The Long, Depressing History of the Ongoing Search for Linebackers

The Long, Depressing History of the Ongoing Search for Linebackers

By the time the Eagles finally reached Super Bowl XXXIX, their regular starting linebackers were Jeremiah Trotter, Dhani Jones, and Mark Simoneau*.

Trotter was on his second of three stints with the Birds, and even though he was still playing at a fairly high level, the knees were shot. Jones was brought in over the off-season to replace the dependable Carlos Emmons, who left during free agency due to the organization's policy of treating 30 year olds like lepers -- but compared to today, we actually had it pretty good. Once Trot was back, Simoneau slid into Nate Wayne's spot, which basically had been a revolving door since Andy Reid and Jim Johnson arrived, the lone bright spot being their one-year rental of Shawn Barber.

They never quite found that ideal lineup though, but as you can see, it wasn't for lack of trying. Fast forward seven seasons, and the same holds true today. Contrary to popular belief, the Eagles have tried -- but failed -- to assemble a stable group of linebackers.

It's the number of attempts that make this such a sad tale.

PART I
Our story begins like so many do, with the draft.

Believe it or not, the Eagles used second round picks on Barry Gardner and Quinton Caver in Reid's first three seasons, although neither materialized. Of course, Reid was not the head of personnel during those early years, a detail worthy of this footnote. (However, Reid was promoted to executive VP of football operations shortly after the '01 draft, which suggests he may have had a great deal of influence over that class.)

The next three years, Reid stayed true to perceptions. The only pick the Eagles spent on a linebacker between '02 and '04 was sixth-rounder Tyreo Harrison, who never started a game. Instead, they visited the free agent well periodically, fruitlessly dipping their bucket into a puddle until there was nothing left on the roster but cast-offs. They weren't developing ANYBODY.

Finally, Reid decided it was time to start rebuilding the linebacker corps, which naturally is where our story takes a turn for depressing. The blueprint for the next three drafts was intended to produce a group that would anchor the defense for the next decade... but not one of these guys is still here today.

    2007 - Stewart Bradley (3)
    2006 - Chris Gocong (3), Omar Gaither (5)
    2005 - Matt McCoy (2), David Bergeron (7)

They flat out missed on McCoy, who was second-team All-MWC out of San Diego State. (Second-team!) Draft analysts were right on the money, describing the selection as a major reach. McCoy literally accomplished nothing during his rookie year, but they handed him the job at weakside the following season anyway. He lasted 10 games.

Even though McCoy was an unmitigated disaster, it often looked like they would get something out of the next two drafts. Gaither was starting in place of McCoy by the end of '06, and he took over for the departed Trotter at middle linebacker in '07 -- it wasn't really a fit, but he was okay. Gocong spent his rookie season on injured reserve, and his development came along slowly, in large part because he played defensive end during his days at Cal Poly.

The guy who put it all together was Bradley. After making only one start his rookie year, Bradley was installed as the middle linebacker for '08, with Gaither sliding back to weakside. It was largely a success. Gaither was eventually benched in favor of Akeem Jordan, but Gocong was playing tremendous football down the stretch. Bradley was responsible. With Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley up front, the 6-4, 258-lbs. Nebraska product was becoming a nightmare in the middle. It was easier for offenses to run away from him, and Gocong was one of the beneficiaries. Whoever was going to man the other side would work itself out, like it always had.

Introducing Flight Night, the fans' chance to watch an Eagles practice at the Linc. The team made the bus trip from their temporary home in Lehigh, interrupting an otherwise typical training camp, for what amounts to nonsense. What happens next just as easily could have happened on a field in Bethlehem, but a dark cloud hovers over the event to this day.

Bradley tore his ACL that night, his second. When he came back last season, nothing was the same. Gaither suffered a Lisfranc sprain that knocked him out of the picture shortly after. Gocong looked like he was playing out of position again, then was traded to Cleveland. Bradley himself didn't look like a guy destined to make multiple Pro Bowls, much less one, and when he later dislocated his elbow, the Eagles moved on. Bradley signed a big contract with Arizona, where he's started all of one game.

    2011 - Casey Matthews (4), Brian Rolle (6), Greg Lloyd (7)
    2010 - Keenan Clayton (4), Jamar Chaney (7)
    2009 - Moise Fokou (7)
    2008 - Joe Mays (6), Andy Studebaker (6)

Since those three drafts, the Eagles have added another eight linebackers through the entry process -- none higher than the fourth round. That may lend the appearance they haven't prioritized the position, but the reality is a front office can't dump second- and third-round draft picks into the same area year after year.

