Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 2, Linebacker

Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 2, Linebacker

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the previous installments on the cornerbacks, defensive line, specialists, wide receivers, offensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and  running backs.

With NFL free agency set to open at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, we are appropriately getting down to the true must-have additions the Eagles need to make this offseason. There’s just one problem: free agency doesn’t provide many answers for the Birds in terms of pass-rush help.

Philadelphia’s 37 sacks ranked 20th out of 32 teams in 2013 and were only six more than last place, compared to a whopping 23 behind first-place Carolina. To make matters worse, Trent Cole—the club’s leading sack artist last season with 8.0—is 31-years-old and has shown signs of slowing down.

Free agency is not the solution though. When Washington’s Brian Orakpo and Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds received the franchise tag from their respective teams, that took the two most natural fits at outside linebacker for Philly’s 3-4 off the table. Behind them, the market is pretty barren. Meanwhile, according to Tim McManus for the Birds 24/7 blog, the Eagles also looked into Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson, but he’ll cost too much.

Which brings us to the second and more prominent issue. Were the Eagles ever going to be a serious landing spot for any big-name pass-rushers in free agency?

Philadelphia already has $15 million wrapped up in three outside linebackers for 2014, and the starting jobs at the position are essentially promised.

Signed as a free agent last offseason, Connor Barwin turned out to be a perfect fit for the Birds’ scheme. He only recorded 5.0 sacks in ’13, but he also dropped into coverage more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker in the league. A strong run defender as well, Barwin does a little bit of everything and is in no danger of losing his spot any time soon.

As for Cole, some believed he could be a candidate for replacement this year, but sheer economics likely did not allow it. The two-time Pro Bowler is slated to take up $6.6 million in cap space in ’14, whereas cutting or trading him would only free up $1.8 million. With nearly 75 percent of the cap hit for Cole turning into dead money if he isn’t on the roster, the organization would undoubtedly prefer to get something for that amount.

And it’s not as if Cole is bad. All 8.0 of his sacks last season came in the second half, suggesting it took the converted defensive end a little while to get used to rushing the passer from his new position. He also remains a strong run defender, and wasn’t a total liability the handful of times he was asked to drop into coverage.

Where would any new, high-priced outside linebacker have played in Philly? The Eagles can be free of Cole at a much more reasonable cost next year if they desire, so having three that demand heavy playing time was conceivably only an issue for the short-term.

Good luck convincing any big-name free agent to come here for that though, or convincing the Eagles are as desperate as a team with a more immediate hole there.

The Birds will attempt to add a rotational pass-rusher through free agency, if for no other reason than depth. The team ran with just three outside linebackers on the 53-man roster last season and was fortunate not to run into injuries along the way.

I like Mike Neal from the Green Bay Packers. He’s 6’3”, 285 pounds, 26-years-old and racked up 9.5 sacks over the past two seasons in a situational role. He also has tremendous versatility that head coach Chip Kelly loves, having spent a lot of time at defensive end in Green Bay’s 3-4 as well.

Seattle’s O’Brien Schofield and Washington’s Rob Jackson would also fit the bill.

As far as a legitimate upgrade for Cole is concerned, that will likely come from the draft. While the Birds aren’t expected to have a shot at top pass-rushers Khalil Mack out of Buffalo or Anthony Barr from UCLA, there are a number of intriguing prospects that will be available to the Birds in rounds 1-3.

Auburn’s Dee Ford, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, Stanford’s Trent Murphy, Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu and Louisville’s Marcus Smith are among the potential fits for the Birds on days one and two of the draft. That group isn’t as complete as Mack or Barr, but they’ll have a year to learn behind true professionals Cole and Barwin while providing situational pass-rush relief.

With few other options on the table, that’s the apparent solution to the Eagles’ pass-rushing woes.

 

Trade Block: Brandon Graham

You may have noticed by now we have accounted for Brandon Graham in the mix at outside linebacker. That’s because if the Eagles’ front office is wise, they will recognize now is the time to move the former 13th overall selection in the draft.

Graham could actually help the Birds’ pass rush if there were more opportunities to play. He had just 3.0 sacks in ’13, but in a limited role. According to metrics site Pro Football Focus, Graham had 24 quarterback pressures on 158 rushes, making him the seventh-most productive pass-rusher among qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers.

The problem, other than lack of playing time, is he doesn’t particularly fit the scheme. Graham is not going to play over Cole, and I’m not sure you ever want him dropping into coverage.

Graham could potentially start for another team in a 4-3 defense though. He’s a been a highly-productive pass-rusher for the past two seasons since finishing his rehabilitation from microfracture surgery in 2010, racking up 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles while playing only a fraction of the defensive snaps.

Let’s face it, nobody is going to give up a ton to acquire Graham at this point. He has value though. If the Eagles could get a mid-round pick, say in the fourth, for Graham, that would have to be considered a win.

Philadelphia will have to eat over $3 million in dead money if they move Graham, but at least they would get something in return. Or he can stay in Philly, continue to play roughly 25 percent of the time and we can all never really feel comfortable with him doing some of things the scheme demands.

