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.

Roob's 25 Random Points: Marcus Smith, Phillies, Jim Bunning, Paul Simon & more

Roob's 25 Random Points: Marcus Smith, Phillies, Jim Bunning, Paul Simon & more

The Phillies have won precisely three games since my last 25 Random Points two weeks ago. So look for a lot of Phillies thoughts among the usual Eagles, music and miscellaneous nonsense this time around.
 
We’ve got some Paul Simon, some Jim Bunning, some Marcus Smith and much more. Dig in!
 
1. I can't get too worked up about Fletcher Cox missing OTAs. I'd like to see him there. He should be there. But it's May. And I also can't get too worked up about Donnie Jones or Jason Peters missing OTAs. A couple guys in their mid-30s who can probably use the time off. They'll be fine. But what on earth is Marcus Smith doing? What is he thinking? Now, maybe there's a perfectly good personal reason Smith was away for the voluntary workouts. Head coach Doug Pederson didn't even mention Smith last Tuesday when asked about minicamp no-shows. But if he's just staying away for no reason other than he didn't feel like practicing, then you've really got to wonder where his mind is at. This is a former first-round pick who has four career sacks in three seasons. The Eagles have Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long and Derek Barnett ahead of him. They signed a guy at his position and drafted a guy in the first round at his position. He should be doing everything imaginable right now to try to save not just his roster spot but to save his career. The odds are heavily against Smith right now. He should be doing every single thing imaginable to get better and impress his coaches. Marcus is a good kid, and I want to root for him, but he's making it really hard.
 
2. Pete Mackanin is a very nice guy, but it's obvious the Phillies have to make a change. And now would be a good time for it. The Phils are comatose. The slump going into Monday night is now 6-22 in their last 28 games following that 11-9 start. How do you even go 6-22? In a six-game stretch that ended Saturday, they had nine runs and 28 hits. In six games! That's an average of 4.7 hits and 1.5 runs over a six-game span. They haven't won back-to-back games in more than a month. Their hitting is terrible, their pitching is worse, and they look like they just have no interest in playing baseball. Once-promising young players are regressing, and they're 17-31 and on pace to go 57-105, which would be their worst season in 56 years and second-worst in 72 years. How do you get three-hit four times in six days? The baseball-reference database only goes back to 1913, but last week was the first time since at least then — 105 years — the Phils have been three-hit four times in a six-game span. This team is dead. Time for a change. And it's got to happen soon.
 
3. Here's a sign of how dead the Phillies are: They don't have a stolen base in their last 13 games. Granted, they haven't had a ton of baserunners, but they are just stagnant as a team, and the absence of a single stolen base since May 14 is pretty good evidence of that. Their last longer stretch without a stolen base was a 14-game streak in 1998. Before that, you have to go back to a 17-game streak in 1973. Stagnant. Static. Utterly lacking in energy. When a team is struggling to score runs — and the Phillies are sure struggling to score runs — you try to manufacture runs every way possible. The absence of a single stolen base over the past two weeks (they have attempted three) reflects poorly both on the roster and the manager.
 
4. And how on earth do you lose nine consecutive series?
 
5. I’m very curious to see what the Eagles get out of LeGarrette Blount this year. Blount is going from a Super Bowl team to a team in transition, he’s 30 years old, he’s with his fourth team in six years. The history of running backs after they turn 30 isn’t pretty. This could go either way. He could be a stud or he could be a disaster. I would have been happy to go with Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey, Darren Sproles and possibly Corey Clement just to see what the young guys can do. It will be interesting to see what Blount brings the Eagles and how much of a workload he's given. Last year was the first time since 2011 Blount averaged over 13 carries per game. If I were Doug Pederson, I'd be careful not to go much higher than that.
 
6. One thing about Blount last year. Everybody talks about the 18 touchdowns. But in his last seven games, Blount averaged just 3.0 yards per carry — worst in the NFL during that span. Did he wear down? Seems that way.
 
7. And here's the other thing. When you sign guys like Chris Long, Blount, Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffrey, you better make the playoffs. You don't add those sort of veterans on both sides of the football if you're in that rebuilding mode Howie Roseman has been talking about all offseason. I don't want to hear a word about rebuilding. Go win some football games.
 
