Free Agency Round-up: Apparently No One Values Linebackers

Free Agency Round-up: Apparently No One Values Linebackers

Almost one week has gone by since the free agency opened in the NFL, and in typical Eagles fashion, the front office has ignored the plethora of linebackers on the market.

What's that you say? The top free agent linebackers are still available. Like, all of them?

Put it this way: the biggest name to sign anywhere to this point is Dan Connor, who joined the Cowboys for two years at $6.5 million. Stephen Tulloch, Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, London Fletcher, and practically every other name you would recognize are waiting for contracts.

So what exactly is keeping these players, any of whom Eagles fans would take in a heartbeat, from striking deals? The short answer is these players aren't as valuable as many seem to believe. Here's why:

1. Money
The obvious stumbling block is money. The Inquirer's Jeff McLane reports Lofton wants around $9 million per year, which sounds insane for a slightly above average player. McLane adds Tulloch wants no less than five-year, $42.5 million D'Qwell Jackson got for re-signing with Cleveland.

Tulloch is the consensus best linebacker out there, but is he worth $8.5 million a season? Does Tulloch, or any other free agent, have an impact on the game in the mold of a Brian Urlacher or Ray Lewis? The feeling right now around the league is no, and that these guys are going to have to come down on their demands eventually.

2. Prevalence of two-down linebackers
Lofton wants $9 million per. The problem: while he's a solid run defender, some teams, including his own Atlanta Falcons it would seem, fear he needs to come off the field in passing situations.

It's the same reason why the Eagles made Connor a low-ball offer, allowing him to slip through their fingers to Dallas. It's the same reason why we're not talking a whole lot about the Eagles going after an outside backer like Manny Lawson or Kamerion Wimbley. Too many players today have specialized roles, and are skilled in either run support, coverage, or rushing the passer -- maybe two out of three, but seldom all of the above.

What good is it to go out and drop a load of cash in the first few days of free agency on a situational player? None, and the Eagles aren't falling into that trap. It wouldn't be a shock if they added one of those guys eventually, but they have plenty of situational players already, so there's no rush.

3. 3-4 vs. 4-3 defenses
There are still places where linebacker is one of the most coveted positions on the field, but those clubs usually operate a 3-4 defense. Why are linebackers more valuable there?

For one, as the name indicates, they utilize up to four linebackers at a time, as opposed to three in a 4-3. We're sure that blows your mind, but what we're getting at is those teams need more linebackers on their roster, and their linebackers are often asked to do more, and therefore are required to be more versatile.

Outside linebackers, in particular, are more important in the 3-4, because those are typically the primary pass rushers in those defenses. In fact, those players often translate to defensive ends in a 4-3, so even though Mario Williams is listed as an OLB on the free agency tracker, he would be playing with his hand in the ground all the time had he signed with Philadelphia rather than in Buffalo.

None of this is to say the Eagles couldn't use an upgrade at linebacker, or that they haven't made some mistakes along the way evaluating talent at the position. But when you look at the sorry state of the position on 4-3 defenses around the league -- and search no further than the Super Bowl champion New York Giants for proof -- it's not specifically Andy Reid and the Eagles who don't "value" the position.

- Just to further update the status of those players, the belief is Tulloch will wind up staying in Detroit, though McLane reports the Lions are bringing Hawthorne in for a visit. Hawthorne and Lofton both visted New Orleans over the weekend as well. The Eagles haven't had contact with any of those players, that we know of at least, and McLane's sources indicate the price tag will not drop low enough for the team to jump into the mix.

- Even though it has little to do with the Birds, Peyton Manning finally made his decision, choosing the Denver Broncos over finalists Tennessee and San Francisco. Denver has a decent defense, and plays in the wide-open AFC West, where the path to the playoffs goes through teams like Oakland and Kansas City. However, Peyton's success at this point boils down to two factors: 1. how well can he throw the football, and 2. can he stay healthy? I wouldn't count him out, but I'm glad I don't have to pin my team's Super Bowl hopes on number 18.

- In case you were wondering what I think of Tim Tebow, who should instantly become available as a result of the Manning signing, I think he's not a very good quarterback. Moving on...

- Mike Tolbert, one of T7L's depth targets for the Birds, left San Diego to sign with the Carolina Panthers. Speculation is Tolbert's arrival makes Jonathan Stewart expendable, who would be another person of interest to back-up LeSean McCoy, but the Panthers allegedly will hold on to the former first-round pick.

- Super Bowl hero and suddenly overrated wide receiver Mario Manningham left the Giants for the San Francisco 49ers. In five games against Philadelphia, he averaged 2.8 receptions for 31.4 yards per contest.