 

On the inside

With so much of the focus (rightfully) placed on pass-rushing, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Eagles aren’t exactly set at interior linebacker, either. DeMeco Ryans is coming off of a solid season and could be considered the heart and soul of Philadelphia’s D right now, but he turns 30 this year and is making a butt-load of money.

Some would argue Ryans isn’t even a three-down linebacker right now. While he did set career highs with 4.0 sacks and two interceptions in ’13, nobody would argue those areas are his forte.

Ryans gets by in coverage by being in good position, but as his speed diminishes, so does his usefulness in open space. He’s certainly not the most effective pass-rusher—in fact, according to Pro Football Focus he was the least effective among interior linebackers last season.

And let’s not forget, he’s making $6.8 million per year and is set to become a free agent after ’15.

There’s no need to try to replace Ryans immediately or anything. He’s still better than serviceable and plays an important role in the huddle.

Clearly it’s time to start thinking about the future at least.

2012 second-round pick Mychal Kendricks continued to experience some hiccups in year two, but overall had a decent sophomore campaign. Kendricks is not perfect in coverage and misses some tackles, but he’s proven he can be a dynamic playmaker in Bill Davis’ defense, finishing ’13 with 4.0 sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles.

The only thing to watch with Kendricks is he will undoubtedly want a contract extension next offseason, so this will be an important year in terms of determining his value. Expect him to be in midnight green for awhile though.

There’s plenty of depth behind them as well. Emmanuel Acho, Najee Goode, Jake Knott, Casey Matthews and Jason Phillips will vie for backup/special teams spots this summer.

However, none of them are likely candidates to take over for Ryans long-term.

That person is likely to come from the draft, perhaps even early on. While it would be somewhat surprising to see the Eagles use a first-round pick on an interior linebacker—that kind of premium generally isn’t placed on the position around the league except in rare cases—day two of the draft is not out of the question.

Stanford’s Shayne Skov, Florida State’s Christian Jones and LSU’s Lamin Barrow are among the top names to watch. They’re all mid-round prospects coming out of football factories that produce good defenses.

No matter what happens, Ryans’ days with the Eagles are likely numbered. He could be asked to restructure his contract next year if the front office fails to unearth an all-out replacement, but even then it’s hard to envision No. 59 patrolling the middle beyond 2015. The Eagles must continue to get younger at linebacker.

Sixers were right to reject Pelicans' reported Jahlil Okafor trade offer

Sixers were right to reject Pelicans' reported Jahlil Okafor trade offer

If the reports are accurate, Bryan Colangelo probably made the right decision not trading Jahlil Okafor last week.

After the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins early Monday morning in a shocking, post-All-Star Game blockbuster, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported several interesting pieces of information regarding the Sixers.

"The Pelicans were very close on a deal for Jahlil Okafor about 10 days ago, offering a similar package except it didn't include [Buddy] Hield," Shelburne wrote

A few hours earlier, she reported on ESPN that the deal for Okafor would have netted the Sixers Tyreke Evans, a protected first-round pick and a future second-round pick from New Orleans.

The protection the Pelicans sought was heavy — they wanted top-20 protection, according to Shelburne.

That just isn't a meaningful enough return, even for a player without a role in Philly.

Why? 

• Evans is a free agent after the season who has had three knee surgeries in the last two years and can't shoot threes. 

• A second-round pick is just a sweetener, so moving on from that ...

• A top-20 protected first-round pick isn't that enticing at all. Of the players selected between 20 and 30 in the last draft, only Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Toronto's Pascal Siakam and San Antonio's Dejounte Murray even have roles. 

In the previous year's draft, the best picks between 20-30 were Bobby Portis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. 

The year before, Rodney Hood and Clint Capela panned out for their teams, but the eight others selected in that range have done little.

This sort of trade might have worked for the Sixers if they weren't already accumulating some roster depth. They don't need to go search for another late-first-round pick they can hopefully turn into the eighth or ninth guy in a rotation. With players developing like T.J. McConnell, Robert Covington, Richaun Holmes and Nik Stauskas, the Sixers are already building a decent second unit for the future.

There are a lot of people in this city ready to give Okafor away, but doing so just makes no sense for the Sixers. All it would solve is the center logjam and awkwardness, but the value in that New Orleans proposal just wasn't there for the Sixers. 

At this point, it's looking extremely unlikely Okafor is traded before the Feb. 23 deadline. The Blazers were interested but acquired Jusuf Nurkic from Denver instead. The Pelicans were interested but landed Cousins. 

The only team left we've heard connected to Okafor is the Bulls, who don't have much of intrigue to send the Sixers' way.

But still, hanging on to Okafor and trading him after the season, or on draft night, could yield the Sixers a better return than New Orleans was offering. Forget about Evans and forget about the second-round pick — that offer was basically a pick in the 20-30 range for Okafor. 

Not enough. 

The Sixers held out in hopes of New Orleans' making the pick top-10 protected or lottery-protected instead, but Pels GM Dell Demps knew the Sixers didn't have much leverage and thought to himself, "If I'm trading away a potentially valuable draft pick, I want a better player in return."

And so he got Cousins. That's how we ended up where we are today.

