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.

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Star Andrew McCutchen struggling in 2016

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Star Andrew McCutchen struggling in 2016

Phillies (45-53) vs. Pirates (49-47)
4:05 p.m. on CSN

After Zach Eflin threw his second complete game of his young career on Friday (see game story), Aaron Nola will look to follow it up with a strong start of his own. Opposing him will be the Pirates' top prospect, Tyler Glasnow, in a mid-afternoon matchup with the Phillies

Here's what you should look out for on Saturday.

1. McCutchen in a down season
There is no doubt who is the face of the Pirates' franchise right now. It's Andrew McCutchen.

The 29-year-old outfielder is a five-time All Star, four-time Silver Slugger, the 2013 National League MVP, and led the team that broke a 21-year playoff drought. He's one of the most marketable athletes in baseball right now and the type of player any team would want to build around.

But is he on the decline?

It's a legitimate question to ask. From 2012-2014, McCutchen was arguably the top position player in the National League, posting an average of at least .314, an on-base percentage of at least .400 and a slugging percentage of at least .911 each year.

But 2015 and 2016 have been different. He still hit 23 home runs in 2015 (his peak was 31 in 2012), but his stolen bases went down to 11, a career low, and he posted his lowest average, OBP and slugging percentages since 2011. He was still well above league average of course and the heart of the Pirates' lineup.

Yet 2016 has been possibly his worst yet. He is batting .244/.316/.408 and has an OPS+ of 93, seven worse than league average. He's already struck out 100 times in just 90 games after 133 strikeouts in 157 games last year. He has stolen just three bases and has been caught five times.

Quite simply, the numbers are troubling. He'll need to be a completely different player in the second half, starting very soon, to match his numbers from the past.

2. No runs Nola?
Nola's last start was a long time coming.

After a June in which nothing seemed to work for the righty, he finally seemed to figure things out after a 16-day layoff. He shut down the Marlins for six innings. He allowed just three base runners and no runs, striking out five.

Nola looked better than even his numbers indicate. He was cruising through five innings, having faced the minimum, but had to leave after six after taking a line drive off his throwing shoulder. Nothing to worry, as his exit was merely precautionary.

When the 23-year-old starter is on his game, it's thanks to a dynamite curveball that can produce swings and misses at a high rate. For all the talk of his opponent on Monday (Jose Fernandez), Nola's curve is one of the best in baseball and he used it to strike out five Marlins hitters. 

Where does he go from here? Well, it's tough to expect another shutout-type start, but Nola could be well-suited to face a righty-laden lineup like the Pirates. To truly shake off his bad June and worries about that liner to the arm, a second straight strong start would stave off any doubters.

3. Scouting Glasnow
Glasnow was the No. 10 prospect in all of baseball going into this year, according to MLB.com, so expectations are high for the 22-year-old making his second career start.

His MLB debut wasn't much to write home about. The 6-foot-8 righty took a loss while allowing four runs in 5 1/3 innings. He did strike out five St. Louis Cardinals in that start two weeks ago and two of the runs were let in by a reliever. He did surrender a home run, however.

So what does Glasnow offer in his repertoire that got him such a high prospect rating? Well, a mid-to-upper 90s fastball for one. His four-seamer is his calling card, already displaying an ability to blow hitters away with big league-esque stuff. 

Off-speed, he goes to a curveball and a changeup. Scouts believe his curve will be the better pitch in the long term, but he hasn't mastered either quite yet.

What Glasnow needs to live up to his billing as a top talent is command. It's unsurprising that a pitcher that tall would struggle with command early in his career, as many pitchers like Randy Johnson, Dellin Betances or others have done so as well. 

However, there are plenty of cautionary tales of tall pitchers who never quite figured out all the parts of their motion and couldn't cut it in the majors. Glasnow gets his second chance to stick in the MLB after a couple weeks in the minors. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Odubel Herrera isn't hitting .300 like he was to start the year, but his 3 for 5 night on Friday propelled the Phils to a much-needed victory. Can he keep up the same momentum against a rookie like Glasnow?

Pirates: Starling Marte this year has been, well, a star. His .311 batting average leads the Pirates and his .459 slugging percentage has made him an active part in the Buccos' middle of the order.

5. This and that
• Nola is much better away from Citzens Bank Park. He is 2-6 and allows an opposing OPS of .771 at home while he is 3-2 and allows just a .607 OPS on the road. He's allowed nine home runs at CBP as opposed to just one on the road, in an equal number of starts.

• Neither Nola nor Glasnow have faced the opposing team before Saturday.

• McCutchen hits the Phillies well historically. He has a .301/.371/5.14 triple slash against the Phillies to go with seven home runs and 10 doubles. 

• In 107 at-bats over 32 games at PNC Park, Ryan Howard is batting just .187 with just three extra base hits (two home runs and a double).

Five Eagles with the most at stake during training camp

Five Eagles with the most at stake during training camp

Training camp officially kicks off on July 25, when rookies, QBs and select vets report. Three days later the Eagles have their first full team practice. 

For the weeks after that, the team will be formed, and we’ll finally get a better understanding of the 2016 Eagles. Some players will definitely make the roster. Some already have their starting positions locked up. 

Then there are the players with the most to prove during the few-week camp. There are way more than five guys who need to impress during August. There are players who will make the team and who will lose the team, who will win starting gigs and lose them. 