Not that we're advocating a "throw shit at the wall and see what sticks" mentality, either. Selling a fan base, much less themselves, on the idea Casey Matthews could start at middle linebacker from day one was offensive. However, they have been saddled with an unfortunate situation, particularly in these last two drafts. Can anybody honestly say the Eagles didn't need the defensive ends, safeties, and guard they took with five of their last six picks in the top three rounds?

PART II
Not a group prone to accepting excuses, fans asked why the Eagles didn't just sign a linebacker during this summer's free agency period when they were throwing all that money around? It's a fair question, often posed sarcastically as if the answer were a no-brainer. A fair response would be:

Who?

Prior to their shameful attempt to plug Matthews into the lineup, it was widely assumed Jamar Chaney would get the opportunity to reprise his role in the middle. Chaney drew rave reviews for his efforts in relief of Bradley late last season, and even once the coaches made it clear they liked Matthews there, you figured they could always go back to the way things were after that failed -- which it did, and they have.

And since moving back, Chaney has improved on an almost-weekly basis.
Had he been practicing there all summer, we might be seeing something
that more closely matched our expectations heading into this season.

Middle linebacker simply didn't feel like a problem they should throw a ton of money at. Paul Posluszny received six years at $42 million from Jacksonville, which most observers thought was outrageous. Stephen Tulloch, who the Eagles were rumored to be chasing at one point, signed a much more reasonable one-year deal with the Lions at $3.25 million. That couldn't have hurt, but it's not like Chaney is the root of the issue. Stewart Bradley was the next best option for their system, and Chaney outplayed him.

Somehow there was even less help available on the edges, where the Eagles are really hurting. Literally the only free agent outside linebacker who changed uniforms and has started more than half of his team's game is Thomas Howard -- and he didn't start one game the previous year on his old team, the Raiders. The rest were either franchised, stayed put, or have spent most of the season on the bench.

And in case you were wondering why the Eagles didn't try to get out in front of their depth issues from the very beginning, actually, they did. After Bradley went down on Flight Night, they eventually re-signed Trotter again mid-season. The Axe Man was finished, yet remarkably he was still better than Joe Mays. When that wasn't cutting it either, they traded for Will Witherspoon.

Witherspoon was sent from the Rams, who were in the midst of a pitiful 1-15 campaign, in exchange for rookie wide receiver Brandon Gibson and a fifth-round pick. He had played MIKE the previous three seasons, but Steve Spagnuolo moved him outside to make room for James Laurinitis. In his first game wearing midnight green, Spoon forced a fumble, and intercepted a pass he returned for a touchdown. The trade looked great at first, but the big plays were a tease. Witherspoon wasn't cut out for the middle in their system, and before long, he was making $5 million to play a good-not-great outside linebacker. He was released in a cost-cutting measure after the season.

Facing a depleted free agent market in the 2010 off-season, the Eagles tried their luck in a trade again, this time swapping for junk. Ernie Sims was the ninth overall pick in the '06 draft, a freakish athlete who hit deceptively hard for being a relatively small 6'0". They took him off the Lions for a fifth-round pick, a low-risk, high-reward proposition. It was entirely possible Sims' struggles at the pro level were in large part due to Detroit's franchise being so dysfunctional. His career got off to an impressive start, so maybe he would be revitalized playing on a better team. Unfortunately, Sims became better known for taking dumb, unnecessary penalties, and the front office showed no interest in re-signing him at the end of the year.

In hindsight, they probably would have been better off overpaying Witherspoon, or even holding on to Gocong, who at the time he was dealt seemed like little more than a throw-in on the Sheldon Brown trade to Cleveland for second- and fifth-round picks. Both at least are NFL starters.

With that in mind, the organization clearly mismanaged the situation, choosing to rely on inexperienced, late-round draft picks to fill out their linebackers when the rest of the roster was allegedly geared up to make a Super Bowl run. They seemed like semi-sensible moves at the time, with reasonable explanations behind the decision making, but every time the team tried to cover up another injury, another underachieving draft pick, or another low-reward acquisition, they were only making the situation progressively worse.

But they did try. Oh, how they tried. The problem wasn't Andy Reid's Eagles didn't value linebackers. The problem all along is they were neither lucky nor very good at putting a core group together.

* As several comments added, Keith Adams started in the Super Bowl. This was because Simoneau was injured in Week 17, and was not 100% in time for the big game. Simoneau was the "regular" starter for most of the season.

