Even with young talent, LB still unstable for Eagles

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Even with young talent, LB still unstable for Eagles
May 6, 2011, 6:52 pm
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Friday, May 6, 2011
Posted: 2:52 p.m.

By Reuben Frank
CSNPhilly.com

When Andy Reid is asked about the Eagles lack of stability in recent years at linebacker, he brings up two names.

Jeremiah Trotter and Carlos Emmons.

As in two guys who last played together in 2001.

As in a decade ago.

So much for stability.

Reid has always believed that putting young talented players together at one position group and letting them evolve and grow has been a key to building the extended period of success the Eagles have enjoyed over the past decade.

Troy and Bobby. Trent and Juqua. Lito and Sheldon. Bunkley and Patterson. Maclin and DeSean. Tra and Runyan. Dawk and Q. Westbrook and Buck. Akers and Sav.

Its all about stability and consistency.

And the Eagles have had it everywhere during the Reid Era. Except linebacker.

Theyve tried. Theyve failed. Theyre trying again.

The Eagles drafted three linebackers this year, the first time theyve done that in a quarter of a century, since Buddy Ryan took Alonzo Johnson, Byron Lee and Seth Joyner in the 1986 draft.

With Casey Matthews in the fourth round, Brian Rolle in the sixth and Greg Lloyd in the seventh in addition to Moise Fokou in the seventh round in 2009 and Keenan Clayton in the fourth round and Jamar Chaney in the seventh last year, the Eagles have drafted six linebackers in the last three years.

For the first time in a generation, they have a fleet of young, athletic linebackers.

Will this translate into production on the field? That remains to be seen. But at least theyre trying a different approach.

Carlos and Trott, we felt pretty good with that and we had different guys come in and play that WIL linebacker position, but thats OK, Trott was kind of the main cog in there, Reid said. Stewart Bradley came in and kind of took that over but then had the injuries that set him back.

But I think we feel pretty good right now about our linebacker situation. We have some young guys that have an opportunity to grow.

With Bradley, Akeem Jordan, Omar Gaither and Ernie Sims all slated to become free agents pending the new set of free agency rules the Eagles have only four linebackers under contract: Chaney, Clayton, Fokou and CFL veteran Rashad Jeanty.

So its pretty clear the Eagles will go in a new direction at linebacker this year. Chaney is the only guy whos a lock to start, and he can play either middle or strong. That gives the coaches the flexibility to start the next two-best guys, whether thats Matthews and Clayton, Matthews and Fokou or Clayton and Fokou. Or maybe theyll bring Bradley back, put him back in the mix and hope he stays healthy.

Chaney is fast, and he gives you that flexibility where he can play strong-side or in the middle, Reid said. He can cover you in the pass game, which is good for the MIKE, too, the things we ask. He can be an every-down linebacker. The coaches have the confidence that he can be a starter at either position.

The thing about this group of linebackers is that every one was taken in the fourth round or later or went undrafted, and most guys drafted that late either arent fast enough or big enough or good enough to be impact players.

The Eagles havent taken a LB in the first three rounds since Bradley in the third round in 2007 and they havent drafted one in the first two rounds since the Matt McCoy disaster in 2005.

The last couple of drafts, what weve seen is that maybe the top isnt really talented, and we havent had the opportunity where were picking where the best player is a linebacker, but in the middle rounds there were a bunch of guys that we really liked that we thought had a chance to be solid players, general manager Howie Roseman said.

Maybe they had something there that wouldnt put them in the first or second round for some reason but guys that fit what we did.

That was certainly the case in 2009 with Fokou, last year with Chaney and this year with Rolle and Lloyd. None were among the first 190 players taken in their draft.

You bring in Casey and he can do some things, Rolle, hes kind of a special guy who can do a lot of things, and then you put Greg in the mix there hes probably a MIKE but he can probably play SAM for you. But hes played MIKE and hes a big kid, Reid said of this years rookies. Its good young competition in there. Theyre aggressive guys.

The problem is that usually when you draft linebackers in the late rounds, youre getting Joe Mays, Tyreo Harrison or David Bergeron ... not Chaney.

And if the Eagles are going to rebuild the linebacker spot with these young guys, theyre going to have to do it without a premium draft pick.

The Eagles have tried carving out a linebacking corps out of high draft picks (Barry Gardner, Quinton Caver, McCoy) and it obviously didnt work.

Theyve tried signing free agents (Dhani Jones, Takeo Spikes, Nate Wayne), and that obviously didnt work.

So maybe this will work. Young, fast, athletic and overachieving.

We found when we came back on Saturday, we saw how many linebackers were still on our draft board and we thought it was a great opportunity to knock out a couple of guys and then really practice what we preached which is bring in a lot of good players and try to create competition, Roseman said. And even if we have some depth there, thats a good thing.

Of the rookies, Matthews is the only one who would likely be capable of playing on every down. Rolle and Lloyd, if they make the team, will be special teamers who play a specific role if they get on the field on defense at all.

Bottom line: The position is unsettled.

Like it has been for a decade.

The Eagles have used 26 different starting linebackers and 20 different starting outside linebackers since Reid became head coach in 1999. Theyve lined up their starting linebackers 36 different ways since the 1999 opener.

Roseman said that as much as he and Reid like their current group of backers, theres a chance the Eagles will again try to supplant them with a veteran in free agency.

Youd like to have young guys and guys who can be here for a long time, but that doesnt mean were done or were satisfied, Roseman said. We talk about having the best 80-man roster in the National Football League, and if we kind of sit on our hands theres no way to do that, so well explore other avenues at every positions.

But were really satisfied with getting some of these guys. We didnt think wed come out of this draft with three linebackers certainly and we didnt try to force it. We just felt like they were the best players on the board when we were picking and we were fortunate to get them.

So who are the opening-day starters when the Eagles line up against the Rams in St. Louis on Sept. 12?

Just let it sort itself out, Roseman said, and thats what were trying to do with the linebacker position right now.

E-mail Reuben Frank at rfrank@comcastsportsnet.com

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