State of the Eagles Roster: Inside Linebacker
The Eagles are amid their second week of OTAs this week, and they will practice throughout the next three weeks. After those practices, Chip Kelly will have a better idea of the Eagles roster. But there's a lot that will happen between now and then.
To get you up to date, The Inquirer is spending two weeks assessing where the Eagles stand at each spot. So far, we've looked at offensive line, wide receiver, tight end, quarterback, running back, defensive line, and outside linebackers.
Here are inside linebackers:
Projected first team
DeMeco Ryans (6-1, 247), 28, 8th season; Mychal Kendricks (6-0, 240), 22, 2nd season
When the Eagles acquired Ryans in March 2012, one of their stated reasons for his decline in production in his final season with the Houston Texans was the team's move to a 3-4 defense. The Eagles felt Ryans was a natural 4-3 linebacker. He was a strong contributor last season, starting all 16 games and anchoring the middle of an otherwise underachieving defense. He was a three-down linebacker who took all but three of the team's defensive snaps. However, the Eagles are now transitioning to a 3-4 defense, and it remains to be seen how Ryans fits.
Ryans believes too much was made out of his supposed issues in the 3-4 defense in 2011. The way he explained it, he just didn't play all three downs because Brian Cushing was the linebacker on the field in their third-down (or passing down) defense. Ryans is confident he can play in this system, and at least publicly, the Eagles feel the same way. Like every other player, the proof will be on the field.
The team also values Ryans' intangible contributions. He's one of the leaders of the team, and he's an upstanding person who can help a roster that includes many moving parts. But Ryans earns $6.6 million, he'll be 29 in July, and the Eagles need him to produce. Pay attention to whether Ryans plays this season in the nickel or dime formations.
One player who is undoubtedly an ascending player for the Eagles is Kendricks. By his own admission, everything is already moving slower in his second season than his first season. He finished with 88 tackles and one sack in a solid, but not spectacular, rookie season. He juggled between both outside linebackers spot, though, and his best spot might be as an inside linebacker in the 3-4. That's where Kendricks will play this season, and for the foreseeable future if the Eagles keep this defense. Kendricks has the athleticism to be a three-down linebacker. The knock on him has been his size, but there are inside linebackers who excel at his size. If there should be optimism about any player in this group, it's Kendricks.
Jamar Chaney (6-0, 242), 26, 4th season; Casey Matthews (6-1, 240), 24, 3rd season; Jason Phillips (6-1, 240), 27, 5th season
Chaney and Matthews are former starters who will fight for roster spots. Chaney has bounced between the starting lineup and the bench during his time in Philadelphia, and he's going to need to show he can be a factor on special teams to make the roster this year. Chaney is a good athlete and has been productive when he's played, but he has not been able to hold down a spot.
Matthews is in a similar category. He struggled as a rookie starter, although he has not had much of an opportunity on defense since then. Chip Kelly knows Matthews well, having coached him at Oregon. Matthews won't make the team based on his college connection, but that will help him adjust to what the Eagles are trying to do. Matthews was the fourth most productive special teams player based on the points system that the former staff used, so that could help him. But his spot certainly isn't secure.
If I had to guess, though, I'd say Phillips will be on the roster. He was a first-day free agent signee who the Eagles specifically targeted because of his special teams play. Phillips has played for the Ravens and Panthers and has mostly been a special teams contributor, so don't expect him to be more than a reserve linebacker. But the Eagles need to upgrade special teams, and that's what Phillips is on the team to do.
Emmanuel Acho (6-2, 240), 22, 2nd season; Jake Knott (6-2, 243), 22, rookie
The Eagles acquired Acho for Dion Lewis, and the former 6th-round pick missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury. Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis was his position coach in Cleveland, and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur drafted him.
Knott is an undrafted rookie out of Iowa State that the Eagles like. He was productive in college and has good size for the position. Both players have a shot at making the team and also have practice-squad eligibility.