But here are five on the roster that I’ll be watching closely: 

Josh Huff
Huff is a curious case. He’s super talented; he really is. He just hasn’t figured it out yet, and it’s fair to wonder if he ever will. He’s going into his third season and has just 35 catches in his first two years. There’s a chance he could win a starting job. Then again, there’s a chance he could lose his roster spot, though that’s probably much less likely. In Doug Pederson’s offense, receivers get moved around a lot, something Chip Kelly refused to do. I’d like to see Huff be given a chance to play in the slot. Obviously, Jordan Matthews has shined in that position, but if he lines up outside, Huff might be a good fit. 

Chris Pantale
During the spring, Pantale often lined up as a fullback with the first team, which meant the Eagles want to see if he can be a lead blocker. But training camp is where they’ll find out. Can he take a hit? Can he deliver one to a linebacker? The coaching staff will be looking to answer those questions. If Pantale can prove he’s a capable fullback, he can earn a spot on the roster and force the Eagles to either keep four tight ends or cut Trey Burton, who will also be given a shot to prove himself as a fullback. 

Isaac Seumalo
Through no fault of his own, the rookie offensive lineman is behind. The third-round pick was stuck at Oregon State because of the arcane NCAA graduation rule and missed all of OTAs. “I definitely think that will be tough for him,” Allen Barbre said when asked about Seumalo’s catching up this summer. For now, Barbre is the starting left guard, but Seumalo — along with Stefen Wisniewksi — will have a chance to challenge him for the position during camp. 

Eric Rowe
During OTAs and the mandatory minicamp, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks were the Eagles’ two starting cornerbacks, and Rowe came on the field as an outside corner in the nickel package, while Brooks slid into the slot. That means Rowe isn’t really a starter after he came on strong as a rookie a year ago. He’ll have to have a good camp to retake his starting job.  

Kenjon Barner
Barner looked pretty good this spring. In fact, he even took some first-team reps at running back. But that doesn’t mean he has a job locked up. Last season, he was the fourth running back behind DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. This year, with Murray gone, he’s in the mix with Mathews, Sproles and rookie Wendell Smallwood. Will the Eagles keep four backs again? If they do, Barner has a very good shot to be on the team. But if the Eagles keep three, they might elect to keep a promising fifth-rounder in Smallwood over him. 

Team USA overpowers Argentina in 1st Olympic exhibition

Team USA overpowers Argentina in 1st Olympic exhibition

LAS VEGAS -- New team. Same old result.

Full of new star power -- and dominant on the inside -- the U.S. men's basketball team opened its bid for a third straight Olympic gold medal Friday night with a 111-74 exhibition romp over Argentina.

A game that was over almost before it began showed the U.S. has to improve its shooting and conditioning. It also showed that there is plenty of talent among a group of players that seem to want to play well for each other and their country despite the absence of Olympic stalwarts Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

"There's a willingness from these guys to work on anything we need and to work hard," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "These are very good guys."

A U.S. team that hasn't lost a game in 10 years had little trouble with Argentina, which some consider a medal contender in Rio. Paul George scored 14 first-half points, Kevin Durant added 12, and the U.S. blew open the game early before an appreciative crowd on the Las Vegas Strip.

Even with Bryant retired and James taking this Olympics off, there was no real talent drop off on a team heavily favored to win gold once again. The depth of the U.S. showed as coach Mike Krzyzewski rotated players in and out, searching for the right combinations on a team with 10 new players from 2012.

"Nothing is for sure," Durant said. "We want to get this gold and right now we have a job to do. We have to prepare the right way."

Count the Argentines among those who were impressed at the first real game for the Olympic team.

"Obviously, they have the best talent and the best size in the world," Argentina's Luis Scola said. "That's a big difference in their favor."

The game was the first of five exhibitions the U.S. will play before traveling to Rio to defend the gold medal. The U.S. team has spent the last week practicing in Las Vegas in preparation for the tour and the games.

There weren't any opening night jitters, though the U.S. shot only 45 percent and missed all but 14 of 41 3-pointers. With DeMarcus Cousins pulling down 15 rebounds in just 16 minutes, the U.S. dominated inside, outrebounding Argentina 53-30.

"The big thing is getting in shape and they are not there where they will be," Krzyzewski said. "But we really have an inside presence on the boards."

For Durant the game was a chance to play with a pair of his new Golden State teammates, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. It was also a chance for Durant and Carmelo Anthony -- the only two players from the 2012 team -- to demonstrate that this will be their team in Rio.

Both players cheered from the bench as the minutes were spread around, jumping up to clap for teammates. Every U.S. player got quality time, with Green's 12 minutes the least played by any American.

"We're going to have fun and we're going to enjoy ourselves," Anthony said. "If it's not fun it's not worth it. We're going to enjoy ourselves but at the same time we're going to be focused in trying to get that gold medal."

Durant finished as the game's high scorer with 23 points, while George had 18 and Carmelo Anthony 17. Andres Nocioni had 15 for Argentina, while Manu Ginobili added 11 for Argentina, which lost to the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics.

Though at times little defense was played, there was plenty of offense to keep the crowd at the new T-Mobile Arena happy. The teams combined to put up 70 3-point attempts, 41 of them from the U.S.

Oddsmakers had made the U.S. a prohibitive 29.5-point favorite in what at times looked a lot like an NBA All-Star game. But while the U.S. team is loaded with 12 NBA players, the Argentines had only three on their roster and the talent difference showed.

While the team is full of new players, the gold medal run will be the last for Krzyzewski, the national coach for the last decade. His teams have lost only one game during his reign, which will end after the Olympics with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich taking over.