Priority Number One: Get a Linebacker or Two

Priority Number One: Get a Linebacker or Two

With DeSean Jackson under wraps, and the franchise tagging period closing to a flurry of activity -- 21 players in all were hit with the tag, including several kickers and a punter -- it's finally time to look ahead. Free agency opens in one week, and while we don't anticipate a spending frenzy to rival this past summer, we do expect the Eagles to be active.
Of course, the club still has some of their own players to worry about, Evan Mathis being chief among them, but there are several areas that will require management to step outside the organization's umbrella.
None loom larger than the linebacker position. You often hear the Birds' front office devalues linebackers, but that simply cannot be the case this year. The middle of the field was a black hole for much of the last season, manned primarily by a bunch of undersized, inexperienced fourth-through-seventh rounders, over-matched in a system that heaps pressure on the position.
This offseason, either the Eagles won't go cheap on linebacker, or they won't wait until day three of the draft. In fact, it may very well be both. Fixing this unit just became the team's latest top priority.
EVALUATING WHAT THEY HAVE
WeaksidePopular thinking is the Eagles need a complete overhaul at linebacker. Admittedly, they need a ton of help, but it's not as if there is no talent there at all.
Brian Rolle is the one guy who stood apart from this group last year. Listed at 5-10, Rolle will always be hampered by his short stature. There were moments during his rookie season when Rolle had perfect coverage, but the play wound up going over the top of him. However, those were few and far between. Rolle was often a blanket in coverage, and he showed glimpses of pass-rush ability as well.
Is Rolle an every-down linebacker in the NFL? Difficult to say for sure right now, though he has a few things going for him. He needs to work on becoming a sound tackler, but at least he knows where he's supposed to be. After starting a fairly effective 13 games on the weakside in 2011, this sixth rounder should continue to have a role in the defense next season. Don't sleep on the kid.
MiddleThe other primary starter, on the other hand, is in rough shape. Jamar Chaney had offseason surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck, a result of the blow he delivered to a Redskins ball carrier in the final game of the season. He insists he'll be ready to go, but even assuming Chaney is a picture of health once workouts begin, he looked like a replacement level player most of the time last year anyway.
For three games as a rookie, Chaney's athleticism made him look like the second coming -- especially in relief of a plodding Stewart Bradley -- as Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley held offensive linemen at bay. Last season, with the defensive line in the wide nine, Chaney didn't have nearly the same impact while trying to fight off guards exploding at him off the line of scrimmage. He wasn't exactly an abject failure, but they could use somebody stronger at the point of attack -- not to mention that by the end of the season, he wasn't even in the game on passing downs.
Neck surgery further complicates matters. At the very least, the coaches can't rely on Chaney to bounce back quickly.
DepthThere's not a great deal of promise in the rest of the group. Casey Matthews improved by the end of the year, though he had nowhere to go but up, and still seemed to be a step behind the action. We haven't seen much of Keenan Clayton after two seasons, Akeem Jordan is serviceable in limited playing time, and they've squeezed about all they can out of Moise Fokou.
It will be interesting to see who they bring back along with Rolle and Chaney, the latter probably remaining with the club as a backup. They really like Matthews, so he should get another chance, and Jordan contributes on special teams. Clayton could be a coin flip to make the roster, but Fokou's maximum potential has to have been reached, and it's nothing special, so watch for him to wind up a camp casualty.
EVALUATING WHO THEY CAN SIGN

1. MLB Stephen TullochWho better to play middle linebacker behind the wide nine than a middle linebacker whose NFL experience comes exclusively from playing behind wide nine fronts?
The Eagles were believed to have targeted Tulloch when free agency opened last summer, but for whatever reason, he wound up in Detroit. The Lions would surely like to keep Tulloch after a solid year, but they are up against the cap, and may have trouble doing something long-term. If the Eagles can swoop in for the steal, it would go a long way toward fixing their problem.

2. MLB Curtis LoftonLike the Lions, the Falcons are having trouble keeping all their talented players in house, and Lofton is coming dangerously close to getting away. Some might see Lofton as the top available linebacker, a player who turns 26 in June, has not missed a game in his four-year NFL career, and recorded over 100 tackles each of the previous three seasons. He's a strong run-defender, but not a star, even though they might need to pay him like one to get him under contract.

3. MLB/OLB David HawthorneFlying under the radar out of Seattle, Hawthorne is an interesting candidate because he has NFL experience playing both inside and out. Signing Hawthorne would give the front office more flexibility, particularly during the draft. Another player might dictate which pool of linebackers the Eagles could select from, while they would have the ability shuffle Hawthorne around accordingly.

