New Faces, Same Story
Birds LB Crew Remains Biggest Question Mark
Due to the dire nature of the positional landscape and the franchise’s longstanding philosophy, the Eagles have saddled second-year linebacker Nakobe Dean with an inordinate burden.
Dean, a prominent fixture on a historic national-title winning defense at Georgia two seasons ago, operated in relative anonymity as a rookie on a veteran-laden unit, logging just 34 defensive snaps last year despite the prestigious pedigree.
But the Eagles are relying on Dean to tear off the bubble wrap and step into the limelight as the face of a perpetually scrutinized position in the aftermath of losing both starters, T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White, in free agency.
Moreover, the 22-year-old Dean will inherit Edwards’ responsibility of wearing the green dot on his helmet, reserved exclusively for one defensive player to maintain constant contact with the coaching staff while on the field.
Squarely under the microscope entering his second season, Dean has already succeeded in catching the eye of veteran Nic Morrow, who’s projected to play the role of Dean’s counterpart.
“Well, one, obviously, we started in the weight room,” Morrow said. “He’s very explosive and strong. Then we got into the meeting rooms, he’s smart. He knows his stuff. He knows what’s going on. He’s a good communicator. So, he’s doing a great job.”
Lauded for his high-level football intellect, instincts, and athleticism, Dean possesses seemingly every vital trait and intangible necessary to become the team’s next young defensive standout.
Given his slight frame – 5 foot 11, 231 pounds – Dean’s durability concerns over a full regular-season slate are justifiable, but perhaps the more pertinent question that remains is: Who will ultimately accompany him on the depth chart?
The free-agent acquisition of Morrow, a seven-year pro, suggests the Eagles have settled on a starting tandem.
Fresh off a career season with the Bears, Morrow, 27, provides a steady if unspectacular veteran presence alongside Dean. But at 6 feet, 225 pounds, Morrow’s light frame could also be concerning.
As a duo, Dean and Morrow form a highly intelligent, rangy, and athletic pairing. The spotlight, however, will shine on their performance against the run, more specifically their ability to shed blocks.
Staying healthy and productive will be especially key, as razor-thin depth is a glaring concern.
In terms of competition for the all-important first backup role, third-year pro Christian Elliss is the most suitable in-house candidate.
Elevated from the practice squad ahead of a Week 13 clash with the Titans to invigorate a stagnant third phase, Elliss’ impact was immediately felt, as his ferocity and urgency catalyzed a beleaguered unit.
Appearing in the Eagles’ final six regular season games, the 24-year-old Elliss racked up 11 tackles – accounting for 62 percent of the special teams snaps – and was active for all three postseason games.
Along with serving notice to the underachievers, Elliss seized his opportunity by exhibiting athleticism, tenacity, and an inherent impulse worth developing despite logging just 22 defensive snaps.
Of all the Eagles linebackers in camp vying for a backup job, Elliss’ body of work and upside merit him the longest look.
Beyond Elliss, further down the linebacker hierarchy are fourth-year holdover Shaun Bradley and undrafted rookie Ben VanSumeran.
Bradley, who logged 131 defensive snaps over his first two seasons before being relegated solely to special teams a season ago, failed to warrant snaps in a more prominent capacity and was part of the nucleus of a hapless special teams.
While his status on the 53 appears safe at the moment – a late-summer addition could change that – the likelihood of Bradley carving out a sizable role hardly seems feasible.
As for VanSumeran, his numbers suggest he has a chance at nabbing one of the final roster spots. But despite his tantalizingly athletic profile, the undrafted rookie is immensely raw and sports a collegiate resume that indicates limited production.
Banking on an inconsistent rookie who lacks crucial fundamental elements to leapfrog experienced veterans and special teams stalwarts seems ambitious.
Conventional wisdom suggests we should expect little-to-no tinkering at the Eagles’ most vulnerable unit. The team’s long-standing philosophy of scarce resource allocation at the position supports that.
Still, the current positional outlook doesn’t pass the smell test, and it’s difficult to fathom a roster built for Super Bowl contention invading Gillette Stadium on Sept. 10 as currently constituted.
This could prove to be an example of extenuating circumstances dictating a rare deviation from conventional wisdom.
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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