8. The last time the Eagles played a game with two starting cornerbacks who they drafted was Dec. 23, 2007, a 38-23 win over the Saints at the Superdome. Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. There were two games in 2008 when Lito started in the slot alongside Sheldon and Asante Samuel, but it’s been 10 years since they started two homegrown outside cornerbacks. Does anything better represent the Eagles’ misguided attempts to build a roster through free agency than that? Here’s a prediction: Once the Eagles get back to homegrown corners — whether it’s Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas this year or Sidney Jones and Douglas or Mills next year — they will once again be a playoff team.
 
9. Southampton is not a particularly large or distinctive town in Bucks County, but it's astonishing how many fantastic, innovative bands have come out of that little town. It started with Dandelion and continued with bands like La Guardia, Ty Cobb (later known as the Cobbs), Mad Action, Trip 66, Illinois and Eastern Conference Champions. And several of those guys are huge now. Panic at the Disco tours arenas, and their drummer, Dan Pawlovich, is a former guitarist with Illinois. Former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher formed a band called Beady Eye. Their bass player Jay Mehler, who had been in Kasabian, is a former member of Ty Cobb and Mad Action. Josh Ostrander had a No. 1 hit called "Shine" this spring with his new band Mondo Cozmo and has been playing every festival in the country the past month. He's a former member of La Guardia and the Cobbs and fronted Eastern Conference Champions and has used some of the guys from Illinois in his recent live shows. The Cobbs just came out of nowhere and toured large venues with the Jesus and Mary Chain. It's just fascinating to me that this anonymous little community of strip plazas and impossible left turns along Street Road in Bucks County has produced so much fantastic music. You expect it from places like New York, Detroit and L.A. But Southampton? No wonder they call it Rockhampton.
 
10. I know I'm in the minority here, but I think Chip Kelly will be terrific as an NFL analyst. Chip was always an engaging personality, and I think that will come across in the studio. He sees the game a little differently, and that will serve him well. Chip doesn't think in cliches and doesn't see the game in cliches. He's always been able to articulate complicated concepts fairly simply and clearly. And he's funny. Chip has some credibility — he was 26-21 as Eagles head coach with two 10-win seasons and a playoff berth his first year. His issues were really as a general manager and he was a disaster there. But he's a tremendous storyteller, he's got an astonishing memory, he's always prepared and he knows way more about the history of the NFL than you'd expect. I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes for him.
 
11. I don't want to hear anybody complain that concerts are too expensive. You can see free music just about any night this summer somewhere around Philly. There's the Thursday night series of free shows at Spruce Street Harbor, featuring some awesome local artists (including Spirit of the Beehive, Straw Hats and Chill Moody), there are free shows every Friday starting at 5 p.m. in West Philadelphia atop Cira Green, which is on 30th Street between Walnut and Chestnut, and there are shows just about every night at Rose Tree Park in Media. For schedules and more info, click here for Spruce Street Harbor, click here for Rose Tree Park and click here for Cira Green. See ya there!
 
12. "Up the Junction" by Squeeze is just about the saddest song ever.
 
13. I think Isaac Seumalo at left guard for Allen Barbre is a bigger upgrade than the Eagles will admit.
 
14. It'll be interesting to see what a (presumably) non-supplemented Lane Johnson plays like. A lot was made last year about how the Eagles were 5-1 when Johnson played last year and 2-8 when he didn't. But remember those five wins included games against the 1-15 Browns, 3-13 Bears and Cowboys scrubs. The Eagles could have won those games with Antone Davis at right tackle. Still, this is a dramatically better offensive line with Johnson out there, and with Jason Peters, Seumalo, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Johnson, this is potentially a very good O-line. Kelce is a wild card, and I'm still not convinced he'll be here, but if he is, he's just got to be more consistent.
 
15. My top-10 bands from the17th annual non-COMM music conference two weeks ago at World Café Live: 1. Mondo Cozmo 2. Dream Syndicate 3. Lo Moon 4. Bash & Pop 5. Blondie 6. The Districts 7. Robert Cray 8. The Pixies 9. Nancy and Beth 10. Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band.
 
