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.
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?
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.