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 outside linebacker.
Finding a pass-rusher was arguably the Eagles’ biggest need heading into the draft. Philadelphia’s 37 sacks in 2013 were just six more than last place, while Trent Cole—the club’s leader with eight—turns 32 in October and is due a huge spike in pay next year. More on him in just a moment.
So the Birds did a smart thing and selected an outside linebacker with their first-round pick. The question is does Marcus Smith represent an immediate improvement at the position?
Smith wasn’t even pushing Cole for a job during spring practices. Instead, the rookie is behind Connor Barwin on the depth chart, and if last season was any indication, that guy isn’t coming off the field very much. Barwin was in for 94 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps in ’13, including every play possible play in eight of the final 11 games.
Furthermore, I wouldn’t expect Smith to be a pass-rushing phenomenon from Day 1 at the next level, anyway. The kid had one big season in college, racking up 14.5 sacks his senior year at Louisville, and even that was largely at the hands of inferior competition. The New York Giants are probably going to be lousy this year, but they’re still a monumental step up from Rutgers.
As raw as Smith is, he does upgrade the overall athletic talent at outside linebacker. Last year, the Eagles only carried three—Cole, Barwin and Graham—so simply having another body in the rotation is helpful. Smith is also 6’3”, 251 pounds with 34-inch arms and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds, so you’d like to believe defensive coordinator Bill Davis can find something for him to do.
It will be interesting to monitor Smith’s progress and how he’s utilized this season—my guess is as a situational pass-rusher and/or in nickel packages. I’d say the Eagles added talent, but how much it will contribute in 2014 is mystery.
I really didn’t want to list Cole under “worse.” If anything, his performance improved from 2012 to ’13, which is amazing considering the position switch from defensive end, where he played the previous eight seasons, to outside linebacker.
Cole remained a strong run defender, which had always been one of the two-time Pro Bowler’s hallmarks. He was adequate in coverage, though mercifully he wasn’t asked to drop too often. And he came around as a pass-rusher in the second half of the season, recording all nine of his sacks over the Eagles’ final nine games (including playoffs).
However, Cole is going to be 32. He’s exhibited some signs of slowing down already, such as his three-sack season two years ago. You could argue his sack total in ’13 was a bit of an aberration, as the nine sacks were spread over only five games.
There’s no way getting around it. Cole has entered his decline.
That being said, I don’t envision a huge dip in production for the 10th-year veteran. What we saw last season is pretty much what the Eagles are going to get from Cole—a hard-worker who’s not afraid to do the dirty jobs. He’s still serviceable, even if he is bound to lose another step.
Barwin turned out to be one of Philadelphia’s best free-agent signings from last year, an invaluable piece that made the defense’s transition to a 3-4 alignment possible. Prior to his arrival, the Eagles literally had nobody with NFL experience at outside linebacker in such a system.
While his stat line wasn’t overly impressive—59 tackles, five sacks, 10 pass breakups, one forced fumble, one interception—that’s partly as a result of how he was deployed. One play, Barwin would be setting the edge against the run, then the next, he could be pressing a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage.
Barwin is a jack of all trades. No 3-4 outside linebacker dropped into coverage more, and while his pass-rush left a little something to be desired, offenses still had to account for him when he was pressured the passer.
At 27, Barwin is right in the prime of his career, and with only three years as a starter in the league, he doesn’t have a ton of wear and tear on his body, either. There’s no reason to anticipate and sharp rise or fall in his performance from last season.
While the fact that Graham wasn’t moved at some point during the offseason was mildly surprising, you have to wonder if a trade still couldn’t happen this summer. Although he eventually said all the right things, the 2010 first-round pick seemed bothered by something when he addressed the media this spring. And, of course, there’s the whole “not a fit for the 3-4” label.
I’ll say this much about Graham: it doesn’t seem to matter what the scheme is, he can get after the quarterback. It may not feel that way at times, because Graham only notched three sacks last season, but that’s partly because he was only on the field roughly a quarter of the time.
Based on pass rush productivity—a stat invented by metrics site Pro Football Focus to measure sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rush attempt—Graham was the seventh-most effective rusher among 3-4 outside linebackers who played at least 25 percent of their defense’s snaps.
Of course, it’s the whole dropping into coverage thing you worry about with Graham. He simply didn’t look comfortable with it last season, and who’s to say he ever will.
Based on his seemingly poor fit, the fact that he’s approaching the end of his contract and the arrival of Smith, it doesn’t appear Graham is ever going to get a shot to prove his worth in Philly. Now he’s even got Travis Long nipping at his heels for a roster spot.
Graham gets a raw deal from fans. He had a promising rookie season that ended in catastrophic injury. By the time he was fully recovered, Cole and Jason Babin were blocking him on the depth chart. Now, a scheme change conspired to limit his opportunities when Graham might be a starter on half the 4-3 defenses in the NFL.
Which is why if a desperate team comes calling, the Eagles will listen. Chances are Graham remains in midnight green, though, and that’s not a bad thing—Trent Cole insurance, if nothing else.
BETTER OR WORSE
Better. This was the most difficult unit to grade, but you have to assume the Eagles are better off at outside linebacker with Smith. Cole’s play might slip a little bit, but not to the point where he’ll be ineffective, while Barwin is Barwin. Whether Graham is here or not doesn’t seem like such a big deal. What the group’s ceiling is really depends on Smith, and while I’m skeptical that he’ll offer much help right away, it’s one more weapon than the defense had last year.