Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 2, Linebacker

Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 2, Linebacker

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the previous installments on the cornerbacks, defensive line, specialists, wide receivers, offensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and  running backs.

With NFL free agency set to open at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, we are appropriately getting down to the true must-have additions the Eagles need to make this offseason. There’s just one problem: free agency doesn’t provide many answers for the Birds in terms of pass-rush help.

Philadelphia’s 37 sacks ranked 20th out of 32 teams in 2013 and were only six more than last place, compared to a whopping 23 behind first-place Carolina. To make matters worse, Trent Cole—the club’s leading sack artist last season with 8.0—is 31-years-old and has shown signs of slowing down.

Free agency is not the solution though. When Washington’s Brian Orakpo and Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds received the franchise tag from their respective teams, that took the two most natural fits at outside linebacker for Philly’s 3-4 off the table. Behind them, the market is pretty barren. Meanwhile, according to Tim McManus for the Birds 24/7 blog, the Eagles also looked into Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson, but he’ll cost too much.

Which brings us to the second and more prominent issue. Were the Eagles ever going to be a serious landing spot for any big-name pass-rushers in free agency?

Philadelphia already has $15 million wrapped up in three outside linebackers for 2014, and the starting jobs at the position are essentially promised.

Signed as a free agent last offseason, Connor Barwin turned out to be a perfect fit for the Birds’ scheme. He only recorded 5.0 sacks in ’13, but he also dropped into coverage more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker in the league. A strong run defender as well, Barwin does a little bit of everything and is in no danger of losing his spot any time soon.

As for Cole, some believed he could be a candidate for replacement this year, but sheer economics likely did not allow it. The two-time Pro Bowler is slated to take up $6.6 million in cap space in ’14, whereas cutting or trading him would only free up $1.8 million. With nearly 75 percent of the cap hit for Cole turning into dead money if he isn’t on the roster, the organization would undoubtedly prefer to get something for that amount.

And it’s not as if Cole is bad. All 8.0 of his sacks last season came in the second half, suggesting it took the converted defensive end a little while to get used to rushing the passer from his new position. He also remains a strong run defender, and wasn’t a total liability the handful of times he was asked to drop into coverage.

Where would any new, high-priced outside linebacker have played in Philly? The Eagles can be free of Cole at a much more reasonable cost next year if they desire, so having three that demand heavy playing time was conceivably only an issue for the short-term.

Good luck convincing any big-name free agent to come here for that though, or convincing the Eagles are as desperate as a team with a more immediate hole there.

The Birds will attempt to add a rotational pass-rusher through free agency, if for no other reason than depth. The team ran with just three outside linebackers on the 53-man roster last season and was fortunate not to run into injuries along the way.

I like Mike Neal from the Green Bay Packers. He’s 6’3”, 285 pounds, 26-years-old and racked up 9.5 sacks over the past two seasons in a situational role. He also has tremendous versatility that head coach Chip Kelly loves, having spent a lot of time at defensive end in Green Bay’s 3-4 as well.

Seattle’s O’Brien Schofield and Washington’s Rob Jackson would also fit the bill.

As far as a legitimate upgrade for Cole is concerned, that will likely come from the draft. While the Birds aren’t expected to have a shot at top pass-rushers Khalil Mack out of Buffalo or Anthony Barr from UCLA, there are a number of intriguing prospects that will be available to the Birds in rounds 1-3.

Auburn’s Dee Ford, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, Stanford’s Trent Murphy, Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu and Louisville’s Marcus Smith are among the potential fits for the Birds on days one and two of the draft. That group isn’t as complete as Mack or Barr, but they’ll have a year to learn behind true professionals Cole and Barwin while providing situational pass-rush relief.

With few other options on the table, that’s the apparent solution to the Eagles’ pass-rushing woes.

 

Trade Block: Brandon Graham

You may have noticed by now we have accounted for Brandon Graham in the mix at outside linebacker. That’s because if the Eagles’ front office is wise, they will recognize now is the time to move the former 13th overall selection in the draft.

Graham could actually help the Birds’ pass rush if there were more opportunities to play. He had just 3.0 sacks in ’13, but in a limited role. According to metrics site Pro Football Focus, Graham had 24 quarterback pressures on 158 rushes, making him the seventh-most productive pass-rusher among qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers.

The problem, other than lack of playing time, is he doesn’t particularly fit the scheme. Graham is not going to play over Cole, and I’m not sure you ever want him dropping into coverage.

Graham could potentially start for another team in a 4-3 defense though. He’s a been a highly-productive pass-rusher for the past two seasons since finishing his rehabilitation from microfracture surgery in 2010, racking up 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles while playing only a fraction of the defensive snaps.

Let’s face it, nobody is going to give up a ton to acquire Graham at this point. He has value though. If the Eagles could get a mid-round pick, say in the fourth, for Graham, that would have to be considered a win.

Philadelphia will have to eat over $3 million in dead money if they move Graham, but at least they would get something in return. Or he can stay in Philly, continue to play roughly 25 percent of the time and we can all never really feel comfortable with him doing some of things the scheme demands.

 

On the inside

With so much of the focus (rightfully) placed on pass-rushing, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Eagles aren’t exactly set at interior linebacker, either. DeMeco Ryans is coming off of a solid season and could be considered the heart and soul of Philadelphia’s D right now, but he turns 30 this year and is making a butt-load of money.

Some would argue Ryans isn’t even a three-down linebacker right now. While he did set career highs with 4.0 sacks and two interceptions in ’13, nobody would argue those areas are his forte.

Ryans gets by in coverage by being in good position, but as his speed diminishes, so does his usefulness in open space. He’s certainly not the most effective pass-rusher—in fact, according to Pro Football Focus he was the least effective among interior linebackers last season.

And let’s not forget, he’s making $6.8 million per year and is set to become a free agent after ’15.

There’s no need to try to replace Ryans immediately or anything. He’s still better than serviceable and plays an important role in the huddle.

Clearly it’s time to start thinking about the future at least.

2012 second-round pick Mychal Kendricks continued to experience some hiccups in year two, but overall had a decent sophomore campaign. Kendricks is not perfect in coverage and misses some tackles, but he’s proven he can be a dynamic playmaker in Bill Davis’ defense, finishing ’13 with 4.0 sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles.

The only thing to watch with Kendricks is he will undoubtedly want a contract extension next offseason, so this will be an important year in terms of determining his value. Expect him to be in midnight green for awhile though.

There’s plenty of depth behind them as well. Emmanuel Acho, Najee Goode, Jake Knott, Casey Matthews and Jason Phillips will vie for backup/special teams spots this summer.

However, none of them are likely candidates to take over for Ryans long-term.

That person is likely to come from the draft, perhaps even early on. While it would be somewhat surprising to see the Eagles use a first-round pick on an interior linebacker—that kind of premium generally isn’t placed on the position around the league except in rare cases—day two of the draft is not out of the question.

Stanford’s Shayne Skov, Florida State’s Christian Jones and LSU’s Lamin Barrow are among the top names to watch. They’re all mid-round prospects coming out of football factories that produce good defenses.

No matter what happens, Ryans’ days with the Eagles are likely numbered. He could be asked to restructure his contract next year if the front office fails to unearth an all-out replacement, but even then it’s hard to envision No. 59 patrolling the middle beyond 2015. The Eagles must continue to get younger at linebacker.

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

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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

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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

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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.