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Eagles Future At Linebacker

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The emergence of rookie Jamar Chaney in the last seven quarters has created a buzz among Eagles fans. Chaney has come from out of nowhere to play at a high level. He went from being Stewart Bradley's backup to a player that fans are excited about.

In the two games Chaney has 23 tackles (17 solo), a forced fumble, and a tackle-for-loss (TFL). That's good production for any middle linebacker, let alone a rookie seeing his first real action. Naturally, people are now trying to figure out what Chaney's future is. Where doe he fit into the Eagles plans?

We have to begin this discussion by going back to Bradley. In 2008 the Eagles defense was outstanding. The unit finished in the top five of most critical categories. They were actually in the top three in quite a few. One of the key reasons for the success of the defense was the play of Stewart Bradley. He had emerged as a big, strong, athletic middle linebacker that could stay on the field in every situation and run the show. Bradley looked like a future Pro Bowler.

Unfortunately Bradley injured his knee in the summer of 2009. That cost him the entire season. He worked diligently to get ready for 2010. Bradley had a great offseason and the coaching staff was thrilled to get him back on the field. Then the season started. Bradley, who looked so good in the spring and summer, struggled. His knee looked fine, but he wasn't his old self. There have been a couple of games where he showed flashes of the 2008 Bradley, but all too often he has been mediocre. I don't think the injury is physically holding him back. There certainly isn't a lack of effort or intensity. It really does seem to be mental, that he doesn't fully trust his knee and that is what's slowing him down. We see this all the time with players recovering from ACL injuries. The first year back they just don't look right.

The Eagles still love Bradley. They think he is the perfect middle linebacker for the way they like to play defense. They knew 2010 would be up and down. The hope is to get him right for 2011 and beyond. Bradley is still very much in the plans for the future.

So what do the Eagles do with Bradley, Chaney, and Moise Fokou? Bradley was drafted to challenge Chris Gocong for the SAM linebacker spot. The team moved Bradley inside for a look and he's never left. It is possible that the coaches could move Bradley back to SAM, but I don't anticipate that happening. I think they like him too much in the middle to move him.

It also helps that the coaches are high on Fokou, the current SAM. He's played well since he was inserted into the starting lineup. Fokou is the kind of rugged, physical player the Eagles want at that spot. They like his long arms and powerful hands, as that helps him battle against tight ends and offensive linemen. Fokou isn't a finished product, but he's shown excellent progress this season. He got his first sack of the season against the Giants. He also has a pair of TFLs and a forced fumble. Fokou needs to improve in pass coverage to round out his game.

That leaves one player (Chaney) and one open spot (WLB). Chaney played WLB as a sophomore at Mississippi State. This spring he spent time on the weakside as well as at middle linebacker. I don't think it is out of the question that he could get a shot to play WLB in 2011. The Eagles have made moves like this before. Back in 2000 the Eagles shifted Barry Gardner from the middle to WLB. He lost the MLB job to Jeremiah Trotter. In 2003 the Eagles played Mark Simoneau in the middle. He then shifted to WLB in 2004 when Trotter got his old job back in the middle.

Simoneau and Gardner are hardly the best names to bring up to Eagles fans. My point isn't that Chaney will turn out like them, merely that the Eagles have moved players in the past from MLB to WLB. Chaney is easily the best athlete of the trio. His speed, agility, and quickness could help him to handle playing outside better than those guys.

I know I'm saying an awful lot of good things about Chaney and his talent. He's started a grand total of one game. We do need to keep things in perspective. We need to see Chaney play well in the final 2 regular season games. We need to see how he performs in the playoffs. Chaney has relatively fresh legs compared to guys who've played 50 snaps a game the whole year. Offenses haven't had a chance to watch Chaney a lot and gameplan for him. The one area he clearly needs to work on is pass coverage. Chaney has the physical skills, but he's struggling with play-action passes and also knowing how to read some basic routes. That stuff should come with experience.

I think a combination of Fokou, Bradley, and Chaney could be really interesting in 2011. You’d have returning starters in 2 spots and a player who knows the Eagles defense in the other spot. He’d have to adjust to a new position, but as I mentioned earlier, he’s got some experience there. It wouldn’t be a complete mystery to him.

The one x-factor in all of this is the contract status of Stewart Bradley. Depending on what happens with the CBA, he might be a free agent. The Eagles do want him back, but we all know from past history that negotiations can be tough. It is possible he could leave. If that happens, Chaney gets his job and then there is a hole on the weakside. The Eagles could bring back Ernie Sims, give the job to Keenan Clayton, or look elsewhere. Even if Chaney moves to WLB next year, Clayton will get a chance to fight him for the position. The Eagles like Clayton’s cover skills and athleticism. He showed in the preseason that he can be a playmaker. At the least, I expect Clayton to be a part of the nickel defense in 2011.

Omar Gaither won’t be back. Akeem Jordan will return as a special teams player and backup. He handled his demotion from starting the right way. Jordan became a key player on special teams. The Eagles will add a rookie or two to the mix.

Think back to this time last year. The Eagles linebacker corps was depressing. Chris Gocong, Jeremiah Trotter, and Will Witherspoon really struggled at the end of the 2009 season. The team has come a long way since then and the future looks good with guys like Chaney, Fokou, Clayton, and (hopefully) Bradley in place.