The Eagles released Mychal Kendricks on May 22, the same day Paul Worrilow suffered a season-ending knee injury in an OTA drill. If Nate Gerry wasn't already in the conversation to play a decent number of linebacking snaps in 2018, he certainly jumped into the discussion then, with a 2017 starter and a key free-agent signee erased from the competition.
Last summer, the fifth-round rookie from Nebraska looked a little small and a little slow, transitioning to linebacker after playing safety in college. When Gerry started the season on the practice squad, it was tempting to write him off. But Gerry joined the active roster Oct. 19 and got into the final 10 regular-season games, on special teams. Though his only defensive action came in the meaningless Dallas finale, he looked way better that day than he had in the preseason. Gerry was active for the Atlanta and Minnesota playoff games, before sitting out the Super Bowl.
"I wasn't disappointed at all," Gerry said last month. "I trust in the coaches. I trust in the team. I did my role [learning the defense, and a new position]. … I think that's why we won the Super Bowl, is because we all bought into our roles."
The Eagles still list Gerry at a safety-esque 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, though he says he weighs a solid 230. He spent the offseason getting bigger and getting smarter, he said, studying film of smaller linebackers — the Jaguars' Telvin Smith, the Falcons' Deion Jones, the Rams' Mark Barron — who have found ways to be effective.
"Just to see how they kind of got around things … how they make plays," Gerry said.
One might think going from safety to linebacker would make speed less of a factor, but for Gerry, it became an obstacle – because in football, "speed" means more than being able to run fast.
"Being able to adapt to the speed," Gerry said about what most flummoxed him when making the switch. "The game play just happens a lot faster at the linebacker position; the closer you are to the football, the faster things happen.
"I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident in my ability. The offseason really treated me well, too, being able to compete in the weight room and compete in OTAs. Just to reassure [myself of] my ability to make those plays that I made in college. It helped a lot."
When the Eagles open training camp Wednesday, Gerry is on a short list of contenders for significant playing time, after established starters Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham. There's Kamu Grugier-Hill, a special-teams stalwart with aspirations to play more in the defense. Corey Nelson, a free-agent signee from the Broncos who excelled on special teams in Denver but never got a lot of linebacking snaps, seemed to be feeling his way through a new setup in spring work. LaRoy Reynolds is a 27-year-old former Jaguar and Falcon who played in nine games last season for Atlanta, on special teams. There are a couple of undrafted rookies, Asantay Brown from Western Michigan and Kyle Wilson from Arkansas State, and Joe Walker, a seventh-round Eagles pick in 2016 who is coming off a neck injury.
Right now, it is a group that lacks anyone with an extensive resume. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Eagles try to find an upgrade, even as camp is starting. Or ending.
"The plan is to just have competition and see what comes of it," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said during the spring.
Asked if Nelson, the most prominent free-agent signee in the group, would have an edge, Schwartz said: "I don't know that you could consider anybody really getting a first look this time of year. … We don't have a depth chart. We're just trying to roll guys through, get guys experience. Guys are coming from different things. … Training camp is when the competition will get fierce and the pads will come on and things like that."