- There are some rumblings that the Eagles have made contact with Plaxico Burress, and some rumblings that this simply isn't true. Even though he would make an excellent addition for inside the red zone, I don't believe the front office is too keen on the idea, or Plaxico too keen on the money/role. My guess is reports in this case may be driven by the agent.

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

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Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

Bryce Harper is out of the Nationals' lineup Tuesday night after being hit in the knee by a Jeremy Hellickson pitch on Memorial Day.

Big break for the Phils considering Harper has hit .346 against them with three doubles, 11 home runs, 23 RBIs and 21 walks in his last 104 plate appearances against them.

It's an equally big break for Aaron Nola, against whom Harper is 6 for 10 with two homers (see game notes).

For the Phillies, Ryan Howard gets the start at first base against another right-hander, Washington's Joe Ross. Phillies fans are clamoring for more playing time for Tommy Joseph, but starting Howard against Ross does make some sense given how much better lefties have been against him (.295 BA) than righties (.209). Ross throws a ton of sinkers and sliders which make it tough on same-handed hitters.

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Cameron Rupp, C
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Tyler Goeddel, LF
7. David Lough, RF
8. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
9. Aaron Nola, P

And for the Nationals:

1. Ben Revere, CF
2. Jayson Werth, RF
3. Daniel Murphy, 2B
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
5. Clint Robinson, LF
6. Anthony Rendon, 3B
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Danny Espinosa, SS
9. Joe Ross, P

The Ryan Howard saga is hard to watch

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The Ryan Howard saga is hard to watch

It's difficult to feel sorry for a professional athlete who will have earned nearly $200 million in salary before his playing career ends at 37 years old. It's hard, but Ryan Howard is doing an outstanding job of making me feel bad anyway.

The statistics speak for themselves. As the calendar rolls over to June, Howard is batting .157 with more than twice as many strikeouts (52) as base hits (22). Debate rages as to whether the Phillies should hang on to the three-time All-Star for locker-room morale -- perhaps also in the desperate hopes they can still trade him -- or if they should just put The Big Piece out of his misery with an outright release.

There's no satisfying answer here. All I can say is I wish for it to be over.

Howard's decline has been one of the saddest to watch in recent Philly sports memory. From 2005 through 2011, he was the heart of the Phillies' order, belting 284 home runs and driving in 859 runs in six-and-a-half seasons, during the most successful run in franchise history. In 2016, Howard's bat can barely catch up to the ball, let alone knock it out of the infield.

Largely through no fault of his own. Howard has never been the same since rupturing his Achilles on the final at bat of the 2011 season. Sure, there were signs he was slowing down or that the rest of the league was catching up to him even then, averaging 32 homers between the '10-'11 seasons compared to 49.5 over '06-'09 -- but he was still hitting the ball at that point.

Since the injury, Howard's power hasn't necessarily dipped dramatically. It's his ability to hit the ball, period. From '04 to '11, he was a .275 hitter. After the injury, he's batting .226. This season has been especially trying, with the month of May bordering on the historic.

Of course, it's not news Howard's career was derailed by injuries. It's no secret he's been particularly awful this season. It's just harder than ever to watch.

Just how ineffective has Howard been in 2016? In retrospect, maybe the numbers don't quite do the struggle justice. Obviously, he isn't hitting, and he's striking out as frequently as ever. What's new this year is the percentage of fly balls that don't even make it out of the infield -- 12 percent, which is twice as high as any season in 13 Major League seasons.

What does it mean exactly? Howard's swing is so jacked right now that even when he does make contact, even when he doesn't hit a ball into the defensive shift, one in 10 times is essentially a harmless pop-up.

To his credit, Howard also has eight home runs this season, some of which have been big at bats or game-winners. He's also been hailed as a positive influence and leader in the clubhouse, an example this young group of Phillies can certainly benefit from.

Nor do I believe Howard really needs anybody to feel bad for him. He's worked hard and accomplished more than most ever will at his profession, and as a result is able to provide for his family and generations beyond. He's built a great legacy both on the baseball diamond, but one that no doubt extends beyond athletic prowess.

Yet none of that changes the fact that Howard's play has deteriorated to the point where he's become a black hole in the Phillies' lineup. It pains me to say that, to use this platform to write it -- just not as much as it pains me to watch it happening.

I'd love nothing more than for Howard to go on a tear and end his final season with the Phillies with head held high. It's the ending a legend like him deserves. Or better yet, improve his production to a level where a contender in the American League would sign Howard and give him one last crack at postseason baseball.

