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An Updated Look at the Eagles Linebackers

Linebacker was a disastrous part of the defense in 2009. Start with the simple fact that no player started all 16 games. That kind of instability isn't conducive to good LB play. We lost 2 starting middle linebackers for the year, Stewart Bradley in August and Omar Gaither in October. Things got crazy after that. We brought Jeremiah Trotter back from the dead with a bizarre voodoo ceremony. He didn't play well and now his body walks the earth in search of someone to tackle for a loss. We looked like geniuses for trading for Will Witherspoon...for one week. He had a great showing in his first game for us then quickly realized he was an Eagles LB and immediately faded into the background. Joe Mays struggled so badly that he made Trotter's return look successful.

The outside linebackers were up and down all year. Chris Gocong, Akeem Jordan, and Moise Fokou made more mistakes than plays. Witherspoon was moved outside to help with that situation and remained inconsistent out there. Tracy White was only a role player, but was the one guy that seemed to do his job the best.

We made plenty of changes in the offseason to try and remedy this situation. Let's take a look at what's going on and try to understand what defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is thinking.

Stewart Bradley is back at MLB. That's huge for the defense. He had a good spring and looked fine moving around. There weren't any issues with his knee. He's been even better at Lehigh. Bradley has looked like his old-self when stuffing inside run plays. He's a big, physical player and that is something we lacked last year. Just as important is the fact he's still moving well and showing that he can handle the passing game. One of the major problems in 2009 is that we had good pass defenders and good run defenders, but not enough guys that could play well in both situations.

Getting Bradley back helps the base defense and the situational defenses. He has the size and strength to shed blockers and play the run. He's agile and has solid cover skills so he's not lost on pass plays. Having a two-way defender like Bradley in the middle of the field is invaluable.

Bradley also is important because of his leadership skills. He runs the defense. That brings a sense of stability to the other players. It helps to calm them down when things go bad, as they do for all units at some point during a long football season. Various players have talked about one of the problems from last season being that guys weren't focused on the scheme, but doing their own thing. Some players were more worried about stats than stopping the offense. We no longer had Jim Johnson coaching the defense and didn't have the kind of on-field leaders we needed. The maturation of McDermott, return of Bradley, and infusion of new blood should help to change that situation.

The outside linebacker spots are also going to look different. Ernie Sims is the starter at WIL. He had a great spring. We all wondered how he'd do at camp, in a more physical environment. Ernie has looked very good. He can hit and tackle. We still don't know about how he'll shed blocks in a game setting, but if you keep him clean Ernie will get to the ball and put the guy down. I'm excited to see what he does in the preseason games.  I was cautiously optimistic about him in the spring, but I'm starting to think Ernie might be a pretty good player for us. 

All offseason the starting SAM was Moise Fokou. A couple of days into camp he was moved to the 2nd team and Akeem Jordan was running with the starting defense. The initial reaction was "Here we go again. McDermott is going to shuffle the LBs all season and make our lives miserable." That is understandable. McDermott moved LBs around too much last year and it hurt the defense. He was dealt a bad hand due to the injuries, but didn't help matters with the constant shuffling.

So what is happening at SAM? We don't know anything for a fact. The move came so early into camp that I find it hard to believe this was done to punish Fokou for not playing well. One theory is that we're seeing McDermott try his hand a mind games for the first time. It could very well be that Akeem Jordan is the guy he wanted at SAM all offseason. In order to keep him focused and hungry, McDermott left Jordan with the backups. The Eagles do like Akeem. They had high hopes for him last year. Jordan got sloppy at times and they dialed back his playing time because of that. One way to get his attention is to give a starting job to an unproven player. I'm sure that had to tick off Jordan.

Jordan had a good spring. He's played well up at camp. If McDermott truly handled this situation for the reason of motivation, kudos to him. It looks like it worked. If he just made the move on a hunch, the result is the same, but I would sure be a lot less comfortable. I want coaches choosing starting players in a more deliberate way.  If Jordan continues to play well that will be the focus and not the reasoning behind the move. 

There is another point that has to be considered. Part of our Nickel defense is the Okie package. This is a version of the 3-3-5. The MLB is actually a position called the Joker. We ask that player to do a lot of things. He might rush up the middle, blitz off the edge, or drop into coverage. Think of the Joker as a chess piece that can do everything.

Jevon Kearse held this job in 2004 and 2005. Juqua Parker did a lot of it in 2006 and 2007. Chris Clemons did most of it over the last two years. I've wondered who might fill the role this year. When we dealt for Alex Hall I assumed he might have a shot. When we drafted Ricky Sapp I thought he would be a good fit. Hall is already gone. Sapp struggles mightily when playing in space. All of a sudden we don't have anyone who really fits the role of Joker.

Enter Fokou. He was a good blitzer and pass rusher at Maryland. He had 7 sacks in his final 2 years. The Terps ran an interesting defense and would move Fokou around. Sometimes he was a blitzer, but other times he was an edge rusher. McDermott knew all of this and decided to give Fokou as chance to be the Joker. In order for Fokou to get ready for the job he needed to spend time with the defensive linemen in their pass rushing drills. The Joker must be able to get to the QB. That means working on shedding blocks and honing your pass rush skills. Fokou does have the potential to be a good pass rusher. He's got long arms, which helps keep blockers away from his body. He also has big hands and uses them well to control blockers. Fokou is a good athlete and gets off the ball quickly.

