Nobody knows more about the Eagles lack of stability at linebacker than Mike Caldwell. Hes seen it as a player here for four years under Ray Rhodes and Andy Reid, and hes seen it the last six years as an assistant coach. In between, he saw it from afar.
The Eagles have used 46 different starting linebacker combinations and 26 different starting linebackers since Reid arrived here in 1999.
Thats a lot.
They havent played a full season without an outside linebacker getting benched since 2005, and they havent played back-to-back seasons with the same starters since 1992 and 1993 -- Seth Joyner, Byron Evans and William Thomas.
That was a long time ago.
Now, for the 14th time in 14 off-seasons, the Eagles have shuffled their linebackers. But this time, maybe theyre actually onto something.
With two-time Pro Bowl pick DeMeco Ryans in the middle, promising rookie Mychal Kendricks on the strong side and Brian Rolle and Jamar Chaney battling on the weak side, maybe the Eagles finally have something theyve been missing in two decades.
Stability and production.
It hasnt happened, Caldwell said. Weve drafted guys high, weve had free agents, weve had guys come over from different teams. But in this system, you have to have a unique skill set. You have to be able to blitz, have to be able to play fast, have to be able to secure your gaps. So many different things that a linebacker has to be able to do.
You cant be multi-dimensional. You cant just be a run player. You have to be a run and a pass player. And its hard to find both. You can find a guy whos a run stopper, you can find a guy whos good in coverage, but to find one thats just as good in both, its difficult to do, and were still looking to find that. We think we have some guys now who fit that bill.
At least on paper, this appears to be the best collection of linebackers the Eagles have assembled under Reid.
Ryans is a proven veteran, Kendricks has a solid resume and Rolle and Chaney have both shown flashes as starters. The top backups right now, Moise Fokou and Akeem Jordan, have been starters on playoff teams. Then theres Casey Matthews, Monte Simmons and Keenan Clayton, who all have NFL experience.
Caldwell, whos been around the Eagles for most of the last 15 years, said last week he thinks this is the best collection of youth, speed, athleticism and potential hes seen at the linebacker spot.
I think so, he said. Theres a good mix. We have a lot of young guys that have gotten valuable experience. Theyve played the game, so now they know the game so now they can really study and take their game to the next level.
As far as ability, we dont have any guys out there that youre afraid to put in coverage. We dont have any guys out there that youre afraid to play the run. So the group as a whole, theyre able to do both. Now we just have to hone in and continue to make them that group that we talked about.
And maybe, just maybe ... this will be the year three guys start the season at linebacker and three guys finish the season at linebacker.
And theyre the same three guys.
As coaches and as players, you want the best guys out there, Caldwell said. If we can get three guys to play for 19 games, that would be perfect in my book. That would be the best-case scenario.
But Caldwell also said he and the other defensive coaches wont hesitate to make changes if one of the backups is playing better than one of the starters.
The fact that every linebacker on the roster can play inside or outside and most of them can play all three spots gives the Eagles a great deal of flexibility.
The best three will play, and we have training camp and OTAs and all that to determine that, he said. You go out there and earn your spot and practice and play hard every day and at the end of the day, the best three guys will be on the field.
Right now, to say this guy will be the starter or this guy will be the starter, training camp is a long time and so many things are going to happen.
One thing that hasnt changed over the years is the perception that the linebacker spot is the weak link on the team.
Thanks to a series of poor draft picks, unsuccessful free agent signings and ill-fated trades, the Eagles havent had a true star linebacker since Jeremiah Trotters second tenure here. And they havent had a Pro Bowl outside linebacker since Thomas in 1996. Some 16 years ago.
Caldwell said the linebackers are well aware of the perception and are committed to changing it by their play on the field.
It is motivation, but you try to keep the even keel, because if you listen outside, then youre not doing what you should have been doing before they started talking about you, he said.
Does it motivate them? You never want to be the reason why the team is losing. You always want to be the part of the team that people lean on. Do we talk about it? Yeah. Of course. Youre not a competitor unless you want to be the guy. If its a last-second shot, Id rather take the shot than have someone else take it. Thats the type of mentality you have to have.
You want to be the best on your position, then you want your position to be the best on the team. You want to be the best, and if everybody on the team shoots for that, well be a better team.
E-mail Reuben Frank at email@example.com