Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Linebackers

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Linebackers

We pick up our training camp preview at linebacker. With the Eagles widely expected to transition to a 3-4 defense of sorts under Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis, every linebacker position on the field has new responsibilities.

[ Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Line
Defensive Line | Cornerback | Safety ]

Can Trent Cole and Brandon Graham convert to outside linebacker?

We’re going to find out, to an extent anyway. Whether it’s a traditional 3-4 alignment, or a hybrid such as the 4-3 under, the Eagles are going to be far from a pure 4-3 defense like what they had all those years under Andy Reid. That means defensive ends such as two-time Pro Bowler Trent Cole and former 13th overall draft pick Brandon Graham are going to see their roles expanded, if not learn a new position entirely.

The two biggest changes would be where they line up and added responsibilities in pass coverage. As for part one, the good news is so far Cole believes there is an advantage to be gained from lining up at outside linebacker for a pass rusher. Here’s what he had to say back in May.

"I'm very comfortable now when I'm rushing because there's so much space to work with," Cole said. "You're just able to see so much more of what's in front of you and what's around you and where you can and can't go. Plus, I get to rush over tight ends and running backs now, so that's a lot of fun."

Both Cole and Graham have been trying their best to embrace the shift during the offseason, but where they’ll really be tested is in coverage. Cole has been used this way in the past, especially when Sean McDermott was the defensive coordinator – the results were not good, and Cole complained. Graham dropped weight and was working out with former Michigan teammate Lamar Woodley, who plays OLB for the Steelers.

The issue of these two in coverage may be getting blown out of proportion just a bit though. I don’t think it’s something we’re going to see a ton of, because the coaching staff knows going in that it's not these players’ strengths. Chip Kelly constantly preaches about coaching to the personnel, and DEs that have made similar transitions in the past are typically hidden as much as possible by wise defensive coordinators.

For a one-season tryout, the combination of Cole and Graham on one of the edges should be fine. There may be one or two “Haha what is he doing out there?” moments, but these two should mostly be allowed to do what they do best – chase down opposing quarterbacks.

What should we expect out of Connor Barwin?

Versatility first and foremost, along with Pro-Bowl upside. Not unlike the situation at nose tackle, the Eagles had to go out and acquire at least one veteran outside linebacker with experience playing in a 3-4 defense because they didn’t have any. Unlike nose tackle, there’s a bit more talent available for the front office that knows where to look. That’s where Barwin comes in.

A second-round pick in 2009, Barwin has played all over the field. The 26 year old began his NFL career at end, but switched to the linebacker when the Texans went to a 3-4 in 2011, and immediately made his presence felt with a breakout 11.5-sack campaign – good for ninth in the entire league. His success did not carry over into last season however, when he recorded just 3.5 sacks.

The reason for the huge drop-off is unclear (he played in all 16 games), but one excuse provided was Barwin had to flip-flop between the strong and weak side of the formation. It didn’t have a huge affect on how frequently he dropped into coverage – he only rushed the passer on 42 fewer snaps, which is 2-3 times per game – so it was a either an issue of comfort, or Barwin is simply less effective rushing to the tight end side. The lack of explosion was also attributed to weight gain.

The club gave Barwin a six-year deal worth $36 million in free agency, although it’s a lot more reasonable than it sounds. Most of the guaranteed dollars are in years one and two, then the Birds can cut ties. If Barwin can regain his 2011 form, he has the potential to see much more of the deal. At the very least, he can be serviceable in a variety of roles while the Eagles go through this difficult transitional period on defense.

Does DeMeco Ryans fit in a 3-4 defense?

Sure. Another Texans expat, Ryans was banished from Houston after one season playing in their 3-4 while being chased by the narrative that he didn’t fit the scheme. However, the truthiness of such a statement was up for some debate.

Ryans wasn’t traded to the Eagles for what essentially amounted to a fourth-round pick exclusively because of that, but actually for a combination of reasons. As it related to the Texans’ scheme, they were spending a lot of time in nickel packages, where an interior linebacker is replaced on the field by an extra defensive back – and since they are also blessed to have Brian Cushing in the middle of their defense, Ryans was the odd-man out. $6 million-plus is an awful lot to pay a player who only lined up for roughly half of the defense’s snaps.

If there was any truth that Ryans struggled in the 3-4, it’s worth noting he was also on the comeback trail from a ruptured Achilles tendon that year. At the age of 29 and having played almost his entire career in a 4-3, he admittedly may not be the ideal linebacker for any other system. From what we saw of him in 2012 though, Ryans is a solid football player, and coaches like Chip Kelly and Billy Davis who coach to the personnel can carve out a role in this defense where the seven-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowler can succeed.

What is Mychal Kendricks’ role in a 3-4 defense?

He projects as the other inside linebacker along with Ryans. More specifically though, he could be something of an X-factor in this defense.

As Philly Mag’s Sheil Kapadia noted back in May, Chip Kelly sounds very impressed by Kendricks, who he would be familiar with from their Pac-12 days. The head coach told reporters that the second-year linebacker out of Cal can do everything the team has asked of him – strong enough to be stout versus the run, athletic enough to excel in coverage. For his part, Kendricks believes he is a three-down linebacker as well.

And as Kapadia notes as well, Kendricks played in a 3-4 in college – both inside and outside linebacker – so he’s familiar with all of the concepts. Few players in the Eagles’ defensive front seven offer that kind of versatility, so you have to wonder if Billy Davis might even move him around. We’ll have to wait and see, but Kendricks’ progress could be fun to follow.

Is there any depth at linebacker?

It’s certainly suspect to say the least, and that’s across the board. There isn’t a single backup linebacker on the roster that instills confidence. We’ve seen what Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews have to offer, and it wasn’t particularly very good. The Eagles free agent signed Jason Phillips, a largely anonymous special teamer with two starts at linebacker in four NFL seasons, so not particularly impressive either. Nobody else there is even recognizable.

