Such an obvious,
yet important distinction. There is understandably going to be some
concern when the most tenured starter at linebacker is only entering his
third season, and a rookie is penciled in at the middle. Take two
minutes to look around the league, heck, just a glance at the NFC East,
and you will find this is not typical of how most teams operate.
since the Eagles are the franchise in this predicament, it's worth
stating that while they are an inexperienced bunch, and lack any clear
cut stars or even players who are on the brink of such recognition, that
doesn't mean it's a terrible group. In fact, it doesn't even mean they
will automatically be a weakness once the games begin.
life's great cliches is people fear the unknown, and in this case it's
true. While most fans are still celebrating this summer's great free
agent haul, the most cynical are quick to point out this club has "no
No linebackers... imagine that. Juan Castillo's
defensive strategy is suddenly very clear: four linemen, seven defensive
backs. Because he's an offensive line coach!
The matter is
further complicated by the fact that linebacker has become something of a
perennial weakness for the Birds. First the outside positions fell into
disrepair as capable performers such as Carlos Emmons and Shawn Barber
departed, and over the last few seasons, the production in the middle
has started to slip along with Jeremiah Trotter's ability. Some of that
is injuries or time taking its toll, and some of that is the front
office "doesn't value" linebackers.
Yes, that hollow complaint is
accurate to a degree, particularly on the outside. Then again, outside
linebackers in 4-3 defenses are fairly interchangeable around the NFL,
with standout players being in exceptionally short supply.
the Eagles are right or wrong about the value of linebackers still
misses the point though. What nobody seems to be talking about, or
apparently believe, is the group they have here now has the potential to
develop into a unit of strength.
Is Casey Matthews going to take
his lumps as a rookie starter in the middle? Absolutely. Is he going to
fall flat on his face? That possibility exists, but I would bank on the
Matthews bloodlines producing an acceptable pro at least. Before we
know it, he could become so much more than that, perhaps that
all-important anchor in the heart of the defense.
Chaney have to make some adjustments in his move to strongside? Of
course. Will he be a disaster out there? Doubtful. In his albeit limited
playing time last season, Chaney showed both the instinct and
athleticism to play at this level. There will be a learning curve, but
he shouldn't suddenly be inept because he slid over one spot.
is Moise Fokou the answer on the weakside? Who knows. Is he their only
option? Not at all. The Eagles also have Keenan Clayton, a fourth round
pick out of Oklahoma last season, who can compete for, and perhaps win
that job. Akeem Jordan was also retained, giving the unit a veteran
option if all else fails.
I'm well aware of my reputation as
something of a homer, and I admittedly and frequently take the team's
side on issues some people would deem indefensible. That said, I'm not
here to promise you it will all work out according to some grand plan,
and you should just take my word for it that they will be great.
But I also don't think the situation is quite as grim as it's being painted.
already gotten a taste of what Chaney brings to the table, and it was
enough that the Eagles refused to rush Stewart Bradley back from injury
for the playoffs last season, much less sign him to a contract extension
two weeks ago. Matthews and Clayton were both fourth round picks, which
doesn't assure a starting caliber player, but these are guys other
teams coveted in the past two drafts. And Fokou and Jordan aren't studs,
but you can't have stars at every position, sadly.
My motto for
this group, if nothing else, would be simply give them a shot. They are
surrounded by Pro Bowl talent on the defensive line and secondary. They
are young, athletic, and full of promise. In fact, their only definitive
weakness at all is their collective inexperience, and that alone
doesn't make them bad.
As always, the proof will be there on
Sundays. Until then, I'm not going to fear the unknown. I'll be the guy
hoping for the best.