But short of that, I'd love nothing more for it to all be over, to not have to watch one of the great Phillies sluggers flail away every other or third day, or less as it soon may come to. It's not a matter of debate as to when or how that should happen. The sooner, the better.

10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

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10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

The Eagles wrapped up their Tuesday practice just before 12:30 p.m. under a hot summer-like sun.

Tuesday was the first day of four in the team’s final week of OTAs, which are voluntary. The mandatory minicamp starts next Tuesday and runs through next Thursday.

That’s when we might see Fletcher Cox and Darren Sproles, both of whom have been staying away from the team during the voluntary period. And that’s where we’ll start with today’s 10 observations:

1. With Cox still out, Mike Martin was again working with the first team at defensive tackle next to Bennie Logan, as he was last week. Two weeks ago, Taylor Hart was next to Logan at tackle. Martin was a depth piece in Tennessee and that’s how he’ll fit with the Eagles once Cox comes back.

Martin was also involved in the first little scuffle we’ve seen during these spring practices. Nothing too exciting … just a little shoving with left guard Allen Barbre.

2. Sproles is still out, but Ryan Mathews returned. Mathews missed the last practice opened to the media with an illness but participated Tuesday. The interesting thing was that Mathews didn’t get all the first-team reps. In fact, Kenjon Barner actually opened the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 portions of practice with the first team.

It’s early, but Barner has looked pretty good this spring. It’ll be interesting to see if he fits with the team. He’s ahead of rookie Wendell Smallwood now, but would the team really elect to keep him over a fifth-round pick? Or will the team be OK keeping four running backs again?

Another note: Rueben Randle (gallbladder surgery) is still out.

3. We saw a little trickery from Doug Pederson’s offense on Tuesday against no defense. First, Chase Daniel threw a lateral screen to Josh Huff, who threw down the right to Smallwood. Then, Carson Wentz threw a lateral pass to Nelson Agholor and then Wentz ran a route down the left sideline, but Agholor overthrew him.

Maybe the trick plays are just way to keep practice lighter, but it might also mean the offense is moving along nicely and installing more and more of the playbook. It’s a good sign.

4. Wentz was up and down on Tuesday, but his best completion came on a deep pass down the right sideline to wideout Xavier Rush (who is a candidate for best name on the team). Rush wrestled the ball away from corner C.J. Smith, who should know Wentz pretty well. The two played together at North Dakota State.

Meanwhile, Sam Bradford had a shaky day, throwing several balls that could have been picked off.

5. Again, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks — the two Jim Schwartz guys in the secondary — were working with the first team. On Tuesday, Eric Rowe was the extra corner on the field in the nickel. When Rowe came in, Brooks shifted into the slot. It still looks like Nolan Carroll isn’t yet allowed to practice during team portions.

On the first play of 11 on 11s, Brooks broke up a pass from Bradford that was then picked off by Rodney McLeod and taken the other way. Not a good throw from Bradford, but Brooks was aggressive and jumped it.

6. Down by the goal line during the team period, Malcolm Jenkins made a nice play to get in front of a pass, but couldn’t pick it off. He’s in midseason form. Jenkins had a great year in 2015, but really struggled to intercept balls that he had in his hands.

7. Jordan Hicks didn’t participate in 7 on 7s or 11 on 11s Tuesday. Two weeks ago, he sat out with tightness in his legs, but returned last week. On Tuesday, with Hicks watching, Najee Goode filled in at first-team MIKE, flanked by Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks.

8. Chase Daniel overthrew two balls badly within a few plays during the 11-on-11 drills, but then capped off a drive by dropping a ball into the hands of wideout Paul Turner in the back of the end zone. Decent day for Daniel.

9. The Eagles ran some scout team looks for the first time (that we’ve seen) on Tuesday. Daniel ran the scout team, which makes sense. Normally, it would be the third-string quarterback, but Wentz probably has plenty on his plate. Not sure whom the offense was mimicking, but the two pinnies were Nos. 88 and 82. Perhaps the Cowboys?

10. At one point on Tuesday, the offense started to use a tempo offense, giving everyone in attendance flashbacks to Chip. Well, not exactly. The up-tempo didn’t last long and it did produce the ugliest Wentz pass since he’s been with the team.

We are seeing plenty of interesting looks from the Eagles. At times they’ve been using formations with three tight ends. And they even showed some designed quarterback runs on Tuesday. The progression and complexity of this offense is starting to be revealed by these practices, and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Stupid Observation of the Day: Punter Donnie Jones has begun to wear a pretty sweet white and blue bucket hat at practice when he’s not wearing his helmet. Only a punter could get away with this. Here, you can see him in the background from last week.