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.

Stay or Go Part 8: Ryan Mathews to Steven Means

Stay or Go Part 8: Ryan Mathews to Steven Means

In the eighth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — Part 8 is Mathews to Means.

Ryan Mathews
Cap hit: $5M

Roob: The Eagles have to get better, younger, faster, healthier, more durable and more reliable at running back. I love the way Mathews runs when he’s healthy. The guy runs hard and he runs physical and he runs aggressive. Then he always gets hurt. Mathews actually has the third-highest per-carry average among running backs in Eagles history, but they just can’t rely on him anymore. How can you count on a running back who misses significant time every year? Time to move on. Factor in the cap savings — $4 million if the Eagles release him — and it’s a no-brainer.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The Eagles can save $4 million in cap room to cut the running back who needed serious neck surgery after his season was ended in the Giants game. Mathews played pretty well in his two seasons with the Eagles, but, as has been the case during his career, health was an issue. And now he’s 29 and will turn 30 early into next season. Time to move on. 

Verdict: GOES

Jordan Matthews
Cap hit: $1.57M

Roob: Matthews is going into Year 4 and I’d still like to see him make a jump and become a 1,200-yard type of receiver. Maybe it will happen with another year under his belt with Carson Wentz. Matthews has the 11th-most catches in NFL history by a player in his first three seasons — 225, or 75 per year — but his 2,673 yards are 50th most. Matthews is as hard a worker and as committed a player as you’ll see. He'll get the most out of his ability. I’d just like to see him take his game up one more level, and I think he will.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: It’s a shame the Eagles don’t have any legitimate threats at their outside receiver positions, because if they did, so much of the burden wouldn’t fall on Matthews. No, he’s not a great receiver, but he’s a very good one who has been solid in his first three years in the league. In his first three seasons, Matthews has 225 catches for 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns. There have been just 10 receivers in the league to put up those numbers or better: Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, Emmanuel Sanders, Doug Baldwin, Mike Evans, Randall Cobb and Brandon Marshall. Matthews isn’t going anywhere and it’s time to think about an extension. 

Verdict: STAYS

Alex McCalister
Cap hit: $557K

Roob: McCalister, a seventh-round defensive end, spent the year on injured reserve but considering the Eagles’ lack of pass-rush potency, he’ll definitely get a look this summer. McCalister had 17½ sacks at Florida, so he’s got that going for him. Still a long shot.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: This is tough because McCalister was a seventh-round draft pick who was placed on IR with a injury that didn’t appear to be serious. The last year was a redshirt season for the defensive end who has some pass-rush ability but needed to work on packing more muscle onto his frame. Haven’t seen enough to think he sticks. 

Verdict: GOES

Leodis McKelvin
Cap hit: $3.45M

Roob: The Eagles have to do better than McKelvin. He made a few plays, gave up a lot more, and as far as I’m concerned, the Eagles should hang onto Jalen Mills and get rid of all their other corners. Not to mention the $3.2 million in cap savings the Eagles would gain if McKelvin is released. See ya.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The Eagles can save $3.2 million by cutting McKelvin, which will probably happen. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the Eagles think his lingering hamstring issue played a big role in his play and because defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz goes to bat for him. Ultimately, I think McKelvin’s days in Philly are over. 

Verdict: GOES

Rodney McLeod
Cap hit: $5.6M

Roob: McLeod played really well most of the season, tailed off the last few weeks, and goes into next year a question mark because of that inconsistency. When he’s right, McLeod is a sure tackler, willing run supporter, big hitter and capable in coverage. But those last few weeks raised some eyebrows. There were times you just wondered what he was doing out there. If the Eagles can have the first-10-games McLeod for a full season, they’re fine. But he has to be consistent. He’ll be here through 2017 but after that is anybody’s guess. Another mixed year will likely spell the end here for McLeod.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: There were a few plays that showed questionable effort from McLeod this season, which was shocking based on his past. He was an undrafted rookie who worked his way into the league and into a contract with the Eagles. This ended up being a pretty good signing; he had a nice season. He’s under contract through 2020 and the Eagles hope he hasn’t yet fulfilled his potential. He and Malcolm Jenkins should only get better after more time playing together. 

Verdict: STAYS

Steven Means
Cap hit: $690K

Roob: Means, a veteran journeyman defensive end, played only 36 snaps all year. He did pick up one sack against the Vikings, but as far as his future? Most likely, he won’t be back.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: Means did everything in his power last training camp to make the 2016 roster. He flashed every day and in the preseason games. But in 2016, he didn’t get to play very much and was clearly buried on the depth chart behind Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Marcus Smith. The Eagles need to upgrade at the defensive end spot, which might be bad news for Means if more bodies come in. But for now, he's a good depth piece. 

Verdict: STAYS

Temple names Keith Gaither wide receivers coach

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USA Today inage

Temple names Keith Gaither wide receivers coach

Temple head coach Geoff Collins on Monday added two new members to his coaching staff.

Keith Gaither will take over as the wide receivers’ coach and Kyle Lane is the new video coordinator. 

Gaither comes to Temple with 21 years of coaching experience. He spent last season as Army's wide receivers coach. Prior to that, he spent time with Tusculum College (1998-99), Thomasville City Schools (2000-04), Winston-Salem State (2005-08), Elon (2009-10) and Ball State (2010-14).

Gaither spent his collegiate career at Elon, where he was a four-year starter and voted all-region at defensive end before graduating in 1997. Collins originally had retained Frisman Jackson from the 2016 staff, but Jackson was hired by the Tennessee Titans. 

Lane is a Temple alum who spent time with Kansas during the 2016 season as its assistant video coordinator.