Did McDermott make the move at SAM because Jordan and Fokou were similar players and this was just his best use of resources? Possibly. Let Jordan focus on learning the strong side and keep Fokou working there as a backup, but also learning the Joker role so that he can help in the Okie package.

Unless McDermott comes out and spills the beans we'll likely be stuck playing the guessing game. I can live with that as long as McDermott doesn't tinker too much with the LB lineup. Give guys their roles and let 'em play. We can live with some mistakes as long as we also see progress. After all, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

McDermott has shuffled the backup LBs in order to find out where everyone fits best and also to cover all the bases. These moves were more about necessity. As guys like Hall and Sapp proved they couldn't play LB for us we had to get creative to fill out the lineup.

Omar Gaither is healthy and having a solid camp as the backup MLB. That's an important development. There were some concerns that his foot injury might affect the 2010 season, but so far, so good. With Stew coming off an ACL injury we want Omar ready to play. You never know if Bradley will have any complications (swelling or soreness) that cost him some playing time. We need Gaither ready to step in if that situation arises.

Rookie Keenan Clayton has spent time at both outside spots. He has the build for WLB (225 pounds), but his cover skills might be very useful at SAM. The Eagles like him and are trying to figure out exactly what to do with him. If Ernie Sims is one and done for us because he leaves as a free agent Clayton could very well be the WLB of the future. If we keep Sims around the team may want Clayton to play at SAM. He is an exceptional athlete and they want to see what all he can do. He was a productive playmaker in college.  The Eagles surprised a few people by taking Clayton in the 4th round, but he's showing why they did that.  He's fast and athletic.  He covers well.  His tackling has been solid.  Clayton's run defense is still somewhat of a mystery.  We'll get a better feel for that in the preseason games.  He also will get a lot of time on special teams and should be a standout performer covering kicks. 

Rookie Jamar Chaney started off on the weakside. The trade of Joe Mays opened a hole on the inside for Chaney. Jamar played MLB his last couple of seasons at Mississippi State. He can play WLB or MLB for us, but I think his best spot is in the middle. Jamar is a tough, physical player. In a blitz drill the other day he ran over RB Martell Mallett. Jamar didn't just get by him. He floored Mallett. That's the way you want your MLB to play. You need him to attack blockers and knock the crap out of them. If Chaney can consistently shed the blocks of offensive linemen he's got the chance to develop into a starting player. I like what I've seen of Chaney to this point. He has shown some cover skills as well as the power to be a good run defender.  The Eagles got lucky that Chaney slid all the way to the 7th round.  After the way he's played so far I'm sure there are a few teams who regret passing on him.  I can't wait to see him run over someone on special teams in a preseason game.  Chaney might not be Jason Short, but he'll get the best of a player or two. 

Chaney's move to the middle opened a space on the weakside. That's when we brought back Tracy White. He was a free agent and hadn't gotten many looks, which really surprises me. White doesn't have starting ability, but he was a good role player for us last year. It shocks me that no other team was looking for a guy like him. Part of the problem is the spread of the 3-4 defense. White really is a 4-3 LB. I'm glad he was available. White can be a very good practice player and insurance policy for us. I don't know that he's likely to make the roster as is, but should someone get hurt he is ready to step in.

I'm okay with the moves that Sean McDermott has made to this point. The key for me is stability. By the third preseason game we need to settle on a lineup and rotation so that guys can build some continuity on the field. Sims will need to really fall apart to lose his job. I don't see that happening. Stew is the man in the middle as long as he stays healthy. SAM is the uncertain spot. Akeem is ahead for now. We'll see if he can keep the job. That leaves Fokou to be the Joker and backup SAM. Gaither and Clayton are the backups at MLB and WLB.

The Nickel LBs are going to be Sims and Stew for now. I think Clayton has a chance to take reps away from Sims. That's not a knock on Ernie so much as an opportunity to see what Clayton can do since he was such a good cover 'backer for the Sooners. Plus, Sims always wore down in Detroit because he played so much. I think it would be prudent to rest him here and there to keep him fresh all year long. Ernie has never experienced the NFL playoffs. Let's hope he stays healthy and we can get him there this year.

This LB corps does have the potential to be good. We need Stew to stay healthy and play like he did down the stretch in 2008. We need Sims to fly to the ball and make some plays. We need Akeem to handle the point of attack on run plays and cover well against tight ends (he did a solid job of that in 2008).

I know some people are concerned about how this group will play a physical run team like the Giants. I think the Eagles tailored this group to play against the speedy offenses of New Orleans, Green Bay, Arizona, and Dallas. Heck, even the Giants put almost 40 points on us last year by throwing the ball all over. Hakeem Nicks tried to win the Rookie of the Year award in just one game. And we did everything possible to help him. More and more teams like to spread you out and attack. That calls for LBs that can cover a lot of ground. With a big guy like Stew in the middle I think we can be solid against the run with guys on the edge that aren't huge. There is a risk in going with faster players. We all know that. Last year we finished 9th in run defense, but were only 17th against the pass. We were even worse in scoring defense. The coaches decided that getting faster was the way to go and we've done that. Now we'll see how the plan works out.