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Mychal Kendricks picked up 75 tackles and a sack as a rookie starter for the Eagles last year. (AP)
Lining up players in various roles to cause guesswork for the opponent isn’t limited to just Chip Kelly’s offense. It was apparent Thursday night that defensive coordinator Bill Davis has some moveable parts who can cause problems in more ways than one.
The most obvious is linebacker Mychal Kendricks, a second-year inside linebacker who started as a rookie. Kendricks spent a good deal of his first-half action chasing down ball carriers and shooting through A gaps to make Cam Newton uneasy in the pocket.
He also happens to be the team’s best cover linebacker, which naturally creates a drop-or-cover conundrum for Kelly and Davis to parse each week.
“He's a very, very athletic linebacker, and he's arguably our most athletic linebacker,” Kelly said. “So that is a quandary for you. Do you want to bring him and create pressure or do you bring the other guys and leave him in coverage? But I think his ability to do both, that versatility, is going to be key for us.”
Kendricks’ development in his second camp, and first without an inconvenient defensive line scheme before him, is one reason to be encouraged that the Eagles can win back the fan base of a defensive-minded franchise that lost its identity.
DeMeco Ryans, an aging but sound veteran, provided the team with its best 4-3 inside linebacker play since Jeremiah Trotter manned the position (the first time), but Ryans’ coverage doesn’t wow anyone. An effective 3-4 scheme requires someone from the inside to run side-by-side with tight ends and be nimble enough to get from one sideline to the other without getting jammed in the traffic across the middle.
Kendricks struggled at times in last year’s scheme, particularly when offensive linemen who outweighed him by at least 50 pounds were given a free ride into the second level. Against the Panthers on Thursday night, he faced few obstructions and swarmed to his gaps, a credit to the front three.
“It all depends on what they try and do,” Kendricks said. “It is preseason and there is nothing really on film for us to be watching and right now it is about us going out there and using your rules and tools and just playing ball.”
Last year, Kendricks could probably count on one hand the number of times his number got dialed in the pass rush. Against the Panthers, who have moderate threats at tight end, Davis unleashed him about a half-dozen times.
Other times, Kendricks showed blitz but dropped into coverage, a wrinkle unseen from the defense in the preseason opener against New England. It seems that Kendricks can be the centerpiece of a weekly cat-and-mouse game between Davis and the opposing offensive coordinator.
“Well, they know someone’s coming, they just don’t know who,” Kendricks said. “They know someone’s dropping, they just don’t know who. That’s part of the benefits of being in this defense, is that there is a lot of schemes you could deal with.”
Davis has one more preseason game, perhaps two, to figure out his entire personnel and see where each guy best fits and which schemes best match the personnel. One way or another, Kendricks’ strengths will be capitalized.
We just don’t yet know how. Which is by design.
“I am still excited to see what we can do with this defense,” Kendricks said. “We haven’t seen anything. There is stuff we haven’t even put in.”