There has been an ongoing discussion amongst Eagles fans recently about whether the Eagles should address linebacker in free agency. Some fans want Manny Lawson brought in to play SAM. Other fans think Stephen Tulloch would solve the situation at middle linebacker. I think everyone would have interest in Chad Greenway at WIL, but the Vikings placed the franchise tag on him and to put it bluntly - that ain't happenin'.
The Eagles have not had much luck / success at linebacker in the Andy Reid era. Every time something goes right, something else goes wrong. The Eagles certainly haven't addressed linebacker as a premium position. They save that for corner, defensive end, left tackle, and obviously quarterback.
Still, linebacker isn't as ignored as some might believe. Jeremiah Trotter was signed to a big contract prior to 2005. Takeo Spikes made big money in his one year of playing for the Eagles. Wil Witherspoon and Mark Simoneau were players the team traded for. Carlos Emmons was a great free agent signing. Ditto that for Shawn Barber in 2002. Nate Wayne was great...on Monday nights. The Eagles spent second round picks on Quinton Caver and Matt McCoy. They used a third round picks on Stewart Bradley and Chris Gocong. While the effort was "okay", the results certainly were not.
Things have changed in recent years. Stewart Bradley played well in 2008 and looked like a great pick. Then he got hurt. Moise Fokou was a late rounder in 2009 that now looks like a solid starter. Jamar Chaney was a late rounder last year and looks like he could be really good. Keenan Clayton was a fourth round pick in 2010 and showed a lot of potential as an athlete and playmaker.
The Eagles added three more linebackers in this past draft. Casey Matthews can play any linebacker spot. Brian Rolle projects to the weakside. Greg Lloyd is a traditional inside run stuffer.
It suddenly feels like something has changed. Are the Eagles getting linebacker right in recent years?
The Eagles have taken six linebackers in the past three drafts. Before that they took seven linebackers in the previous four drafts. Let's compare the groups:
Casey Matthews - Oregon
Brian Rolle - Ohio State
Greg Lloyd - UConn
Keenan Clayton - Oklahoma
Jamar Chaney - Mississippi St
Moise Fokou - Maryland
* * * * *
Joe Mays - North Dakota State
Andy Studebaker - Wheaton College
Stewart Bradley - Nebraska
Chris Gocong - Cal-Poly
Omar Gaither - Tennessee
Matt McCoy - San Diego State
David Bergeron - Stanford
Group A is more of a true set of linebackers. There are no projects in that group. They played linebacker in college and did so at a high level. Three of the players started in a BCS game. Two of the players were on Top 10 defenses, while Oregon finished 12th in scoring defense this past season. Rolle and Matthews were both all conference players. Three of the players played in the Senior Bowl. All of the players were invited to the Scouting Combine. Chaney was the fastest linebacker at the 2010 Combine
Group B has three guys from small schools. The group has two players that weren't linebackers in college and even Bradley started at defensive end before moving to linebacker. None of the players was first team all-conference as a linebacker. This group is more about projects than proven players. Only Bradley went to the Senior Bowl. Only three of the group got invites to the Combine.
I don't know what happened to cause such an obvious shift. Howie Roseman became more powerful, even prior to becoming general manager, and maybe he simply has a better feel for linebacker. Maybe Sean McDermott deserves credit for helping the team to pick better linebackers. No matter what the reason, you can see that the Eagles are headed in the right direction at linebacker. The question then becomes whether to leave the group alone and let them show what they can do or to add to the group through free agency.
I get the feeling that Roseman wants to build a linebacker corps through the draft. The goal is to build a quality group and to have some long term stability. One of the biggest weaknesses in regard to linebacker in the Reid era is the constant shuffling. That has to stop. It really makes a difference when linebackers play together and build some chemistry.
Think back to the linebacker glory days of Gang Green. Seth Joyner and Byron Evans started together for all of 1989 and 1990. William Thomas was added to the mix in 1991. That trio was then together for 1992 and 1993. Then Joyner left and Bill Romanowski was seamlessly worked in. Evans and Thomas had a great combination of talent and experience so it was easy to bring in an outsider and make it work.
Last year both Fokou and Chaney showed they have what it takes to be good starters. Fokou isn't going to be a playmaking SAM like Joyner, but he can be solid. Fokou is a physical run defender. He can set the edge and take on blockers. He shows some cover skills, but needs to be more consistent when playing in space. Chaney was a tackling machine when he took over for Bradley at middle linebacker. He showed good speed and range. He surprised me with how well he shed blocks and played the run. Chaney did struggle on pass plays. He's got the athleticism needed, but looked confused. I think the Eagles want to move Chaney to WIL because of that.
So who will be the middle linebacker? This is where some argue that Tulloch would be such a good fit. He's probably going to get overpaid since he's likely to be the best inside backer on the market. I'm betting that Bradley signs a one-year contract and gets first crack at the job. He will be challenged by Matthews. That may sound crazy that a fourth round rookie could seriously push a veteran player on a Super Bowl contender. Lofa Tatupu was a rookie that started in the middle in the Super Bowl. London Fletcher was in year two when he started in the Super Bowl, but barely played on defense in his rookie year (12 tackles). Tatupu was a second round pick. Fletcher was undrafted.
I have had a strange feeling about Matthews going back to before the draft. He just seemed like a player that Castillo would covet. I listed him to the Eagles in a couple of mock drafts. I listed him as a serious linebacker target in other articles. I don't have any inside information on this. I just get the feeling that Matthews is a guy Castillo wants on the field somewhere, either in 2011 or the near future. It will not shock me if the Eagles let Bradley walk away and Matthews is inserted as the starting middle linebacker.
Understand that this isn't me pushing for Matthews to get the job. He's very much grown on me the more that I've watched him, but I do have concerns about him in the NFL. I'm simply guessing that Castillo is a huge fan of his and will give Matthews a chance to show what he can do, whether that is challenging for a starting role or even being placed atop the depth chart if Bradley does go.
The Eagles could have a good set of backup linebackers, especially if Bradley does stay. That would keep Matthews on the bench. Rashad Jeanty can be a very good role player, if healthy. Clayton showed excellent potential when he did play in 2010. Rookies like Lloyd and Rolle could be fighting for a roster spot, but each has the potential to be good NFL role players.
I haven't always agreed with what the Eagles have done at linebacker, most notably when they signed Dhani Jones in the spring of 2004 and when they cut Spikes after the 2007 season. I'm very curious to see what they do now. I'm betting Roseman, Reid, and Castillo stick with the homegrown guys and don't add any free agents. There's no guarantee that plan will work, but I do like the notion of the team building a linebacker corps so that when they are forced to shuffle players around it is from within and not by making more moves for outside players. As Patrick Henry once said, "Give me stability at linebacker or give me death."