4. MLB London FletcherPeople really like Fletcher, and I confess, I do too -- only not for the Eagles. The guy has been around for-e-ver, and been highly productive at every stop, but there are two questions that need to be asked. One, he'll be 37 this year, so you have to wonder: how long can he keep up this pace? Two, at his size (5-10) and age, will he really be able to pick up where he he left off while playing behind the wide nine for the first time in his career? In other words, is Fletcher the right fit for Philly?
Which, to be fair, is the question we have to ask about any of these guys behind Tulloch. Can he handle the added pressure the Eagles' scheme puts on its linebackers?

5. OLB Erin HendersonAs usual, there aren't a huge number of (any) great 4-3 outside linebackers available. Henderson, a fourth-year player, charted the best according to Pro Football Focus, who ha
d him fourth overall in 2011. However, Henderson -- an undrafted rookie in '08 -- had no starting experience in the NFL prior to this season, so we're going off of a small sample size and potential. He also plays weakside for Minnesota, the same spot as Rolle.
WHAT'S THE PLAN?
This should be pretty straight forward. If the Eagles can sign Stephen Tulloch, that's what they should do. There's no question about whether he is a fit, and he is one of the better interior linebackers in the league to boot. This lessens the immediacy of the need at the position, giving them some freedom on draft day. Instead of automatically targeting LB with their first pick, maybe they could find a replacement at strongside in the second round.
Curtis Lofton, meanwhile, could be an expensive mistake. He probably has the ability to make the transition to playing behind the wide nine, but it could take time, and he may not be as good. Then again, he could also thrive, but I'm more comfortable with the known quantity. Same thing goes for London Fletcher, only while he doesn't carry the same long-term consequences, the potential is there for a far bigger drop off. The best alternative seems to be David Hawthorne, because at least he provides some versatility, and can be moved into a role that better suits his skills if necessary.
It feels like they have to get one of either Tulloch, Lofton, or Hawthorne though, because while there are several good prospects in April's upcoming draft, they don't have nearly enough talent there right now that they should be comfortable inserting one player, a rookie at that. (Plus, it's hard to find free agent help on the outside).
Nor does signing one of those free agents preclude them from adding another backer in the draft. With a large percentage of their starters set for 2012, the Eagles can really focus on rebuilding this unit. Teaming an experienced veteran with an early draft pick to go along with the collection of young, developing players already on their roster is a realistic possibility, and one that could conceivably turn linebacker into a position of strength in time for the season ahead.
Player screen caps courtesy of NFL.com player pages.

Ryan Howard's miserable May continues as Tigers out-power Phillies

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Ryan Howard's miserable May continues as Tigers out-power Phillies

DETROIT — Back when they were racking up National League East titles and filling Citizens Bank Park night after night, the Phillies could slug with anyone.
 
Those days are gone.
 
So even on a night when they got some power from two young up-and-comers in their lineup, the Phillies still couldn’t get enough to match up with the Detroit Tigers on Monday night.
 
“We don’t have enough pop to go blow for blow with them,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
The Tigers belted four home runs, three against starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, in beating the Phillies, 5-4, at Comerica Park (see Instant Replay).
 
Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph both homered for the Phillies, but Ryan Howard, no longer even close to the player he was during those aforementioned title years, slipped deeper into the May quicksand. He went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts to fall to .156 on the season. He is 4 for 48 (.083) in the month of May.
 
“Man, it’s been brutal,” Howard said after the game. “I’m not going to lie. I need some breaks, man. It’s been tough. I’ve hit some balls hard, but they’re not finding any real estate out there.
 
“I have to keep grinding and swinging. Luckily, it’s still early to get it turned around.”
 
Yes, it’s early for some guys.
 
But it might not be that early for Howard. He’s 36 and in the final year of his contract. His slump has coincided with Joseph’s ascension from the minors. Joseph played first base Monday night and looked good at the position. In addition to hitting a game-tying homer in the sixth, he had a double. Half of his six hits in his first seven games in the majors have been for extra bases.
 
Joseph will continue to play first base while Howard serves as the designated hitter in the final two games of the interleague series in Detroit. After that, Joseph is expected to start against lefty Jon Lester in Chicago on Friday. If he keeps hitting — and Howard keeps struggling — the situation could be ripe for Mackanin to continue to play Joseph, even against the right-handers Howard usually sees.
 
“I'm going to look at it a week at a time,” Mackanin said. “We'll see. At some point it might come to that, but I can't say it's imminent.”
 
If Howard starts spending more time on the bench, it will be part of a downhill progression that started in the second half of last season when he became a platoon player. Will a progression to the bench ultimately lead to his being released in the coming weeks? Well, if Joseph keeps hitting and continues to earn playing time, management may have to seriously ponder the move.
 
Even with Franco and Joseph hitting home runs, the Phillies didn’t have enough to match the Tigers’ thunder.
 
Miguel Cabrera belted two home runs and in the seventh inning clubbed his 500th career double. He then came around to score the go-ahead run on a single by Victor Martinez.
 
