2020 Season Preview: Linebacker Sore Spot Stands Out
This is the seventh story of a lengthy series from now until the start of training camp by Geoff Mosher and Andrew DiCecco previewing the Eagles' 2020 season. Each weekday, Mosher and DiCecco will give their viewpoint on a specific topic. Today's category:
Weakest Position, Defense
Geoff's Choice: Linebacker
For most of the topics throughout this series, a certain level of thought and internal debate is invested before formulating an answer. It's with the utmost sincerity that I tell you that answering this question only took the amount of time one normally needs to say the word "linebacker." Look, we know the Eagles don't value linebackers the same way they value pass rushers, corners and sometimes safeties. We know that in this era of intricate nickel and dime formations that three-linebacker personnel groups are actually the new "sub packages." We know that the Eagles haven't drafted a true 4-3 linebacker in the first round since 1979.
But the stable of linebackers the Eagles are banking on going into 2020 just isn't acceptable, and it would be shocking if Howie Roseman doesn't bolster this position before the start of the regular season. This isn't to suggest the group is talent-less. Around this time last year, I urged readers to closely watch rookie free agent T.J. Edwards, who not only made the team but ended up starting four games and showing that he could fill the team's need for a downhill, run-stopping linebacker. Nate Gerry doesn't win the fan vote, but he's a decent coverage linebacker who has good athleticism and instincts along with football intelligence. He's an adequate nickel linebacker. Duke Riley, who came over in a midseason trade, and veteran free-agent signing Jatavis Brown are known their athletic ability, as is third-round pick Davion Taylor, who's ridiculously quick and cat-like. But collectively, this isn't a very deep or experienced group. Edwards is really the Eagles' lone run stopper, and therefore their only true middle linebacker. If he were to suffer an injury, who'd move inside for base downs? Gerry, Brown and Riley aren't prototype run-stoppers.
Taylor, a raw project, will be lucky to see any time on the defense this year. Rookie free agent Dante Olson is probably the next-most-suited to play the middle, but he needs to make the 53-man first, and that's asking a lot. Can the Eagles overcome this? Sure, they can just play more nickel and dime, using more hybrid defenders and safeties, although they aren't exactly deep and bursting with talent in the secondary, either. But not having someone even as good as Nigel Bradham or Jordan Hicks really threatens the overall competency of the Eagles' defense. The Cowboys, Giants and Washington will test Jim Schwartz's personnel by countering with heavy offensive sets and aim right at the gut of the Eagles' defense. The Eagles have historically devalued the linebacker spot. But this is surprising, even for them.
Andrew's Choice: Linebacker
Geoff and I differ regarding the weakest position on offense, but on defense, it’s safe to say we're both in agreement. When assessing the Eagles’ roster in its entirety, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more uninspiring group than their current assortment of linebackers.
With Nigel Bradham no longer in the fold, Nathan Gerry heads the defense’s maligned second level. Gerry, a converted college safety, made some encouraging strides last season and finished second behind Bradham in snaps at the position (630). However, Gerry’s tackling woes, inability to consistently disengage from blockers and shoddy run defense became customary.
With Bradham out of the picture, the fourth-year pro will likely be tasked with handling the defensive play-calling. Second-year linebacker T.J Edwards figures to be the unit’s top performer. Edwards, who made the team as an undrafted free agent last season, flashed in his limited opportunities. He's the odds-on favorite to start alongside Gerry. The Wisconsin product appeared in all 16 games and contributed 112 defensive snaps. Despite his limited exposure, Edwards earned an overall grade of 86.6 from Pro Football Focus. While the 6-foot-1, 240-pound thumper is lauded for his run defense, Edwards’ lack of range and coverage prowess could ultimately limit his output.
Jatavis Brown was signed to bolster the unit. Still, if his lackluster 2019 campaign in Los Angeles was any indication of what to expect moving forward, the veteran is hardly guaranteed a roster spot. After a strong start to his Chargers’ tenure, Brown’s career has since been marred with injuries and inconsistent play. Appearing in 13 games (1 start) last season, Brown contributed just 92 defensive snaps, while establishing himself as a special teams maven. Perhaps Brown experiences a career resurgence in Philadelphia, but the undersized linebacker is trending in the wrong direction.
One of the more intriguing at the position is former LSU standout Duke Riley. Like Brown, Riley struggled with inconsistency at his last stop but is decidedly the most efficient cover linebacker on the roster. The former fourth-round pick was acquired in a late-September trade with the Falcons and saw most of his playing time on special teams. With nearly a full year to get acclimated,
Riley could feasibly assume the third linebacker role, which was previously occupied by Kamu Grugier-Hill.
Beyond the aforementioned quartet are rookies Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley. Taylor, a third-round pick, is incredibly raw and needs time to develop, while Bradley finds himself squarely on the roster bubble. Undrafted free agent Dante Olson and special teamer Alex Singleton round out the unit.
While it is important to note that Jim Schwartz opted to deploy three linebackers just 20.7 percent of the defense last season, the lack of substantial depth behind Gerry and Edwards is alarming. Unless one of the young veterans steps up and seizes a prominent role this summer, the second level inadequacies could ultimately be what prevents the defense from taking the next step.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the Inside the Birds podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com. Andrew DiCecco (adicecconfl) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com.
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