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.

A.J. Ellis still adjusting, learning names as he joins the Phillies

A.J. Ellis still adjusting, learning names as he joins the Phillies

NEW YORK – It wasn’t easy leaving the only professional organization he’d ever been part of, but new Phillie A.J. Ellis, acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Carlos Ruiz trade Thursday, is coming to terms with it.

“To find out that the trade went down, it was hard,” Ellis said upon reporting to his new club Saturday. “It was so immediate and sudden, really hard to say goodbye to a lot of relationships I had been blessed to forge for more than a decade.

“But the waves of emotion are getting farther and farther apart, which is a good thing.”

Ellis, 35, was drafted by the Dodgers in 2003 and rose to the majors with them in 2008. With the Phillies, he will serve a similar role to the one he played with the Dodgers – backup catcher. Ellis wasted no time getting to know the pitching staff he will now work with. He arrived at Citi Field early Saturday afternoon and caught Jake Thompson and Jerad Eickhoff in their between-starts bullpen sessions.

Ellis said “Eichorn” when referring to Eickhoff. He’s forgiven. It’s been a whirlwind week.

“See?” he said. “I’m still learning names.”

Ellis, who served as the personal catcher for Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw, was blindsided by the trade.

“When I was summoned to the ballpark, that’s never really a good thing, especially when the front office wants to meet with you as far as where you’re at with the club, you know some kind of transition is happening,” he said. “The first 12 hours were definitely the hardest.

“But to arrive here and arrive in the clubhouse, meeting the staff, I’m starting to feel re-energized, refilled with a sense of purpose as to why I’ve been placed here, and why this is where I need to be at this time. I’m excited about that.

"I know I have huge shoes to fill. Carlos Ruiz is such a fixture in the Phillies organization. The work that he’s done here behind the plate, you can’t fill. This guy is a world champion catcher who has been back there for so many great baseball memories. So it’s up to me to do my part to fill the void.”

Manager Pete Mackanin thought about putting Ellis in the lineup Saturday night then had some mercy when he figured facing hard-throwing Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard might not be the best indoctrination for a guy who just flew cross-country. Ellis is likely to start Sunday afternoon’s series finale and catch Vince Velasquez.

That doesn’t mean he wasn’t asked to make a contribution to Saturday night’s game. Mackanin said he wanted Ellis to speak with the Phillies hitters about the weaknesses the Dodger pitchers tried to exploit.

“We talk to them about this stuff all the time, but it might help to hear it from an outside source,” Mackanin said.

Ellis left a first-place club for a rebuilding team. That’s not easy. He has come to terms with that. He likes the young talent on the Phillies’ roster and hopes to help it come to flower.

“Guys are playing for their careers,” he said. “Guys are playing to make their mark in this game and create a winning franchise once again in Philadelphia. 

"You see the talent, you see their desire to learn, their desire to get better. You just know the youth on this staff, the talent level on this staff. And if I can in some short time here impact some wisdom on those guys, share some of the wisdom along the way that I’ve picked up from some great mentors I’ve had in my time in the game, I need to pay it back, from what all has been given to me.”

Ellis hit just .197 with a .285 on-base percentage in 53 games for the Dodgers this season. That’s one of the reasons the Dodgers acquired Ruiz – to get more production from their right-handed-hitting backup catcher. Ruiz had a .369 on-base percentage at the time of the trade.

Phillies’ general manager Matt Klentak was “adamant” that Ellis come back on the deal because he wanted someone who could fill Ruiz’ void on (behind the plate) and off (with clubhouse leadership) the field. Ellis’ time with the Phillies might be short. He will be a free agent at the end of the season and his playing time might be scant as September unfolds. The Phils will probably add prospect Jorge Alfaro to the catching mix sometime during that month. Management seems eager to get a look at him while still getting No. 1 catcher Cameron Rupp the game reps he needs.

Carson Wentz goes through lengthy pregame warmup in Indy

Carson Wentz goes through lengthy pregame warmup in Indy

INDIANAPOLIS -- Carson Wentz isn't playing on Saturday night against the Colts, but the No. 2 overall pick might have a chance to play in the preseason finale on Thursday, which has been the hope all along. 

Wentz went through a lengthy pregame warmup -- about an hour -- on Saturday as his teammates prepared to face Andrew Luck and the Colts. Long after Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel went into the locker room, Wentz continued to throw. 

This week's pregame warmup was much more intense than the one he was put through last week in Pittsburgh. On Saturday, he dropped back to throw and looked smooth throwing on the run, even across his body. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo put Wentz through the hour-long workout on Saturday. Leaving the field after the workout, offensive coordinator Frank Reich agreed that Wentz looked good. 

The real test will be the X-ray, because no matter how good he feels or how much he lobbies, he'll need to be cleared before he's allowed to return. Shortly after the injury, Wentz said practice would be determined by his pain tolerance and game action would be determined by medical personnel. If he doesn't play against the Jets, it could be a while before Eagles fans get to see their quarterback of the future. 

Another hurdle is the short week of practice thanks to a Thursday game coming after a Saturday game. 

"It's interesting because next week we only got really two days of practice," Doug Pederson said earlier in the week. "We'll see. We'll evaluate him through the weekend. [We’ll] take him on this trip and work him out a little bit when we get to Indy [Indianapolis], and then again next Monday and Tuesday. We've got to at least get a day's work with him in order for him to go in the game next Thursday."

Along with Wentz, there are several other Eagles who won't play against the Colts: Aaron Grymes, Alex McCalister, Joe Walker, Jordan Matthews, Isaac Seumalo and Mike Martin.

Tonight's Lineup: After hitting 6th Friday, Odubel Herrera moves up to 2-hole

Tonight's Lineup: After hitting 6th Friday, Odubel Herrera moves up to 2-hole

After watching his club get smacked around in a 9-4 loss to the Mets on Friday, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has tinkered with his lineup for Saturday's game at Citi Field.

Odubel Herrera moves up to the two-hole after hitting sixth Friday, while Aaron Altherr goes from second to third and Jimmy Paredes gets the start in left and bats seventh. Ryan Howard starts again at first base and bats fifth.

Herrera, who has been struggling since the All-Star break with a .257 average, has lost his leadoff spot to Cesar Hernandez but is starting to find his swing again.

In the last seven days, Herrera is 5 for 17 with a double and a run scored. In August, the centerfielder is hitting .288 with two homers and five RBIs.

Altherr, who played left field Friday, moves over to right field and Peter Bourjos gets the night off. Altherr is hitting .255 with four home runs and 19 RBIs on the season.

Here is the full Phillies lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Aaron Altherr, RF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P

For more on tonight's's game, check out Steven Tydings' game notes.