MLB Notes: Rangers' Rougned Odor's suspension reduced to 7 games

052716_mackanin_slide.jpg

MLB Notes: Rangers' Rougned Odor's suspension reduced to 7 games

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor started serving his suspension Friday for punching Toronto's Jose Bautista after the penalty was reduced from eight to seven games.

Odor was out of the lineup for the series opener against Pittsburgh. He will be eligible to return June 4 when Texas is home against Seattle.

Bautista was suspended one game, and he was serving that Friday, when the penalty was upheld a day after his appeal was heard.

The Rangers promoted former top prospect Jurickson Profar from Triple-A Round Rock, and he was in the lineup against the Pirates as the leadoff hitter playing second base. Odor had been leading off.

Odor's penalty was cut by Major League Baseball special assistant John McHale Jr. The appeal over Odor's role in a May 15 brawl between the Rangers and Blue Jays was heard Tuesday. The league disciplined 14 players and staff over the melee in Arlington (see full story).

Red Sox: Struggling RHP Clay Buchholz to bullpen
TORONTO -- Struggling Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz is being moved to the bullpen and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez will take Buchholz's spot in the rotation, starting Tuesday at Baltimore.

Buchholz is 2-5 with a 6.35 ERA in 10 starts and has allowed five earned runs or more six times. He gave up season-highs of six runs and three home runs in Thursday's 8-2 loss to Colorado.

Rodriguez (right knee) is on the 15-day DL has not pitched for the Red Sox this season. He's 0-3 with a 3.54 ERA in five rehab starts at Triple-A Pawtucket. He went 10-6 with a 3.85 ERA as a rookie in 2015.

Buchholz has made two career relief appearances, one in his rookie season in 2007 and another in 2008.

Manager John Farrell said Buchholz will make multi-inning appearances in order to remain stretched out and could return to the rotation later in the season.

NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

052716_okafor_noel_slide.jpg

NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

BOX SCORE

TORONTO -- LeBron James scored 33 points, Kevin Love had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to their second straight NBA Finals by beating the Toronto Raptors 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night.

It's the third finals appearance in team history for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lost to Golden State in six games last year and got swept by San Antonio in 2007.

For James, it's his sixth straight trip to the finals, including four with Miami. He broke the 30-point barrier for the first time this postseason and finished with 11 rebounds and six assists.

"We needed LeBron to set the tone for us early and I thought he did that," coach Tyronn Lue said.

James will be the eighth player in NBA history to appear in six consecutive finals and the first who didn't play for the Boston Celtics.

"He's just a great player," Lue said. "He's a proven winner. He's always won over the course of his career. To go to six straight finals is unbelievable."

James got there by taking down a Toronto team that set a franchise record with 56 wins and reached the conference finals for the first time in 21 seasons.

After a second-quarter dunk, James shared some verbal barbs with rapper Drake, the Raptors' global ambassador and the man who popularized the nickname `6ix' for Toronto.

Kyrie Irving had 30 points and J.R. Smith added 15 for the Cavaliers, who will face the winner of the Golden State-Oklahoma City series on Thursday.

Cleveland would open at home against the Thunder but would be on the road against the 73-win Warriors, who trail 3-2 against Oklahoma City heading into Saturday's Game 6.

The Cavs will be seeking to end Cleveland's 52-year championship drought, the longest by any city with at least three professional teams. No Cleveland team has won it all since the Browns blanked Baltimore 27-0 to win the NFL championship in 1964.

"This city has been craving a championship," Lue said. "We have the right team and we have the right talent."

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points and DeMar DeRozan had 20 as the deepest playoff run in Raptors team history ended, much to the disappointment of a sellout crowd of 20,605 dressed in red and white T-shirts that formed a maple leaf pattern on either side of the court. Fans stood and cheered "Let's go, Raptors! Let's go, Raptors!" throughout most of the final three minutes.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said reaching the conference finals was "a tremendous learning experience" for his young team, one that's "a step ahead" in its process of becoming a championship contender.

"We're learning," Casey said. "We're not where (the Cavaliers) are right now. We're going to be."

A dejected Lowry said it was hard to see the positive side of Toronto's best season ever.

"Of course you're going to look back at some point but right now I'm disappointed," he said. "Simple as that, I'm disappointed."

Toronto prolonged the series with back-to-back home wins in Games 3 and 4 but never mounted much of a challenge to the conference champions in Game 6, falling behind by 21 in the third quarter.

