One of the most interesting situations to watch this offseason is what will happen at linebacker. In 2008 the Eagles looked to have a good linebacking corps in place. Chris Gocong was a big SAM and a player on the rise. Stewart Bradley looked like one of the best young middle linebackers in the league. Akeem Jordan took over on the weakside at midseason and the team thrived with him in place. Life was good.
Sean McDermott took over the defense the following summer and things have not been right with the linebackers ever since. Part of that is coincidence, part cause and effect. Stewart Bradley tore his ACL prior to 2009. That kept him from playing that year and he wasn't anywhere close to his old self in 2010. Gocong flat-lined in 2009 (or even regressed) and lost his job late in the year. Jordan wasn't the same player. I don't know if it was the schematic changes by McDermott or simply Jordan becoming sloppy, but he wasn't the same guy. Will Witherspoon looked like a star for one week and then faded quickly. The Eagles let him go. They took a flier on Ernie Sims. There were times when it looked like the light might go on for him, but it never did and by the end of the year everyone wanted him gone. Omar Gaither is the man without a position. He has the head of a weakside linebacker, but the speed/athleticism of a middle linebacker. Making matters worse is that he isn't a real big fan of playing on special teams.
There are some signs of hope. Moise Fokou was highly erratic as a rookie, but took over as the starting SAM in early 2010 and showed promise. 7th round pick Jamar Chaney looked terrific as soon as he got on the field. He was fast, instinctive, and productive. The question facing the Eagles with Fokou and Chaney is whether those players are the kind of guys you want as starters or whether they are best suited as backups.
Fokou played pretty well in 2010, but has yet to show that he is absolutely a guy you want on the field. He is rugged enough to be a good run defender. He has strong hands, which helps him to shed blocks. He has long arms, which helps to keep blockers off his body and also helps him to jam tight ends as they release off the line. He is a solid athlete with the potential to be effective in coverage. At the same time, he's not been the most productive player. Last season he had 44 solo tackles, a sack, a pass break-up, and a forced fumble.
Chaney showed enough that I think the Eagles should find a starting role for him in 2011. He was a star player in the SEC. He was the fastest linebacker at the Combine. The only reason Chaney fell to the 7th round was injury concerns. The Eagles didn't see any major injury issues last year. He didn't play much until late in the year, when he took over for Bradley in the Dallas game. Chaney then started the next two regular season games and the playoff game. In three starts he had 29 solo tackles, a forced fumble, and pass break-up. That is excellent production.
The numbers don't tell the whole story. Chaney passed the eyeball test. He timed fast prior to the draft, but also played fast on the field. That speed helped him to cover a lot of ground and get to the ball early and often. Sure, he made some rookie mistakes. There were some play action passes where Chaney looked completely lost. That is something that will change with experience and coaching. Chaney has the physical ability and that is the most important thing. Coaches need a certain amount of size, talent, and athleticism to work with.
Chaney played in the middle in 2010, but has the versatility to start on the weakside. He has the speed and quickness to play in space. Chaney is 6'0, 242. Think about Bears star Lance Briggs. He is 6'1, 242. Briggs is a speedy linebacker that covers a lot of ground, makes a lot of tackles, and has some pop when he hits. Chaney has that kind of potential. Obviously there is a big difference in showing potential in three starts and being a perennial Pro Bowl. I'm not trying to tell you Chaney will be anywhere close to that good. I'd love to see that happen, but it isn't likely. I do think Chaney can become a good starter at either weakside or middle linebacker.
The huge question for the Eagles is what to do with Bradley. He looked so good in 2008, but struggled in 2010. You tend to think the struggles were due to the recovery from his torn ACL and that he'll play better as he gets further from the injury. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. I think the Eagles want Bradley back because of his potential. He is one of the biggest linebackers in the NFL and runs well for a guy his size. He's smart and has pretty good instincts. He's a natural leader, something you want in a middle linebacker. No team is likely to offer him a big deal coming off his 2010 season. Possibly the best thing for both sides is a one-year deal that will give flexibility to everyone involved. Or maybe the Eagles give him an incentive-laden contract.
I have mixed feelings on Bradley. I'd love to get the 2008 version, but you can't ignore his struggles last year or the durability issues. Bradley tore an ACL in college and the NFL. He suffered an elbow injury late last year that let Chaney get on the field. I would not break the bank for Bradley. I hope he's reasonable with his demands. If not, you pass on him and go pay big money for a big time free agent.
I don't think a starting linebacker trio of Fokou-Bradley-Chaney would be a bad thing. I know many fans would be disappointed. They want change. The one player I absolutely wanted was Chad Greenway, but the Vikings used the franchise tag on him. We don't know for sure what kind of rules will be in place in free agency, but chances are that he won't be available.
One of the key points for me with the linebackers is that I'm open to upgrading the unit, but I don't want change for the sake of change. I think continuity is an underrated aspect of building up a good linebacking corps. The Eagles have had nothing but change at linebacker for the past decade. I think there is some definite wisdom in letting the young guys play together and develop as a unit. If there is a Pro Bowl talent available, that changes things. Those are the guys you get and force into the lineup.
There is some versatility with the Eagles players. Bradley could play SAM or stay in the middle. Chaney can play WIL or in the middle. Fokou can play SAM or WIL. Heck, he might even be okay as a backup in the middle. One point of interest is whether Bradley would be open to playing SAM. If you could put him there, Chaney on the weakside, and then add a veteran middle linebacker you would have a pretty impressive group. I'd love that scenario. It would also allow Fokou to move to the bench, which has Rashad Jeanty and Keenan Clayton, but needs another couple of bodies.
We all want improved linebacker play. How does that happen? The Eagles could leave the current group alone. They could shuffle the current group around. They could add one free agent or they could add a couple of starters. There isn't one clear course of action. I think that is what makes the situation so interesting. The Eagles can go in a number of directions. The draft doesn't have a strong set of linebacker prospects so the key moves will need to be of the pro personnel variety. The x-factor in all of this is Juan Castillo, the new defensive coordinator. He played linebacker in college and the USFL. That background will hopefully help him to improve the Eagles linebacker play. That has been the weak spot on defense throughout the Andy Reid era. I'm definitely going to be interested to see what the Eagles do, whenever the offseason actually does start.