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.

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).