The Eagles Don't Hate Linebackers -- No, Really
Here’s a comment you hear all the time: The Eagles don’t value linebackers. And that’s being kind. Also heard frequently around the Delaware Valley: "The Eagles hate linebackers." "The Eagles are arrogant about linebackers." And the best one yet … “I’m an Eagles fan. What is this ‘linebacker’ thing you speak of..?” Looking at their current projected starters – second-year undrafted free agent T.J. Edwards, 2017 fifth-round pick Nate Gerry, and lord-knows-who as the No. 3 in base – one could easily surmise that those accusations are true.
(Nate Gerry, a fifth-round pick from Nebraska in 2017, is projected to start at linebacker alongside second-year pro T.J. Edwards, an undrafted free agent.) But the reality is that the Eagles do value linebackers. It’s just that they value others positions more than linebacker. That’s where the distinction should be made. Andy Reid always believed an impactful NFL defense should be built on stout interior line play, a tenacious edge rush and corners who can flip their hips and run. This was one of his many selling points in 1998, when Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner hired him. For the most part, his recipe produced a quality product. The team’s 4-3 schemes, drawn up by Jim Johnson, Sean McDermott, Juan Castillo and -- for like a hot minute -- Todd Bowles in 14 seasons as Eagles coach produced eight top-10 finishes in scoring defense
Howie Roseman observed and learned under Reid while he climbed the front-office ladder before crossing over from money to personnel and eventually storming to the top as general manager. Roseman’s own philosophies about defense construction are rooted in Reid’s principles. Under Reid, the Eagles routinely doled out millions to pass rushers and corners -- and routinely kept a dizzying rotation of cost-efficient linebackers. Cornerbacks and pass rushers are expensive. Offensive tackles, quarterbacks and wide receivers are, too. Right now, Roseman has a quarterback who makes north of $26 million annually. He has an aging, injured wide receiver who carries a cap hit of $15 million in 2020 -- possibly more if the Eagles part ways with him. He has an interior line trio that accounts for more than $30 million in cap space next season and just opened the vault to make corner Darius Slay among the league’s top-paid defensive backs. In a league where budgets aren’t finite, general managers simply can’t pay everyone. Hence, not all positions are prioritized equally. For the Eagles, linebacker can’t be more important over positions in which they’re typically heavily invested.
So if you’re ticked that Roseman didn’t shell out $12 million a year for Corey Littleton then you should also be upset that he spent $13 million per year on Javon Hargrave. It’s one or the other. You can Hargrave, but not Littleton. Or you can have Hargave and Littleton, but not Slay. What would the Eagles secondary look like right now without Slay? The Eagles will take the pass rusher or corner over the linebacker every single time. For them and for how Jim Schwartz’s defense is orchestrated, it’s the right call. Remember, the Eagles are rarely in a three-linebacker (base) formation these days. For most of the game against most opponents, they’re in nickel or dime, deploying two linebackers or one. The traditional WILL-MIKE-SAM trio and “downhill” linebacker are gone, lost somewhere in the annals of NFL history along with the fullback and blocking tight end. Jeremiah Trotter, who played around 260 pounds, would probably be a rotational edge rusher if he was just entering the league today. The Eagles should be more focused on building the mid-level of their defense through the draft and through value free agency, which they’ve done more recently than people think. They entered 2017, their Super Bowl season, with Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham holding down the two main spots and Mychal Kendricks as the next man in for base formations. That’s a third-round pick, a value free-agent signing and second-round pick, respectively. Does that sound like a team that doesn’t value linebackers? The Eagles should’ve addressed linebacker earlier in the past three drafts, no doubt. That’s where any and all criticisms are fair. They haven’t drafted a linebacker since taking Gerry, a safety convert, in the fifth round of 2017. He became the highest linebacker drafted by the team since Hicks in the 2015 third round. Joe Walker, a seventh rounder in 2016, is the only other linebacker they’ve drafted since that season. Just two of their last 26 draft picks have been dedicated to the linebacker position.
This year, the Eagles have eight draft picks to build their new foundation. But they also have holes at wide receiver, corner and safety. Not surprisingly, those are also three positions the Eagles historically prioritize more than linebacker. - Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is a veteran Philadelphia Eagles and NFL reporter, co-host of Inside the Birds and 97.3 ESPN sports-talk host. Listen to the latest Inside the Birds podcast here: