praise from Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz for his ability do so. But even if Gerry and Edwards take steps forward by next season, the team would do well to add a proven veteran to the position group. Here are three options entering free agency next month.
Littleton is probably an idealistic choice for those who care more about linebackers than the Eagles have in recent years, but he’s worth mentioning. The 26-year-old spent the last four seasons becoming a highly respected coverage linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams. He has playmaking ability, recording five interceptions and 15 pass breakups over the last two seasons.
But Littleton is widely considered the best free agent linebacker available, meaning he’s due for a big payday. Perhaps the Eagles decide it’s high time to invest significant money at the position, but the front office’s recent history makes this feel unlikely.
Schobert, 28, might also be a little too pricey for the Eagles’ liking, but he’s another modern NFL linebacker who holds up against the run and in coverage. The Eagles would certainly see an upgrade in Schobert, who spent the last four seasons with the Cleveland Browns.
He’s not expected to get as much as Littleton will, but it could be close. Unless someone overpays after missing out on Littleton, Schobert could be a good value for the Eagles.
Campbell is definitely more the Eagles’ speed. He’s an athletic linebacker and a sure tackler who has shown flashes of being capable in coverage. Even better, the Eagles’ newest defensive backs coach, Marquand Manuel, spent time around Campbell when the two were both in Atlanta.
The reason a guy like Campbell makes sense for the Eagles is primarily his market. The 26-year-old isn’t going to fetch the competitive salary that Littleton or Schobert will, but he could be a starter in the team’s defense at a low cost. If the Eagles continue the trend of prioritizing defensive line over linebacker, a guy like Campbell makes sense.
Why do the Eagles hate linebackers? — Joe R. (@xplrer99) via Twitter
Good question, Joe. I think it ties nicely into the linebacker theme of the newsletter, and it gives me an opportunity to further explore what’s written above. The Eagles clearly don’t put the same investment into the linebacker position that they do along the defensive line. Obviously some teams look for more talent at linebacker than the Eagles appear to, but I do think it’s part of a trend in the NFL.
The days of run-stuffing linebackers being necessary for early downs are behind us. Teams are throwing more on first and second down — more than half the time over the last four seasons, according to Sharp Football Focus. With passing on early downs becoming more prevalent, north-south linebackers aren’t as important as guys who can cover. The Eagles turned Nathan Gerry, a fifth-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, into a starting linebacker after he spent his college career as a safety. When you can convert a college safety into a good coverage linebacker with some protein shakes and quality coaching, why invest serious money and/or draft capital in the position?
I don’t think this strategy is misguided. If they can get by with players like Gerry, that gives them more resources to add talent at the positions that impact the game more like defensive line and cornerback. One thing I do find interesting is how the organizational philosophy of building from the inside-out will fare over the next several years. Speed on the perimeter, both on offense and defense, is growing more and more important in the league and I wonder if passing on opportunities to add elite athleticism early in the draft is sustainable for the team.