Making sense of the Eagles linebackers
As the summer months quickly approach, the Eagles’ new coaching staff finally gets a chance a look at their new players in live-action during mini-camps and OTAs. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has possibly the most challenging task ahead of him during his summer break. The secondary and linebackers are still the most significant liabilities on the team after Howie did not completely address depth for both units.
Gannon is likely to bring some familiar defensive concepts from his time in Indianapolis and his days working for a Mike Zimmer defense in Minnesota. While the Colts and Vikings’ linebackers solidified themselves as the most important unit for the defenses’ success, the Eagles’ linebackers did quite the opposite last season. With mostly the same players coming back at linebacker, Gannon will have to get creative to overhaul this unit for 2021.
Eagles Projected Depth Chart at Linebacker:
Colts’ defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus uses his strong-side linebacker as the “heavy” guy who seeks contact and takes out lead blockers. The SAM’s responsibility in a typical base 4-3 look is to fill that strong side ‘B’ gap and take on any fullbacks or pulling linemen that come through the hole. It’s one of the least glorified positions in football but is vital for creating tackling opportunities. On occasion, the SAM will line up outside of the offensive tackle to create a 5-2 look against run-heavy schemes or to exploit a potential blitz opportunity.
With most NFL defenses moving to a base 4-2-5 defense, this linebacker position slowly is becoming phased out. However, guys at the SAM position have to make the most of their opportunities to blow up lead blockers in their gaps and do the dirty work to become a reliable run defender.
For the Eagles, Genard Avery’s switch to this position is the most intriguing for me. It frees him up to play both as a rotational pass rusher and contribute as a run-stopping, blitz specialist linebacker. Avery officially switches back to outside linebacker for the first time since his rookie campaign with the Browns in 2018. The former Memphis Tiger primarily found success as an edge rusher but contributed as an effective tackler in the box.
Joe Ostman, an undrafted defensive end out of Central Michigan, has bounced on-and-off the Eagles practice squad since 2018. Adam Caplan recently revealed that he, too, will be making the switch to linebacker and is another body to throw behind Avery at that WILL position.
Third-round pick Davion Taylor seemed lost on every one of his 33 defensive snaps last season. In 2020, PFF gave him the lowest defensive grade for the Eagles (27.4) since they started grading data. However, Taylor is very new to the game of football. Fans need to have some patience with a prospect who didn’t play the game until he was 18-years old and who’s still in the early development stages of his career. Putting Taylor in the most straightforward role possible seems to be the best course of action for his progression. He can be a rotational linebacker against run-heavy schemes and stick to his job of dismantling lead blockers with his 230-pound frame and sub 4.4 forty speed.
The MIKE and WILL linebacker roles are a little more complex in the Colts’ system under Eberflus. The WILL position typically is the most athletic defender on the field who’s excellent in coverage and can be a consistent playmaker. The MIKE linebacker is the guy with the best understanding of the defensive scheme and most dependable against both the run and pass.
In April, the Eagles signed 26-year old linebacker Eric Wilson, who carries ties to Gannon after spending his first three seasons in Minnesota under Mike Zimmer’s defense. Wilson is the definition of an athletic, playmaking, coverage linebacker. He totaled a team-high 122 tackles for the Vikings in 2020 to go along with three interceptions and three pass breakups against two touchdowns allowed in 519 coverage snaps.
The former undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati also brings expertise to the MIKE position after playing in Mike Zimmer’s similar defensive scheme. Both Zimmer and Eberful like to disguise their linebackers to confuse opposing offenses so I could see Gannon utilizing Eric Wilson as both the MIKE and SAM linebacker next season.
The other two players I could see rotating as starters with Eric Wilson are Alex Singleton and TJ Edwards. Singleton’s struggles in pass coverage became highly publicized as he finished with the Eagles’ third-worst coverage grade amongst qualified players. Opponents gained nearly 20% of their total passing yards last season when targeting only three players: Nate Gerry, Duke Reilly, and Alex Singleton.
On the bright side, the former CFL linebacker should have a lot less pressure on him playing next to a guy like Eric Wilson, who knows the system and can take on play-calling responsibilities. Singleton shouldn’t be left on an island in coverage as the WILL linebacker and should be more productive playing in a mid-zone or attacking anything thrown underneath.
The other player who will benefit from Eric Wilson’s presence on the defense is TJ Edwards. The 6-foot-1, 242-pound linebacker proved he could play at inside linebacker when given a chance. However, a hamstring injury in Week Four hindered his development for most of the 2020 season. Since joining the Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 2019, Edwards has a 9.7% missed tackle rate on his 100 combined tackles and only allows 9.2 yards per receptions with one interception against one touchdown in coverage. TJ Edwards is one of my top players to keep an eye on for a potential breakout campaign for the Eagles in 2021.
Shaun Bradley remains the odd man out of this unit but has carved out a role on special teams that could help him make the squad this season. He only played in 77 defensive snaps last season but finished with the team’s fifth-highest special teams’ grade. The 2020 sixth-round pick could see his role increase as the backup MIKE or WILL but needs to impress the coaching staff this offseason if he wants to move up the depth chart.
The front office did somewhat address linebacker in the draft with their selections of versatile playmakers, JaCoby Stevens in the 6th Round, and Patrick Johnson in the 7th Round. Stevens is a former safety out of LSU and projects as either a hybrid safety in the box or a future WILL linebacker in Gannon’s system. Johnson, the edge rusher out of Tulane, is listed as a linebacker and could be mentored by Genard Avery at that edge-rushing SAM position.