Nate Gerry learned that his NFL future might be at linebacker instead of safety during a predraft discussion with Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who touted Gerry's versatility. He met with linebackers coach Ken Flajole, who drew plays to see if Gerry was capable of transitioning to the position.
The Eagles were satisfied enough in their research to select Gerry, a college safety at Nebraska, in the fifth round. The Eagles introduced him as a linebacker, and now the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Gerry has a chance to compete for a role on an unsettled linebacker unit.
"The reason I would say that he could convert [from] safety [to] linebacker is, I think, the mental toughness, the physicality that he plays with," said Joe Douglas, the Eagles' vice president of player personnel. "But to me, he wasn't just a safety that could play down in the box. He was an athletic guy that could range all over the field, and I think you're going to see that range even more so at the linebacker position."
The safety-to-linebacker conversion has been done in the NFL in recent years. Arizona's Deone Bucannon and Los Angeles' Mark Barron both made the switch, bringing athleticism from the secondary to the second level of the defense. Teams have looked for that hybrid player, and Gerry fit the profile for several scouts who watched him at Nebraska. He ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash.
"I would say a good handful of teams mentioned it to me," Gerry said. "I think it's the versatility that I had . . . freshman year I was playing linebacker because we had a lack of depth there, so just being able to play multiple roles is kind of what benefited me and is why the Eagles picked me. So I think that a lot of teams did have me switching to linebacker."
Gerry said he could add weight without a problem if that's what the Eagles wanted. One of the reasons teams look for these conversions is because of the need for linebackers to play in open space and cover. The Eagles seldom blitz their linebackers. Their interceptions leader last season was linebacker Jordan Hicks. Coverage is a key part of what they ask of their linebackers.
At Nebraska, Gerry had 13 interceptions during the last three years, including five as a sophomore in 2014. Only two safeties in college football made more interceptions than Gerry during that period. He was all-Big Ten last season and was a finalist for the Bednarik Award. Gerry started 40 career games, including every game he played since 2014.
Three starts came at linebacker as a freshman. He had never played the position, but the Cornhuskers coaches asked him to learn quickly. He said it took "a week or two" to understand the scheme.
"I think the toughest transition is being able to see things a little faster," Gerry said. "The closer you are to the football, things just happen to develop a little faster. I think that's one of the assets at Nebraska is that I was a leader of [the defense], so I think that's going to benefit me a lot in moving up. Being able to just know the defense's scheme really well and being able to help out the people around me."
The Eagles return all three starting linebackers - Jordan Hicks, Nigel Bradham, and Mychal Kendricks - although Kendricks has been the subject of trade rumors throughout the offseason. The Eagles have Najee Goode, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Joe Walker as their other top options at backup linebacker, but those jobs will be up for grabs this summer. Special teams will be a big part of the decision.
Gerry fits the body type that the Eagles seek for special-teams player. He played on all the special- teams units at Nebraska and was the emergency long-snapper, which the Eagles learned is an important skill after they were forced to use three long-snappers in a game because of injuries last year.
Gerry, who grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., said he had more communication with the Eagles than other teams. He met with them at the Senior Bowl and the combine, and then remained in contact thereafter. But on draft day, he didn't know where he would go. The suspense was not only about where he would play but what position.
"A lot of teams wanted me to make that transition to linebacker, but a lot of them saw me at safety. So it kind of came down to who was left on the board and who was up at the next pick," Gerry said. "I think the linebacker role is going to fit me really well, especially in the scheme that we're running."