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.

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.