The Eagles drafted three linebackers in 2011. They added DeMeco Ryans via trade back in March. They spent a second round pick on Mychal Kendricks in this year's draft. That is a lot of new pieces for the coaches to work with. Some of those pieces are very talented players.
Ryans clearly is the key. He will be the middle linebacker and run the unit. Ryans is immediately the best linebacker on the team. He's also a natural leader and I can't stress the importance of that enough. There was no leader on last year's group. Jamar Chaney did his best, but he doesn't have the kind of presence that Ryans does.
In order to be a great leader, you need one of two things. You need to be so good at what you do that other guys immediately respect you and follow you out of deference to your talent. Terrell Owens was a leader in this way. He was so good that other players looked up to him. The other way to be a leader is to be someone that has great leadership skills. Then about a guy like Ike Reese. He was a backup linebacker and special teamer, but Reese was a team leader. He just had the right personality and presence.
Chaney wasn't a good enough player to command the respect of his teammates. Was he a natural leader? It is hard to say from the outside, but I sure didn't get that vibe from him. Maybe there was so much change that he had confidence issues of his own that undermined whatever he was trying to do. Think of the old line about the blind leading the blind. It would be tough to be a leader if you don't know what you're doing. With adjusting to a new scheme, changing positions, and dealing with Juan Castillo in his first year on the job, I can sure see where Chaney would have been more than a little confused.
The Eagles got lucky with Ryans because he is a leader in every way. The young linebackers will look to him as an example of how to get things done on the field because he is such a good player and they will listen to him off the field because of the way he carries himself. He also has a ton of experience, which helps him to have an answer for just about any question.
Ryans presence in the middle gives the linebackers a foundation. If the outside guys are confused, they can look to him for guidance. I think last year's linebacker corps was hurt by a lack of confidence and an over-abundance of confusion more than anything to do with talent. Ryans can settle guys down and keep them focused. If you miss a tackle, don't worry about it. If you make a great play, don't obsess on it. What's done is done. Play the next play. Eliminate mistakes. Make good plays on a consistent basis.
So which guys will join Ryans in the starting lineup? I think the Eagles will push Kendricks to be the starting SAM. This means they will give him reps with the starters to see if he can handle it. They spent a high pick on him and want to get him on the field. He will not be given the job the way that Casey Matthews was given his last year. There is a full offseason so the team has time to both teach players and evaluate them. Kendricks will be challenged.
There has been a lot of speculation that Jamar Chaney would be the primary competition since he played SAM early on last year and Castillo raved about him, but there is a lot of uncertainty. He spent most of his rookie year and 2011 in the middle. I think Chaney should stay in the middle. The best game of his young career came at middle linebacker (vs the Giants in 2010). He played mostly middle linebacker in college. Leave him there and let him develop behind Ryans. If anything happens to Ryans, the team needs someone ready to take over.
Akeem Jordan and Moise Fokou should battle Kendricks for the SAM job. Both guys spent time there last year and in the past. Neither guy is an ideal athlete for what the team wants now, but both guys have had good starts at the SAM position. That experience is something to build on. The Eagles signed Monte Simmons in free agency and I think will try him at SAM. He has a good frame and played defensive end in college. He brings a different skill set, but obviously is a guy they have some interest in.
The middle then would be Ryans and Chaney. Behind them will be second year player Greg Lloyd. Interesting note - both he and Ryans list at 6-1, 247. Lloyd is a run stuffer. He is most comfortable sitting between the tackles and hitting whatever comes at him, blockers or runners. The question with Lloyd is athleticism. He injured his knee in college and I'm not sure he was all the way back by last summer. Lloyd looked a bit slow to me. He has to show the coaching staff that he has enough speed and quickness to handle NFL runners. This is going to be the biggest summer of his life.
Over on the weakside there will be an interesting battle. If you have Chaney in the middle, that means Casey Matthews slides to the outside. It is possible he could get a look at SAM, but most likely he would go the other way. The Eagles had Matthews start a game on the weakside last year. He was then replaced by Brian Rolle, who held the job the rest of the year.
Rolle is back and wants to keep the job in 2012. He and Matthews will fight it out. Matthews is bigger and has better instincts, but Rolle has a year of experience and showed some potential as a playmaker. Rolle led the linebackers with 5 tackles-for-loss. He had a sack and a forced fumble (which he also scooped up and ran in for a touchdown vs the Bears).
General manager Howie Roseman said recently that Matthews looks completely different this spring. He bulked up to play inside last year, but bulking up isn't always good. Roseman said that this year Matthews looks bigger and stronger (not just heavier). I'm sure Rolle has worked on his body as well.
Both players need to show consistency. Rolle's highlight plays made him look like a star. There were other moments when he looked like a confused rookie. Matthews was in over his head early on. The Eagles had him running the base defense and playing in the nickel. That was too much and you could see that on the field. He was thinking too much and not just playing. He missed tackles and just didn't look right. Late in the year he found a niche in the nickel and started to get comfortable.
I recently re-watched some 2010 Oregon tape. Matthews looked completely different when playing. He was confident and aggressive. He flew around the field and hit everyone he could. We never saw that kind of reckless abandon last year. He played slow because he was unsure of what to do and what he was facing. If Matthews looks like that again, he'll be on the bench again. If the light has gone on and he now knows what he is doing, Matthews could win a starting job and be a solid linebacker.
Behind he and Rolle is Keenan Clayton. This is a crucial year for him. Clayton has flashed NFL talent here and there in each of his first two seasons, but hasn't shown that he could be a starting linebacker. He has lacked the size and physicality to be a good run defender. Clayton can cover really well. He can hit and tackle. He must show that he can play the run between the tackles. Clayton needs to shine, so that the coaches feel obligated to get him on the field. Terrific athlete, but he must show physical toughness to challenge for snaps in the base defense.
This set of linebackers has a lot of potential. There is a good mixture of skill sets and body types. One interesting note - Kendricks, Jordan, Ryans, Chaney, Lloyd, Rolle, and Matthews all played middle linebacker in college. Some also spent time outside and it may be that versatility is part of what made the Eagles want to draft them. This is the best set of linebackers the Eagles have had since 2008 when Chris Gocong, Stewart Bradley, and Jordan were the starters. If Ryans is as good as billed and one outside starter will emerge as a good player, linebacker could go from a weakness to a solid position or, dare I say it, even a strength. Keep your fingers crossed. The Eagles might have finally gotten linebacker right.