Can new Eagle Corey Nelson settle into Mychal Kendricks' spot?
Nigel Bradham called Mychal Kendricks' release "devastating," but said Corey Nelson was picking up the defense well and that the Eagles' linebacking corps should be fine.
Mychal Kendricks' long goodbye, a couple of years in the making, through some unexpected twists, is finally complete, done, and settled, with Kendricks' release last week.
What isn't settled is who inherits the Eagles' starting weakside linebacker position. Corey Nelson, a free agent signee from Denver, announced the day he arrived that he'd been told he would compete for that spot, but defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz didn't declare Nelson – or anyone – the frontrunner when Schwartz spoke to reporters this week for the first time since before the Super Bowl.
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"The plan is to just have competition and see what comes of it," Schwartz said. "This time of the year you're certainly open-minded for all positions. Whether it's a player that's a rookie, whether it's a veteran … We have some young players that have worked up in our system. We have some guys that we brought from other teams and we have some new players on the roster. We'll shake it all out, and when we get to the end of training camp, we'll try to go forward with the best plan that we have."
Some of this was OTA boilerplate that you hear every year; Schwartz later noted that "nobody is earning any starting jobs now." Pressed on whether Nelson would get "first look," Schwartz said: "I don't know that you could consider anybody really getting a first look this time of year. Our reps actually are sort of geared more toward younger players, as opposed to veteran players. A lot of our developmental groups get more reps this time of year than the 'first group' … We don't have depth chart. We're just trying to roll guys through. Get guys experience. Guys are coming from different things.
"We have some young linebackers that are learning to play multiple positions. We talked a lot about that last year, being a key factor in our ability to overcome some injuries. Guys that could double dip and play Mike, Sam, Will, nickel, dime, and all those different things. So some of our players that have been here [before] are working on that. Some of our young players are focusing on one position. New guys are trying to pick up the scheme and sort of trying to find their place."
Even if Schwartz isn't ready to say much, looking at the roster the top contenders right now just about have to be Nelson and 2017 fifth-round pick Nate Gerry. Gerry only got on the field for one game last season — the meaningless regular-season finale against Dallas. Gerry played solidly that day and seems to be well-regarded as he continues his transition from having played safety at Nebraska.
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But Nelson, 26, has played in 53 games since arriving in Denver as a seventh-round pick from Oklahoma. He has a Super Bowl 50 ring. Though the deal he signed here is just for one year and $2.25 million, Nelson opted to take it even after Denver offered to match. The Broncos were hoping to keep a player the Denver Post called "a starter in the eyes of the coaches" and a key special teams cog.
When asked where he thinks he stands following Kendricks' release, Nelson said: "Good question. I don't know what it does. I'm just here to give it my all, to compete to the best of my abilities, and to make this team better … I don't know where that puts me at.
"It kinda surprised me. I talked with [Kendricks], had a good relationship with him. Treated him as he was still gonna be here. It's definitely a surprise."
Though Schwartz seemed to want to avoid talking about Nelson, strongside linebacker Nigel Bradham said Nelson is "a veteran guy, and he's picking up the defense very fast."
Denver played a 3-4, but Nelson said that for linebackers, Schwartz's 4-3 is "very similar – just the coverage aspect, how we do things, zone match principles, all the concepts are the same. The run fits are pretty much the same."
Though Nelson said he is learning all three linebacker positions and is comfortable at any of them, his 6-foot-1, 226-pound frame seems best suited to the coverage-heavy weakside. It will be interesting to see if he earns any sort of role in nickel or dime, where the Eagles spend most of their time. Kendricks only played in the base defense, when both Bradham and Jordan Hicks were healthy. Of course, the way Kendricks stepped up when Hicks went down for the duration with an Achilles' tendon tear on Oct. 23 was one of the Super Bowl season's most important developments. Getting rid of Kendricks, given that Hicks has missed significant time in two of three NFL seasons, is a calculated risk.
"Losing Mike was devastating," Bradham said. "Really, we don't win that Super Bowl without Mychal Kendricks playing on this team. He's a great player. Things will work out for him. Any day, I'm pretty sure he will be signed.
"He's the most athletic linebacker we had. It's hard to replace that. The guy can do everything. He'd been here [since 2012]. He definitely left a mark on this city. I felt like the fans showed him a lot of love when the move was made."
Even so, Bradham didn't seem to be saying management made a horrible mistake and left a gaping hole in the defense.
"I think we're fine," Bradham said, when asked about the depth of a linebacking corps that last week lost free agent signee Paul Worrilow to a season-ending ACL tear. "We've got guys who are versatile; I think that's going to play a huge factor for us this season."
It's possible there's a linebacking move yet to be made. Schwartz doesn't have all his pieces on the table yet, with returnee Joe Walker (neck) and recently signed vet LaRoy Reynolds still watching OTAs from the sideline, and Hicks only participating in individual drills.
"Training camp is when the competition will get fierce and the pads will come on and things like that," Schwartz said. "The only people that anyone's competing against right now is themselves."