Entering the game, the Tigers were among the top teams in the American League in batting average (.265), runs per game (4.60), homers (56) and OPS (.758).
 
Meanwhile, the Phillies couldn’t get much lower in offense. They ranked near the bottom in the National League in batting average (.233), runs per game (3.23), homers (32) and OPS (.651).
 
“You look up and down their lineup on the scoreboard and it looks like everybody is hitting .300 with eight or 10 home runs,” Mackanin said. “It can be daunting.
 
“The middle of their lineup hurt us with the long ball. We knew they were swinging the bats well lately. They weren’t earlier. Now they’re swinging well and we couldn’t contain them.
 
“We got 12 hits of our own. But they’ve got a lot of power on that team.”
 
The Phillies are at the start of a challenging trip — three in Detroit followed by three against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. The Cubs have the majors’ best record. The Phillies, a surprising four games over .500, will be tested on this trip.
 
They did not pass the first test. Velasquez had trouble commanding his pitches and for the second straight start ran a high pitch count. He took a 3-1 lead to the mound in the fifth, but it evaporated quickly under the weight of homers by J.D. Martinez and Cabrera. Reliever Colton Murray also gave up a homer in the inning. He also allowed the go-ahead run in the seventh as Mackanin held David Hernandez back in case the Phils got a lead.
 
“Velasquez didn’t have any command of his secondary pitches, pretty basic stuff, and he left some fastballs over the plate,” Mackanin said. “You have to throw quality pitches to a lineup like this. If you make mistakes against them, they don’t miss. If you don’t command your secondary pitches against good hitters, they become like sharks and smell blood and hit the fastball.”
 
Velasquez said he should have gotten the loss, not Murray.
 
“You can’t shy away from hitters and I did that,” he said. “You’ve got to pitch inside. I pitched around them.
 
“I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve got to challenge hitters.”

With game on the line, Pete Mackanin benches his best player for lack of hustle

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With game on the line, Pete Mackanin benches his best player for lack of hustle

BOX SCORE

DETROIT — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin made a strong statement Monday night when he benched his best hitter in the seventh inning of a tie game.
 
With Odubel Herrera on the bench for the final innings, the Phillies went on to lose, 5-4, to the Detroit Tigers (see Instant Replay).
 
Mackanin did not regret his decision to yank Herrera and his team-high .335 batting average from the game.
 
“It’s important to me to set that tone,” Mackanin said. “When you don’t hustle, I’ve got a problem.”
 
Herrera had singled in each of his first three at-bats. He drove in the Phillies’ first run with a hit in the third inning.
 
But when he bounced back to the pitcher and took his time getting to first base in the seventh, Mackanin abruptly pulled him. Even Ryan Howard said something to Herrera in the dugout.
 
“He didn’t run,” Mackanin said. “One of the ingredients to our success to this point is the fact that guys play with energy and they play hard. We’re training them to play the game the right way and not running is not the right way.”
 
Herrera said he did not run because he was “frustrated” and “angry” with the at-bat. He said Tigers reliever Justin Wilson “got in his head” by varying his delivery times. Herrera even mentioned that Wilson quick-pitched him.
 
“The pitcher was playing with me,” he said. “I have to learn from it. I didn’t think [Mackanin] was going to bench me, but I understand why. I can’t argue. I was frustrated. I respect the decision. I know that I did wrong. I have to learn from my mistakes and it won’t happen again.”
 
Mackanin is a huge fan of Herrera. He has predicted the 24-year-old Venezuelan will someday win a batting title.
 
But Mackanin indicated after Monday night’s game that Herrera might be developing some bad habits — at least when it comes to the hustle that Mackanin values. The front office values it, too. Playing with “energy” is something the front office frequently says it wants to see, and the ability to get his players to play with energy is one of Mackanin’s strengths.
 
“I’ve seen it in the past and it’s been trickling in,” Mackanin said of Herrera’s occasional lapses in hustle. “I didn’t like it and I made the decision. He knows he should have run.”
 
Jonathan Papelbon put a chokehold on Bryce Harper’s neck last year in Washington for a similar transgression.
 
In the Phillies’ dugout Monday night, Herrera got a little talking-to from Howard.
 
“That was great to see,” Mackanin said.
 
Said Howard: “Doobie's got a lot of promise. He’s going to be around this game for a long time. He makes things happen. He brings energy to the game.
 
“The pitcher lost the grip and had to double-pump. If you’re running hard, maybe he makes a bad throw and you’re on base.
 
“I just told him, ‘You’ve got to keep going. I know it’s not the at-bat you wanted, but look at me, bro, I’m still out there grinding.’ If he’s running there, the pitcher could throw it away and he could be on second and we could squeeze a run out.”
 
