If they hadn't just somehow managed to win a Super Bowl without their starting quarterback, and their nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle, and their starting middle linebacker and defensive play caller, and their most versatile running back, and their special-teams ace, there probably would be a little more trepidation right now over the state of the Eagles' linebacking corps.
The release of Mychal Kendricks and a season-ending knee injury to free-agent addition Paul Worrilow on the same day this spring have left the Eagles without a lot of playing experience at linebacker beyond starters Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks. And Hicks is coming off a right Achilles tear that sidelined him for the final nine regular-season games and the playoffs last season.
Corey Nelson, another free-agent pickup who entered training camp as the favorite to replace Kendricks at WILL, has just five starts in four seasons. LaRoy Reynolds, a mid-May free-agent pickup, has just seven career starts in five seasons.
The Eagles' other top three linebackers — Joe Walker, Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill – have a combined four NFL starts.
Bradham and Hicks are a solid tandem. Bradham is a physical, trash-talking player who would have made the Pro Bowl last year if the league's players had bothered to vote with their eyes open.
Hicks is a smart, instinctive playmaker who almost never is out of position.
"It's interesting," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Friday. "Jordan can sometimes calm our defense down and Nigel can sometimes get us revved up. I like it. It's a little bit of, I don't know, fire and ice. You guys can up with something. Batman and Robin? I don't know what simile is good there. But they both bring something different to the part."
Given the fact that the Eagles only used three-linebacker packages about 25 percent of the time last season, Bradham and Hicks might be enough to get the job done, though Bradham already is going to miss the season opener against Atlanta. He was given a one-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. Two years ago, he punched a cabana boy at a South Florida hotel. Three months later, he tried to go through airport security in Miami with a loaded gun, prompting Schwartz's famous line, "You do dumbass things, pretty soon you're going to be labeled a dumbass."
But Bradham has gotten his act together since then and is developing into one of the league's better linebackers. In March, the Eagles gave him a five-year, $40 million contract.
"I think we'll be fine," Bradham said of the team's linebacker situation. "We have guys that are versatile and can do more than one thing. And I think that's going to be a huge factor for us this season.
"Look at Gerry. It's amazing the way he's picked up the defense. I tell him all the time that he's right there with me and Jordan as far as knowing the whole defense. That says a lot about a guy who's only been playing the position for two years."
Bradham said he is really looking forward to playing with Hicks again.
"Me and Jordan together on the field are special," he said. "The play-making ability [we have], we communicate well. We have chemistry. We just work together very well. We're the leaders of this defense. When you have two guys like us in the middle of the defense who can bring energy and make plays, you're in good shape."
Availability is the key ability
Leaders must be able to stay on the field, however. And that has been Hicks' greatest challenge, going back to his college days at the University of Texas.
He had two seasons derailed with the Longhorns because of injuries, missing 10 games as a sophomore with a hip-flexor problem and nine as a junior when he ruptured his left Achilles tendon.
Selected in the third round of the 2015 draft by the Eagles, he impressed as a rookie until tearing a pectoral muscle in his chest and missing the final seven games. He managed to stay healthy and start all 16 games in 2016, but then suffered the Achilles injury in Week 7 last year.
"I give this game everything I've got," Hicks said. "I'm not afraid to say that. I give it everything.
"But I have to make sure I'm out there. I have to have that accountability and let guys know I'm going to be there for them. I don't have any question in my mind that if I'm healthy, I'll be productive. It's just a matter of staying on the field."
Hicks was mostly a spectator at the Eagles' spring OTAs and minicamp, but was cleared for full training-camp participation.
"It's been nine months," he said. "Healing-wise, I'm fine. I know it's early, but it's extremely rewarding to be back out there."
Said Schwartz: "He looks the same [as before the injury]. We had geared him back quite a bit in the offseason. He was probably ready [for] a little bit more than we allowed him to do, which is our job.
"Players are always chomping at the bit to do more. But I think he's benefited from that. His weight's down a little bit, but we're excited to have him back in the middle of our defense."
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