When you take into account the fact that one of the outside linebackers in a three-man front will actually be a defensive end, the situation starts to sound a little scary. This is a unit that as of right now would not appear to be able to sustain many injuries – particularly to Barwin or Kendricks – and be considered an effective unit.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

Report: Temple's Obi Enechionyia withdrawing from NBA draft, will return for senior year

Report: Temple's Obi Enechionyia withdrawing from NBA draft, will return for senior year

It's only May, but it sounds like Fran Dunphy's Temple Owls just got a big boost for next season.

Star forward Obi Enechionyia told ESPN's Jeff Goodman that he will pull his name out of the upcoming NBA draft and will return to North Broad Street for his senior season.

CBSSports' Jon Rothstein first broke word of Enechionyia's decision Monday morning.

The 6-foot-10 Enechionyia was the Owls' leading rebounder last season with 5.8 boards per game. He was also second on the team in scoring with an average of 13.1 points per game. He dropped a season-high 26 points on rival St. Joe's during a 78-72 win on Hawk Hill in November.

Enechionyia can be a matchup problem for opponents with his length and his ability to stretch the floor. He shot 41 percent from field last season and 39 percent from three-point range. He will undoubtedly be the Owls' top frontcourt option this coming year.

But his mentorship and experience will be a big factor this season for the Owls, who will have to lean on underclassmen such as guards Shizz Alston, Alani Moore and Quinton Rose to pick up more of the scoring slack. Enechionyia, guard Josh Brown and role player Mike Robbins are the only remaining Owls who played in the 2016 NCAA Tournament first-round loss to Iowa. The 16-16 Owls did not advance to a postseason tournament last year.

Enechionyia declared for the draft in late March, but did not hire an agent, leaving him eligible to withdraw from the draft. He did not receive an invite to last week's NBA combine, but did have a private workout with the Boston Celtics in recent days.

The deadline for players without agents to withdraw from the draft is this Wednesday.

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff looking for consistency vs. Rockies' potent offense

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff looking for consistency vs. Rockies' potent offense

Phillies (15-26) vs. Rockies (28-17)
Coverage starts at  6:30 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies return home after a disastrous 2-7 road trip to host the NL West-leading Colorado Rockies in a four-game split.

Jerad Eickhoff gets the start for the Phils and is coming off of his best start in a month, but has a tough matchup vs. the Rockies’ potent offense.

Here are five things to know:

1. Like the old Eick
Eickhoff has been the model of consistency for Phillies pitchers since he joined the club in 2015, with 31 quality starts (six or more innings with no more than three earned runs) in 49 career games. But Eickhoff struggled recently, before regaining his form in his last start at Texas.

In his three prior starts — vs. the Dodgers, Cubs and Mariners — Eickhoff averaged just 4.2 innings per start as his ERA ballooned to 4.76. But the righty seemed to regain his form vs. the Rangers in his last start, a six-inning, two-earned-run outing.

Building off of that step will be a tall task, though against an explosive Rockies lineup.

2. Better hitters than Rocky
The hard-hitting Rockies are coming to town.

Colorado boasts one of the league’s best offenses, ranking fourth in runs scored, 10th in home runs and fifth in extra-base hits. Take the Rockies out of the thin air at Coors Field, and the numbers tell a different story, though. On the road, Colorado drops to 12th in runs, 14th in homers and 10th in extra-base hits. Still solid numbers, but nothing that jumps off the page at you. The Phillies (as bad as they are on the road) have more extra-base hits.

The Rockies are led by Mark Reynolds (yes, that Mark Reynolds), with 12 homers and 39 RBI. Shockingly, Reynolds — who has set the all-time single-season strikeout record in a season — is leading the team with a .323 batting average. 

Just about the only thing you don’t have to worry about with the Rockies’ offense is their speed. The Rockies rank dead last in MLB with just 11 steals on the year. 

3. Not the same old Rockies
Despite the dip in numbers on the road, the Rockies are still 15-7 on the road this season, the second-best mark in MLB, behind only the Astros.

What’s different about this year’s team, unlike years past, is the pitching. This year, they’re a middling staff, which is actually a huge improvement for the club. Last season, Rockies pitchers ranked in the bottom five in MLB in almost all categories: 27th in ERA (4.91), 28th in runs allowed (860) and 28th in opponent batting average (.274), just to name a few.

This year, the Rockies have knocked off nearly half a run per game (4.48 ERA) and rank 13th in the entire league with a .250 opponent batting average. With an offense like theirs, a middling pitching staff could be all the Rockies need to earn a postseason bid.

4. Oh, 'Dubel
What’s happened to Odubel Herrera?

After an All-Star 2016 season, Herrera has been one of the Phillies’ biggest disappointments in 2017. Batting just .236 on the year, Herrera is on pace to easily set a career high in strikeouts (168) and career lows in runs (60) and extra-base hits (39). Not a good look for Herrera after signing a five-year deal to be a building block of the future in the offseason. However, there is hope: In his career, Herrera has increased his batting average, runs scored and OPS each month as the season has gone along. 

5. This and that
•Jeff Hoffman will make a spot start for the Rockies on Monday. He’s the Rockies' third-ranked prospect by Baseball America and has a 4.97 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 19 walks in 10 career MLB games. Batters are hitting .282 off him this season.

•Eickhoff’s numbers have risen with Cameron Rupp behind the plate. With Rupp catching, Eickhoff has a 3.53 ERA as opposed to a 3.13 ERA with Carlos Ruiz catching.

•After a red-hot start to the month, Aaron Altherr has cooled off over the last week, hitting just .231 with more strikeouts (five) than RBI (four).