Sizing up the Eagles' LB situation
After spending a second-round pick on Mychal Kendricks and trading for DeMeco Ryans, the Eagles now have 10 linebackers on their roster.
Of the eight returnees, six (Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle, Casey Matthews, Moise Fokou, Akeem Jordan and Keenan Clayton) saw significant playing time at one point or another last season.
So how will the pieces fit in 2012?
Players will get a chance to prove themselves at OTAs and training camp, but the 2011 season provided significant clues about where each guy stands.
Last year, the first with Juan Castilo as the defensive coordinator and Jim Washburn as the defensive line coach, the Eagles used their linebackers differently. According to Pro Football Focus, linebackers blitzed a total of 147 times, far less than 2010 when that number was 330. And even when they were sent after the quarterback, the linebackers weren't very effective. They accounted for just three of the team's 50 sacks and five of the team's 235 hurries.
Part of that can be attributed to the lack of talent at the position. And part of it is on Castillo, who made the blitz calls.
Given the Eagles' talent up front, I don't expect Castillo to blitz nearly as much as his predecessors Sean McDermott or Jim Johnson. But he has a quick, explosive option in Kendricks if he wants to use him to get after the quarterback. Kendricks had 11.5 career sacks in college, including seven in 2010.
In terms of coverage, the end of last season could signal which players the coaches like the most in sub packages.
Chaney, for example, was a three-down linebacker for the first 13 weeks of last season. During that span, he played all but six of the team's defensive snaps, almost never coming off the field. But things changed, starting against Miami. In the last three games (not counting Week 17, where he suffered an injury), Chaney played only about 47.3 percent of the team's defensive snaps, often getting replaced in passing situations.
Reid said he believes Ryans is a three-down linebacker. And Kendricks could prove to be one too. But the Eagles have options in their sub packages with Casey Matthews and Keenan Clayton. Matthews started the season in the middle, moved to the WILL in Week 3, barely saw the field until Week 14 and then was used quite a bit in the final four games, primarily in nickel packages. In his rookie season, Matthews struggled when asked to be a three-down linebacker, but he improved, specifically in coverage, at the end of the season. Looking back at my notes, Matthews did a good job on Jason Witten against the Cowboys and played well against the Jets as well.
Clayton, a fourth-round pick in 2010, remains an enigma. Despite the Eagles' struggles at linebacker the last two seasons, he's failed to show the coaches he deserves more playing time. His most significant action came in the final two weeks last season as Clayton played in nickel and dime packages. He has coverage skills, but doesn't give the Eagles anything against the run. Nothing would surprise me with Clayton at this point. He could be one of the two nickel linebackers to start the season, or he could get cut.
As a team, the Eagles were terrible at covering opposing running backs in the passing game last year, ranking 29th according to Football Outsiders.
Against tight ends, they were much better, ranking third-best in the NFL. Of course, the credit there doesn't go only to the linebackers. With three starting-caliber cornerbacks, the Eagles had the luxury of moving Nnamdi Asomugha inside on tight ends at times and having Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie take over at right cornerback.
With Asante Samuel gone, someone like Curtis Marsh, Brandon Hughes or rookie Brandon Boykin (who could steal the nickelback spot from Joselio Hanson) would have to fill in on the outside. Depending on the coaches' comfort level with the less experienced backups, Asomugha might see less time on tight ends in 2012.
Among the linebackers I've yet to mention, Fokou and Jordan could earn backup spots, especially since they have been good on special teams. Jordan led the team with 14 special teams tackles. Fokou had 10, but he only played in 11 games. I doubt there will be room for both of them though.
Brian Rolle was better than Matthews against the run last season, but he was replaced in certain sub packages. According to Football Outsiders, Rolle missed 10 tackles last season, one of the worst marks in the league. But he was still probably the team's most active linebacker (47 solo tackles, six tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries, a sack and a forced fumble) and will get a chance to earn a starting job in the base defense.
Overall, the talent is better than last year, but there are still plenty of questions. It'll be up to Castillo and linebackers coach Mike Caldwell to figure out how the pieces fit.
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