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 sign OF Daniel Nava, LHP Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts

Phillies sign OF Daniel Nava, LHP Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts

The Phillies made a couple quiet additions as the winter meetings ended, signing veteran outfielder Daniel Nava and lefty reliever Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts.

Nava, 34 in February, is a left-handed hitter who can play the outfield corners and first base. He came up with the Red Sox and became a fan favorite in Boston in 2010 as a 27-year-old rookie. Some Phillies fans will remember him for hitting a grand slam off Joe Blanton in his first major-league plate appearance.

Nava had a few decent years in Boston, the best of which was 2013, when he had 536 plate appearances and hit .303/.385/.445 with 29 doubles, 12 homers and 66 RBIs. 

Nava's numbers and opportunities have dropped every year since. He was designated for assignment by Boston in 2015, latched on with the Rays, signed the next year with the Angels and was traded late in the season to the Royals.

Over the last two seasons, Nava has hit just .208, albeit with an on-base percentage 99 points higher because of his 30 walks and 10 hit by pitches.

Burnett, 34, has spent five of the last seven seasons in the Nationals' bullpen. He had a 2.85 ERA in 283 appearances from 2009-12 and parlayed that success into a two-year, $7.25 million contract with the Angels. However, he barely pitched in 2013 and 2014 for the Halos because of an elbow tear. He returned to the Nats last season and allowed two runs in 5⅔ innings.

Burnett, perhaps more so than Nava, has a chance to fill a role with the Phillies if he can stay healthy. He's shown he can get outs at the highest level, posting a 2.38 ERA in 2012 with 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.14 ERA with 8.9 K/9 in 2010. That was a long time ago now, and Burnett's fastball has dipped from averaging 90-91 mph to 88.

According to Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith, Burnett will receive a $1.25 million salary if he makes the team and can earn another $1.75 million in incentives based on his number of appearances.

Burnett has an opt-out date of March 26, meaning he can become a free agent a week before the regular season begins if it looks to him like he isn't in the Phils' plans.

Nava's chances at cracking the opening-day roster seem longer because the Phillies are expected to make more depth signings between now and the start of camp. They've prioritized finding some offense in the corner outfield and that could come in the form of more minor-league deals, a guaranteed contract or trade. One potential fit I examined last week was Mariners outfielder Seth Smith, a hitter more proven than Nava (see story).

These minor-league deals were commonplace for Phillies general manager Matt Klentak last offseason, when the only free agent he signed to a major-league deal was reliever David Hernandez. 

Last season, three players who were signed to minor-league deals with invites to spring training made the team on opening day: outfielder Cedric Hunter, utilityman Emmanuel Burriss and reliever James Russell.

Others, such as former closers Edward Mujica, Ernesto Frieri and Andrew Bailey, failed to make the team out of camp. Bailey eventually earned a call-up; the other two didn't.

Former Sixer Lou Williams lighting it up with Lakers off the bench

Former Sixer Lou Williams lighting it up with Lakers off the bench

Former Sixers point guard and Meek Mill collaborator Lou Williams is enjoying quite the run off the bench for the Lakers recently.

Over Los Angeles' last four games, Williams has posted totals of 40, 38, 24, and 35 points. 

The six-man is averaging 34.5 points per game over the stretch, and his 137 points are the most off the bench in a four-game span by any player since 1970-71, when stats were first recorded, per Elias Sports Bureau, via ESPN. Williams is now averaging 19.3 points this season, which is 4.4 more than his highest average with the Sixers.

Williams isn’t the only player who used to play for the Sixers that is playing well for the Lakers this year. Nick “Swaggy P” Young, who also comes off the bench, is averaging 13.3 points per game. Just a few weeks ago, Swaggy P stole a pass intended for Lou Williams, and then proceeded to hit a game winner against the Thunder. Swaggy P, however, is currently sidelined with a right calf strain, but is getting closer to a return.

"Lou Will" was also talked about last April during Kobe Bryant’s final NBA game, when he was beefing on Twitter with another former Philadelphia athlete, LeSean McCoy.