Last year Casey Matthews was drafted in the fourth round and the Eagles quickly pushed him to the top of the depth chart. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo envisioned Matthews being a key figure in the middle of the Eagles defense. Castillo thought Matthews had the experience, intangibles, and talent to start as a rookie and play well.
Matthews wasn't as bad as his harshest critics made him out to be, but he certainly wasn't anywhere close to the player that Castillo envisioned. You have to wonder how Matthews situation will affect the plans for 2012. Let's hope Howie Roseman and Andy Reid are listening to Roger Daltrey scream the words to "Won't Get Fooled Again" if Castillo starts talking about family dinner conversations as a part of his scouting reports.
The good news is that there are good options in free agency and the draft. Because of Matthews struggles, you wonder if the Eagles are hesitant to trust a rookie in the middle, even a stud like Luke Kuechly. This isn't saying that Matthews and Kuechly are similar players (not remotely close), but rookies are rookies. Some adjust right away (see Jason Kelce) while others are slow to adapt (see Danny Watkins).
The Eagles might decide Kuechly is the player to go after at middle linebacker. There certainly is a lot of logic to that thinking. The team must build contingency plans in case someone takes him prior to pick 15. I don't think that is likely (although Mel Kiper disagrees). The Eagles must plan for the possibility of Kuechly being gone. You hope for the best, but must have prepared for other scenarios.
Let's take a look at the top three middle linebacker prospects for the Eagles and if they are the kind of players that you should feel confident in as a rookie starter. We'll compare them to Matthews and what his background was like coming out of college.
40 - 4.78
VJ - 32.5
BJ - 9'5"
3C - 7.10
SS - 4.36
BP - 13 reps (shoulder injury)
Career numbers: 245 tackles (123 solo), 30.5 TFLs, 9 sacks, 4 INTs, 1 FF, 10 PBUs
40 - 4.58
VJ - 38
BJ - 10'3"
3C - 6.92
SS - 4.12
BP - 27 reps
Career numbers: 532 tackles (299 solo), 35.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 7 INTs, 2 FFs, 10 PBUs
40 - 4.47
VJ - 39.5
BJ - 10'7"
3C - n/a
SS - 4.19
BP - 24 reps
Career numbers: 260 tackles (155 solo), 36.5 TFLs, 13.5 sacks, 4 INTs, 1 FF, 5 PBUs
40 - 4.68
VJ - 37
BJ - 10'4"
3C - 7.34
SS - 4.37
BP - 23 reps
Career numbers: 295 tackles (169 solo), 37.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 5 FFs, 11 PBUs
Kuechly projects as a first round pick. Kendricks could go in the second or third round. JMJ, for short, is a third or fourth round pick. Matthews went in the middle of the fourth round, pick number 116 overall. Based on just looking at the Combine numbers above you can see why the other players are more highly regarded than him.
Matthews was the lightest of the four players. He was also the slowest. He had the lowest jump figures, which shows that he wasn't as explosive in the lower body. That's where a lot of tackling power comes from. Matthews had the lowest amount of bench press reps, although that was affected by a shoulder injury. Still, he'd have to double his total to avoid coming in last among the prospects.
The stats are also better for the other players. Matthews had the lowest number of solo tackles and tackles-for-loss (TFLs) among the group. Those are the key figures for a linebacker. Stats can be affected by system, playing time, and circumstances, but the four players are pretty even so it doesn't help Matthews case that he's the lowest.
The point of all this is for fans to realize that should things go awry and the Eagles end up with another rookie starting at middle linebacker, it doesn't mean a repeat of 2011. Just because Matthews struggled doesn't mean another rookie will also. Most people have faith in Kuechly, but that's it. He definitely looks the most NFL ready, but I do think Kendricks and JMJ could play right away. Those guys have NFL bodies. They have NFL athleticism. They were stars in college. They simply lack experience.
Matthews lack of top physical attributes wasn't helped by the situation he was thrust into. He was joining a new coaching staff that was implementing a new scheme. The lockout meant that he had no primers before training camp. Matthews put on the Eagles uniform for the first time on July 30, 2011. 12 days later he started at middle linebacker in a preseason game. Think about that for a second.
This year rookies will have passing camps and mini-camps to help them get ready. Linebacker coach Mike Caldwell will be in his second season, which means he'll have a better idea of how to teach and coach. Castillo will be in his second year so he should have a better idea of how to run things. The coaches can use 2011 game film to teach rookies. They can visually show them what they want instead of talking in theories or watching other teams do something similar.
The rookies would also be able to talk to Brian Rolle, Jamar Chaney, Moise Fokou, and Akeem Jordan for advice on how to play (or how not to play - zing!). Those players all started in the wide nine and can teach a rookie linebacker what needs to be done in certain situations. Last year the players were all learning on the fly. They couldn't help each other. Relying on Castillo and Caldwell was as good as it got, but the coaches were figuring things out for themselves.
The Eagles will address middle linebacker. I'm still betting that they go for a veteran free agent who is more of a sure thing. If that doesn't work out, they will have good draft options. I know most fans are worried about any draft prospect other than Kuechly. I understand that concern. Being burned by Matthews struggles makes you nervous about going with another rookie.
The Eagles would use an early pick (first three rounds) to get the middle linebacker. The player would walk into a better situation than Matthews. The player would be more physically gifted than Matthews. All of this would give the rookie a much better chance to succeed right away.