The Sixers' future is brighter because their pick swap with the Kings now holds more value, so last night was a win for them even though Okafor remains on the roster.

Sixers' big picture still bright even after recent bumps in the road

Sixers' big picture still bright even after recent bumps in the road

If you’re a fan of the local professional basketball franchise, it’s understandable that you might have been a bit frustrated to learn, weeks after the fact, that Joel Embiid suffered an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny meniscus tear.

And you might have found it a tad concerning that contrary to popular opinion, there exists the possibility that Ben Simmons won’t play at all this year. Or that Jahlil Okafor won’t play somewhere else.

This reminder: You can love your team, but don’t expect it to love you back.

And one more: As disillusioned as you might be at present, you’ll be back.

You know it, and the Sixers know it.

They can be somewhat less than forthright on the injury front or somewhat less than successful on the trade front, and it won’t matter. They can, in fact, do everything short of moving to Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., and it won’t matter.

Because if you’ve stuck with this outfit to this point in The Process – and man, you’re a real glutton for punishment if you have – you sure as heck aren’t going away now.

Not after watching Embiid, who – 31 games into his professional career already – looks like a transcendent player. And not when you stop to consider the promise of Simmons, the first overall pick in last summer’s draft. Or the promise of whatever Okafor might bring in a trade.

That said, the optics are not good right now. Not with the smoke from three brush fires hovering over the team, partially obscuring some promising developments (the rise of Dario Saric and T.J. McConnell foremost among them).

General manager Bryan Colangelo appears to have only told the truth about Embiid’s injured left knee as a last resort – i.e., after Derek Bodner of derekbodner.com reported the meniscus tear on Feb. 11.

Before that, the team had most often referred to the injury, sustained Jan. 20 against Portland, as a contusion, which would seem to connote some sort of minor, skin-deep issue. As he continued to miss games – in all he has been held out of the last 11, and 14 of 15 – there was, eventually, the admission that it was a bone bruise.

In a hastily convened news conference after Bodner’s story broke (and before a game against Miami), Colangelo finally said that the team knew from the start it was “a very minor meniscal tear,” in addition to a bone bruise.

Not the finest hour for a GM who had promised transparency.

Then the Inquirer’s Keith Pompey reported last Friday, at the start of All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, that the Jan. 23 CT scan on Simmons’ surgically repaired right foot indicated he had not fully healed.

Simmons suffered a Jones fracture of that foot’s fifth metatarsal on Sept. 30 -- i.e., the final day of training camp. The word then was that he would miss three months and thus be back in January. Then there were reports he would return after the All-Star break. As recently as last Wednesday coach Brett Brown told ESPN.com, “I fully expect him to play this season.”

After Pompey’s report, Colangelo issued a statement saying the team is “employing a conservative and thoughtful approach” to Simmons’ recovery, and basing his return “on the advice and direction of medical professionals.”

Colangelo added that Simmons’ next examination is scheduled for this Thursday, the day before the Sixers resume their season at home against Washington. Brown has said the rookie will need four or five full practices before he plays in a game, of which 26 remain in the season. The math doesn’t look promising, people.

The trade deadline also arrives Thursday, and on Sunday night Sean Deveney of The Sporting News and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com tweeted out that the Kings offered guard Tyreke Evans, a 2017 first-round pick and a future choice over a week ago for Okafor before shipping a similar package (as well as rookie guard Buddy Hield) to Sacramento for All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.

Shelburne tweeted that the sticking point in the Okafor-to-the-Pelicans deal was the fact that the Sixers and New Orleans could not agree on the protections for the first-round pick.

So this saga continues. As far back as Feb. 6, there was a report (from USA Today’s Sam Amick) that the Sixers were talking with New Orleans about a deal involving Okafor.

Then, during a break in that Miami game on Feb. 11, Okafor was seen shaking hands with teammates as if a deal had gone down. He didn’t play that night – Brown admitted it was because of “trade rumors” – and Okafor didn’t even travel to Charlotte for a game two nights later.

But he rejoined the team last Wednesday in Boston for the Sixers’ final game before the break and saw some time off the bench. David Aldridge of Turner Sports has since reported that a swap with Portland fell through.

Other outlets have reported that Denver and Chicago expressed interest (the Nuggets presumably before swapping centers with the Blazers), and on Saturday Deveney wrote that Dallas was a potential destination.

So far, nothing.

Lest you be inclined to fret about any of this, understand that the Sixers stand to benefit from a (likely) downturn in Sacramento’s already-dim fortunes, given that they can swap first-rounders with the Kings under terms of a larcenous 2015 trade engineered by Sam Hinkie.

On another front, Embiid said that if all goes well in practice this week, he “probably” will return Friday.

And kindly consider the big picture – that the Sixers have had far worse times than this. Far worse, even, than the first three years of The Process. They are the franchise that traded Wilt, Moses, Barkley, AI and nearly Dr. J. The one that went 9-73 when they were TRYING to win. The one that twice frittered away 3-1 leads en route to losing playoff series; no other Eastern Conference team has done it that often.

You will get through this.

Deep down, you know it. And they do, too