As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to open training camp on July 25, we examine whether the team is better or worse than last season at each position. We continue at interior linebacker.
Kendricks really started coming into his own last season as one of the Eagles’ top all-around playmakers on defense. He was a force over the final three games of the regular season in particular, racking up 25 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
Those three games represented a huge chunk of Kendricks’ production for the entire year (4.0 SK, 2 FF, 3 INT), but that’s okay. The fact that the light seemed to come on in the end is a good sign for the 2012 second-round pick and his continuing development in Year 3.
There are still aspects to his game Kendricks needs to work on. For one, tackling is a major issue. According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus, Kendricks led the Eagles by far with 21 misses. Now, he also led the team with the most “stops,” which suggests he had the greatest number opportunities to make a play as well—he simply needs to finish a few more. If he cuts the number of misses in half or close to it, that would have to be considered a success.
Another one of Kendricks’ shortcomings is he can struggle to handle bigger tight ends in coverage. That’s an area that may always be something of a weakness, however, being that he’s only 6’0”.
If the only issue with Kendricks is you wouldn’t want him left alone to guard Jimmy Graham, I’d say the Eagles can overlook that. Kendricks’ speed makes him something of an X-factor in the middle of Philly’s defense, and if he’s going to be making multiple impact games per play as he was down the stretch in 2013, it’s easy to ignore the mistakes.
There were two very different mindsets on DeMeco Ryans’ performance. On one hand, Ryans set or matched career highs with four sacks, seven pass breakups and two interceptions, while defensive coordinator Bill Davis described him as “the heart and soul” of Philly’s defense. Then again, Ryans doesn’t possess great athleticism, is challenged when playing in space—particularly in space—and Davis is openly talking about reducing the heart-and-soul’s playing time.
What we can all probably agree on is Ryans, who turns 30 in a couple of days, is miscast as an every-down linebacker in a 3-4 alignment. He was serviceable in that role last year, but it’s not a scheme that’s suited to his strengths, particularly at this stage of his career. Now the Eagles must begin to account for decline, too.
For one thing, it’s hard to believe Ryans will make as many impact plays in 2014. Unlike Kendricks, his were more spread out throughout the season, so it’s not like he was showing signs of improving in Davis’ scheme. Ryans kind of just what he was, which was an assignment-competent player who ran into a few big plays.
Between the likely dip in production, overall potential for decline and a supposed reduction to playing time, Ryans is on a path toward a down year, comparatively. At least, I’m not sure how anybody could project him as being better.
Depth (or lack thereof)
Talking about reducing Ryans’ playing time is one thing. Actually going through with it is quite another. I mean, who is supposed to take his place?
The Eagles have plenty of options in theory with five inside linebackers behind Ryans and Kendricks on the 90-man roster. How prepared any of them are to contribute is another question entirely.
We know Casey Matthews is a bust. Jake Knott is suspended for the first four games of the season (PEDs), making him difficult to rely on. Jason Phillips has two career starts in four seasons and is largely here for his special teams prowess. And Emmanuel Acho, while a fan favorite of sorts, has been bouncing around NFL practice squads for the better part of the last two years.
The only guy we got a good look at in Philly’s defense was Najee Goode, who subbed for an injured Kendricks in two games. Goode acquitted himself well enough that he’s a front-runner for one of the backup jobs, but there’s a reason the 2012 fifth-round pick was available to sign last September.
All of these guys were in training camp with the Eagles last year, meaning the front office did nothing to address this depth at interior linebacker during the offseason. That means the defense is one injury away from having to plug an almost total unknown into the lineup.
Let’s talk a little bit more about Goode, who flashed some potential while filling in for Kendricks last season.
Goode took over for Kendricks early in Week 10 at Green Bay, but was very quiet, coming up with just one tackle and a pass breakup. I’m sure it was a tough spot, being his most extensive playing time to date and with no preparation with the first-team defense, so we won’t grade that too harshly.
With Kendricks out again the following week against Washington, Goode was ready this time, posting five tackles, a sack and two pass breakups. So what does it tell us?
Not much, really. It was two games, against two bad offenses—Green Bay’s led by Scott Tolzien, Washington in the midst of an eight-game losing streak.
Goode appears to be the top backup moving forward, though, which is notable now if Davis intends to reduce Ryans’ snaps. Is Goode a candidate for a bigger role in the defense? At this point, we don’t know the answer to that, or just how effective he can be as time goes on.
BETTER OR WORSE
Worse. It seems like the sky is the limit for Kendricks, but there are enough holes in his game to question how high the ceiling is. Ryans isn’t like to replicate last season’s numbers, not at 30, especially if his playing time is reduced, while the depth behind them is a joke. Unless Kendricks turns into a superstar, I’m not sure his play can counteract what’s happening next to him. Plus, if there’s an injury, this could be a mess.