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.
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.

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.
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 player pages.

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

The crowd erupted as Joel Embiid stepped to the free throw line. They chanted a phrase Embiid has been repeating for the past two years, a fitting welcome to his NBA debut.

“That was great,” Embiid said after the Sixers' 103-97 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday in the season opener (see Instant Replay). “That’s my motto, 'Trust the process.'”

After two years of rehabbing foot injuries, Embiid has his first regular-season game behind him. Embiid scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 6 for 16 from the field, 1 for 3 from long range and 7 for 8 from the line. He also recorded seven rebounds, two blocks, four turnovers and four fouls in over 22 minutes. 

“The beginning I was nervous, but once you make that first shot, it just goes away,” he said. “The fans were so into the game that it was fun. I love having fun.”

Sixers head coach Brett Brown enjoyed watching Embiid on the court as much as the big man liked being on it. Brown has seen the 7-foot-2 center grow and develop during his rehab. Finally, he was able to utilize his versatile skills in a real game setting.

“I can't say this loud enough,” Brown said. “For the city to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts, for him to go through all the things he has been through and play like he did on opening night, the city deserves it. Most importantly, he deserves it.”

Now that Embiid has been cleared to play, he would like to do so for longer periods of time. He began the preseason at 12 minutes and was increased to 20 in segmented spurts for opening night. Even though he exceeded that limit by over two minutes, Embiid is itching to be cleared to play more extensively. 

“It sucks,” Embiid said. “I feel like I could have played more but you know you’ve got to trust the process, got to trust those guys. If I have my minute restriction at 20 minutes, I guess I’m going to go with that. But obviously I want to play more and more and I think it can help the team better. But they have a plan for me and I’ve got to follow it.”

Embiid has maintained he wants to be a clutch player. Brown looked to him toward the end of the game as the Thunder pulled ahead late in the final quarter. He drained a fadeaway jumper to tie the game at 97 apiece with 50.7 to go. 

Later trailing by four with 10 seconds left, the Sixers went to Embiid. While he was whistled for an offensive foul, Brown was glad to have a go-to unlike in years past. 

“You have a target,” Brown said. “We tried to get the ball to him a lot. … By and large, to have somebody like Joel, where the mystery is solved like, 'What do you do?' You get him the ball as much as you can.”

The more the Sixers found Embiid, the more the Thunder had to try to defend him. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan knew what his team was going up against. He watched Embiid as a high schooler and coached against him during his tenure at Florida. 

“He’s gifted and skilled,” Donovan said. “It was probably our guys' first time seeing him … I knew the talent, the gifts. The one thing with him is, he’s got great footwork. He’s hard to guard because he’s herky-jerky. He moves. He’s got a lot of [Hakeem] Olajuwon to him.”

Opening night had been two years in the making. Even though the Sixers didn't win, the significance of the evening didn't disappoint. 

"I thought this moment was going to be special," Embiid said, "and it was just great."

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

NEW ORLEANS -- Jusuf Nurkic scored 23 points, Will Barton added 22, and the Denver Nuggets survived a dominant performance by Anthony Davis to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans 107-102 in both teams' regular season opener Wednesday night.

Davis had 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks. His production helped New Orleans trim a deficit as large as 14 late in the second quarter down to two points in the waning minutes. He simply didn't have enough help.

The rest of the Pelicans combined to shoot 21 of 58. Tim Frazier scored 15 for the Pelicans. E'Twaun Moore added 10 points, but missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied it with 24 seconds left.

Danilo Gallinari scored 15 for Denver and Wilson Chandler added 12 points (see full recap).

Celtics top Nets in Horford's home debut
BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas had 25 points and nine assists, Jae Crowder added 21 points and Al Horford pitched in 11 in his Boston debut on Wednesday night as the Celtics survived a late scare to beat the Brooklyn Nets 122-117 in their season opener.

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 21 for Brooklyn, including a 3-pointer to make it 120-117 with 47 seconds left after the Nets erased most of a 23-point deficit against the Boston bench. But he missed one with a chance to tie it after Joe Harris intercepted Thomas' cross-court pass, and the Celtics were able to hold on.

Justin Hamilton came off the bench to score 19 points and grab 10 rebounds for the Nets in coach Kenny Atkinson's debut (see full recap).

Turner's opening act leads Pacers past Mavs in OT
INDIANAPOLIS -- Myles Turner scored 30 points, tied his career high with 16 rebounds and made a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in overtime to start an 8-0 run that allowed the Indiana Pacers to close out a 130-121 victory Wednesday night over the Dallas Mavericks.

Three-time All-Star Paul George added 25 points, including another 3 with 55 seconds left to seal Indiana's fifth season-opening win in six years.

Deron Williams scored 25 points, while J.J. Barea and Dirk Nowitzki each added 22 as the Mavs lost their fifth straight in the series. They still haven't won in Indianapolis since February 2014.

Dallas didn't tie the score or take a lead until the fourth quarter, yet still forced overtime when Harrison Barnes' open 3-pointer made it 115-all with 2.3 seconds left.

Turner could have won it with a long buzzer-beating 3, but it bounced off the back of the rim (see full recap).