16. Have you ever just stopped and just thought about how many incredible songs Paul Simon has written? Mrs. Robinson, the Boxer, America, Homeward Bound, Hazy Shade of Winter, I Am a Rock, Bridge over Troubled Water, Sound of Silence. And that's just with Simon & Garfunkle. His solo career was incredibly inventive as well. He was releasing singles in the 1970s and 1980s that were unlike anything else anybody was doing — Mother and Child Reunion, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, Loves me Like a Rock, Kodachrome, Late in the Evening … I think sometimes we hear songs so many times that we kind of become immune to their brilliance. But Simon's body of work holds up remarkably well more than half a century after he started out.
 
17.
I have this recurring dream where I'm covering the Super Bowl for CSN and the game's about to start, and I can't find my laptop, and I'm running from room to room in some stadium looking for the garment bag that I've inexplicably placed my laptop in. I'm sure somebody could analyze all that and tell me what it means, but all I know is I never find it and wake up in a panic.
 
18. LeBron James has won a round in the postseason 18 times since the Eagles have won a round in the postseason.
 
19. In March 2013, Ray Didinger and I were hosting a radio show on 94 WIP at the Valley Forge Convention Center during the annual Valley Forge Sportscard and Memorabilia Show. There were autograph tables to our left, and show organizers had set up interviews for us with a couple of the celebrities signing that morning — Doc Gooden and Steve Bedrosian among them. One guy who was signing who wasn't scheduled to join us on the air was Jim Bunning. But when he was finished signing, he just wandered over to our table and said hi. We invited him on the air, and he was happy to do it. We mic'ed him up, and he proceeded to regale us with stories about his career for the next 15 minutes or so. It was a magical day, and Bunning could not have been nicer. I'm too young to really remember him as a Hall of Fame pitcher, but I'll never forget the few minutes I got to spend with him that day in Valley Forge. A true gentleman. My condolences go out to his family.
 
20. Saw Blondie two weeks ago. Incredible. Debbie Harry is 71 and up there rockin' like she's 21. Her band is amazing, too, with original members Chris Stein and Clem Burke as good as ever. That's 28 Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famers I've seen live now: Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, BB King, Beach Boys [Brian Wilson], Black Sabbath, Blondie, Bobby Blue Bland, The Clash, Donovan, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, the Kinks, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Pretenders, Bonnie Raitt, the Rascals, Lou Reed, REM, Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt, Santana, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Muddy Waters, U2 and the Who. How many have you seen? I'll bet it's more than you think!
 
21. How many more weeks till the NBA finals start?
 
22. Philadelphia's four major professional head coaches/managers — Dave Hakstol, Brett Brown, Doug Pederson and Pete Mackanin — have never advanced past the first round in the playoffs.
 
23. This is the first time in the 50 years that Philadelphia has had four major professional sports teams that Random Point No. 22 has been true.
 
24. If the Eagles don't reach the playoffs in 2017, it will be four straight years without a postseason appearance. The last time that happened was 1982 through 1987. Yep, 30 years ago.
 
25. How about my favorite all-time concerts by state:

Arizona – Bottle Rockets

California – Bye Bye Blackbirds

Connecticut – Wilco

Delaware – Connor Oberst

Florida – Santana

Georgia – Robert Pollard

Illinois – Guided by Voices

Indianapolis – Matt Keating

Maine – Steve Earle

Maryland – B.B. King

Massachusetts – Sourpatch

Michigan – From Indian Lakes

Missouri – Bob Walkenhorst

New York – Genesis

New Jersey – Yes

Ohio – Muddy Waters

Pennsylvania – The Rave-Ups

Texas – They Might Be Giants

Virginia – Rainmakers

Washington – James McMurtry

Former Eagle, current Cowboy CB Nolan Carroll arrested for DWI

Former Eagle, current Cowboy CB Nolan Carroll arrested for DWI

Former Eagles cornerback and current Cowboy Nolan Carroll was arrested for a DWI early Monday morning in Dallas, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Carroll was pulled over by a police officer around 2:20 a.m. for a traffic violation. He was arrested for a suspension of driving while intoxicated.

Carroll was released on bond Monday afternoon.

The 30-year-old played in 43 games for the Eagles over the course of three seasons, intercepting three passes during that span and returning one for a touchdown in 2015.

The Cowboys signed Carroll to a three-year deal worth $10 million this offseason.