Howard went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts to fall to .156 on the season. He is 4 for 48 (.083) in the month of May (see story).
 
Mackanin said his message to Herrera was complete. Herrera will be back in the starting lineup on Tuesday night.

NBA Playoffs: Raptors hold off Cavs to even East Finals 2-2

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NBA Playoffs: Raptors hold off Cavs to even East Finals 2-2

BOX SCORE

TORONTO -- A series that once looked lopsided is now even.

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points, including a driving layup in the final minute, and DeMar DeRozan had 32 as the Toronto Raptors evened the Eastern Conference Finals by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-99 in Game 4 on Monday night.

DeMarre Carroll scored 11 points and Bismack Biyombo had 14 rebounds as Toronto improved to 8-2 at home this postseason and got back on level terms after big losses in Games 1 and 2.

"We've been counted out, and we like that challenge," DeRozan said.

The next challenge for Toronto? Game 5 on Wednesday night in Cleveland, where the Raptors are 0-3 this season, losing by a combined 72 points.

"We have to continue to make sure that when they punch, we punch back," Lowry said. "And if they punch three times, we punch four times."

The Raptors are 2-6 on the road in the playoffs.

After a 10-0 start to these playoffs, the Cavaliers are counting on home court advantage to help them reach their second straight Finals.

"Going back home we have to play a lot better and I think we will," LeBron James said.

Cleveland lost consecutive playoff games to an Eastern Conference opponent for the first time since dropping the final three games of the conference semifinals to Boston in 2010.

"We had a few defensive breakdowns that you can't have down the stretch of a game, especially in the playoffs," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "They executed every time we made a mistake."

James scored 29 points and Kyrie Irving had 26 for the Cavaliers, who trailed by as many as 18 points. Channing Frye scored nine of his 12 points in the fourth quarter.

Lowry scored nine in the fourth and DeRozan had 12, connecting on five of six shots.

"It's a cakewalk for me when (Lowry) gets going," DeRozan said. "It opens up everything."

The Raptors led 78-69 to begin the fourth but Frye made consecutive 3-pointers as Cleveland opened the final quarter with an 8-0 run, cutting it to 78-77. The Cavaliers made their first 11 shots of the fourth quarter.

"It wasn't enough because we got off to a horrible first half once again in this building and you're playing catch up the whole game," James said.

Frye's errant 3-point attempt at 4:12 was Cleveland's first miss of the fourth. DeRozan made two free throws at the other end and, after another miss by Frye, Carroll made one of two to put Toronto up 99-96 with 3:23 to go.

A long 3 by Irving made it 101-99 with 2:00 left, but DeRozan answered with a driving bank shot at 1:33. Toronto got the ball back after Biyombo blocked J.R. Smith's 3, and Biyombo kept the offensive possession alive by rebounding Lowry's missed shot. After a timeout, Lowry let the shot clock wind down before driving for the decisive layup, making it 105-99 with 22 seconds to go.

Toronto jumped out to a 13-5 lead as Cleveland missed eight of its first 10 shots. Following a timeout, the Cavs made five of their next six to cut the deficit but the Raptors led 27-24 after one quarter.

Lowry scored 15 points in the second, making three of Toronto's four 3-pointers, as the Raptors opened a 57-41 halftime lead despite not shooting a single free throw in the first two quarters. It marked the first time a team led by 15 or more at halftime in a conference finals game without shooting a free throw since Game 2 of the 2001 East Finals between Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The Bucks made two of six from the line, the fewest ever made in an NBA playoff game at the time.

DeRozan shot Toronto's first free throws at 6:13 of the third after being tackled by Smith on a drive. The foul drought came after Raptors coach Dwane Casey was fined $25,000 for criticizing the officials following Toronto's Game 3 win.

Fans cheered derisively when Matthew Dellavedova was called for Cleveland's first foul of the game at 8:56 of the second.

Not much to Love
After shooting 3 for 19 in Game 3, Kevin Love shot 4 for 14 in Game 4. He finished with 10 points. Love did not play in the fourth after appearing to injure his left ankle when he stepped on referee David Guthrie late in the third. "It didn't feel too great," Love said. Lue said Love's health was "no concern."

Fair and foul
Cleveland didn't shoot any free throws in the third quarter and had just two in the fourth. Twelve of Toronto's 19 free throws came in the fourth.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: James and Irving each had six assists. ... Cleveland shot 3 for 23 from 3-point range in the first half. The finished 13 for 41. . Cleveland's Dahntay Jones served a one-game suspension for hitting Biyombo in the groin in Game 3.

Raptors: Raptors C Jonas Valanciunas was active but did not play. He's been out since spraining his right ankle in the third quarter of Game 3 against Miami on May 7. ... Toronto is 10-1 in the playoffs when holding opponents below 100 points.