The Cavaliers came in 0-4 at Air Canada Centre counting the regular season and playoffs, but looked much more like the team that handed the Raptors a trio of lopsided losses in Cleveland this series.

The Raptors trailed 88-78 on a jumper by DeRozan with 10:23 remaining but James scored six points in a 14-3 run that gave the Cavs a 102-81 lead with about 6 minutes left.

James scored 14 in the first and five of Cleveland's nine field goals were from long range as the Cavaliers led 31-25 after one.

After video review, the officials waved off a basket by Biyombo with 3:18 left in the period and gave him a flagrant foul for knocking down Love.

Tempers flared again early in the second when Richard Jefferson reacted angrily to catching an elbow from Jonas Valanciunas as the two battled for a rebound. Patrick Patterson came over and shoved Jefferson out of the way. Both Patterson and Jefferson were given technical fouls.

Cleveland made five more 3-pointers in the second and outscored Toronto 9-3 over the final 71 seconds to lead 55-41 at halftime. The Cavaliers made 10 of 15 3-point attempts in the first half, while Toronto was 2 of 12.

The Cavs led 78-57 after a 3 by Love at 3:53 of the third but Lowry scored 15 points as Toronto closed the quarter with a 17-8 run, cutting it to 86-74.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: Shot 17 for 31 from 3-point range. ... Outscored Toronto 17-5 in fast break points.

Raptors: Finished their playoff run by playing every other day from April 29 onward, a 15-game run that started with Game 6 of the first round against Indiana.

NFL Notes: Jets' offer to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stands at 3 years

052716_wentz_slide.jpg

NFL Notes: Jets' offer to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stands at 3 years

NEW YORK -- A person familiar with the negotiations says the New York Jets made a three-year offer to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in March that includes $12 million guaranteed in the first year.

That offer has remained on the table for Fitzpatrick, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither side is commenting publicly on the negotiations.

The New York Post first reported the terms of the offer Friday.

Fitzpatrick and the Jets have been locked in a contract stalemate. The 33-year-old quarterback is a free agent and coming off a season in which he threw a Jets-record 31 touchdown passes and led New York within a victory of the playoffs.

Both the Jets and Fitzpatrick have said they would like a reunion, but have unable to agree on a deal.

Bears: First-round pick Leonard Floyd agrees to deal
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears and first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd have agreed to a four-year contract with an option for a fifth year.

The Bears drafted the outside linebacker from Georgia with the ninth pick after trading up two spots in a deal with Tampa Bay. Chicago hopes he will add some athleticism to a team trying to build on a 6-10 season. The 6-foot-6, 244-pound Floyd led the Bulldogs in sacks for the third straight year with 4 , and tied for the team lead with 10 1/2 tackles for loss last season.

With the announcement Friday, the Bears have agreed to contracts with eight of their nine picks. Defensive end Jonathan Bullard, a third-rounder, is the exception.

NFL: Navy's Reynolds, Carter can defer military service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Keenan Reynolds will get his chance to play in the NFL this season.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Friday that the record-setting Navy quarterback Reynolds and fullback Chris Swain can defer their military service to play in the NFL.

Carter made the announcement during his graduation speech to the academy in Annapolis. As students cheered the news about their graduating classmates, Carter said: "Go get 'em."

Reynolds was drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Ravens. He is the NCAA's career leader in touchdowns with 88. He had 31 touchdown passes while leading Navy's triple-option offense. The Ravens plan to use him as a running back, receiver and kick returner.

Swain has signed with the San Diego Chargers (see full story).

Redskins: Activists criticize poll on team name
WASHINGTON -- Native American leaders and activists have criticized a recent US national poll that found nine of 10 Native Americans aren't offended by the Washington Redskins' name.

On a conference call held Friday by the National Congress of American Indians and "Change the Mascot" campaign, panelists voiced opposition to a Washington Post poll that surveyed 504 Native Americans, 90 percent of whom said the name doesn't bother them.

James Fenelon, a California State San Bernardino sociology professor, called the poll "immoral," adding it was not representative of Native American communities. Amanda Blackhorse, lead plaintiff in the trademark case against the Redskins, said the "misguided" poll will not affect attempts to change the name.

National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jackie Pata said: "This issue is not about polling. This issue is about human rights."

D.C. council member David Grosso said he hadn't been swayed and that the government would not support the team moving back into the District unless the name was changed.

The team currently plays its home games in Maryland, with its headquarters and training facility in Virginia.