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.

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

In the wake of the Sam Bradford trade, the Eagles' announcement a week before the opener that Carson Wentz would start Week 1 was met with some skepticism and overwhelmingly tempered expectations.

But it looks like the kid can play.

And the Eagles aren’t just looking smart for drafting and playing Wentz. They’re also looking pretty smart for filling their coaching staff and quarterback room with decades of quarterback experience.

“It's a tight room,” head coach Doug Pederson said.

It’s also a knowledgeable one.

Pederson is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo is a former college quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. And backup Chase Daniel has been in the league since 2009 and in Pederson’s offense since 2013.

If Wentz has a question, he has plenty of guys to ask. And it seems like this support system, which at one time looked like overkill, might be one of the keys that has allowed the rookie to take the NFL by storm.

“There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt,” the veteran backup Daniel said. “Obviously, he’s a very bright young mind, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the coaching in the quarterback room has played a good part into his maturation and his bringing along so fast. There’s no doubt about it.”

Through three games, Wentz has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 769 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He's the first rookie in NFL history to put up those numbers in the first three games of a career. Oh yeah, and the Eagles are 3-0.

It’s hard to believe that about a month ago, Wentz was gearing up for a redshirt year as the third quarterback behind Sam Bradford and Daniel. Now, he isn’t just the future franchise quarterback. He is the franchise quarterback.

And Wentz gives his quarterback-heavy coaching staff plenty of credit.

“It’s huge having them,” Wentz said. “I could never say enough how much they understand the game. They get it. They know what it’s like. As a former quarterback, they know what I’m going through and how I’m seeing things, so it’s been huge.”

The Eagles were clearly smitten with Wentz from the time they saw him in Alabama for the Senior Bowl. Eventually, de facto GM Howie Roseman was able to maneuver to the No. 2 pick to draft Wentz.

But Wentz went No. 2 and not No. 1, so it’s almost impossible to not peek over at Los Angeles and see how first overall pick Jared Goff is doing. So far, he isn’t doing much of anything. It doesn’t mean that eventually Goff won’t be a good quarterback, but through three games, he’s been inactive once and hasn’t yet played. The Rams are sticking with Case Keenum for now.

NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling compared the support system for Goff with the Rams and Wentz's with the Eagles. We’ll take a deeper look into what he started:

Rams
• Head coach Jeff Fisher: Defensive coach

• OC Rob Boras: Never a QB coach; coached tight ends in NFL from 2004-15

• QB Coach Chris Weinke: Former NFL QB for seven seasons; was highly-thought of QB draft guru with IMG academy for four years

• Vet QB Case Keenum: In league since 2012; best QB he's played with is Matt Schaub

Eagles
• Head coach Doug Pederson: 12 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Philly; OC in KC

• OC Frank Reich: 14 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Indy with Peyton Manning in 2009-10; QB coach and OC in San Diego

• QB Coach: John DeFilippo: College QB; QBs coach at Fordham, Columbia; QBs coach with Raiders, Jets, OC with Browns

• Vet QB Chase Daniel: In league since 2009; learned under Drew Brees; has been in Pederson's offense since 2013

It’s very possible if Wentz becomes a great quarterback that other teams copy the Eagles’ quarterback-heavy approach.

But it’s not just about getting a bunch of smart people and a talented rookie in the same room. Everything else has to work. The rookie has to be a diligent learner and all of the teachers have to check their egos and work together.

“I let John (DeFilippo), I let the quarterback coach run the meeting,” Pederson said. “If I interject, I interject. The way it works is I send my message through Frank (Reich), Frank through the position coaches. At the same time, if I want to interject something, I will interject. Just making sure there's one voice in the meeting room and they are not hearing three different answers from three different people, the message is the same.”

Practice squad quarterback Aaron Murray, who joined the team a couple weeks ago, thinks the quarterback room has “definitely” helped Wentz achieve his early success. While he is just a practice-squader, go ahead and add Murray — who was in the offense for two years in Kansas City — to the list of quarterback minds happy to help Wentz.

Murray, a fifth-rounder out of Georgia in 2014, has been impressed with Wentz’s ability to pick up protections and schemes at a young age. He compared him to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in that regard. While Murray, along with everyone else, is happy to give Wentz tips, he tries to not overload him.

“You still want him to just go out there and play,” he said.

Murray is the newcomer to the room, but he’s been impressed with the dynamic so far. He’s not the only one. It looks like this quarterback experiment might just work.

“It’s awesome. It’s great,” Daniel said. “Everyone has a say in there and everyone in the room, it’s pretty crazy, everyone in the room, really except Carson, has been around it, has been in it and played. Obviously, he’s played, but been around for a while. He’s just a sponge, he’s just taking it all in.

“Maybe some stuff he doesn’t need to take in. Maybe some stuff he wants to do his own way, which is great. You want your own personality out there. But yeah, he’s been great. It’s been great for us too as players. We have almost a 2-to-1 coach-to-player ratio. It’s been great. Everyone has little tidbits here and there and we roll.”

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Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies’ bullpen continued its ugly, late-season collapse on Tuesday night. It was tagged for six runs in a 7-6 loss to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves rallied for the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).
 
The loss came two days after the bullpen gave up 14 earned runs in four innings in a 17-0 loss to the New York Mets on Sunday and it left manager Pete Mackanin more than a little bit frustrated.
 
“The bullpen has just not been doing the job,” Mackanin said.
 
Jerad Eickhoff gave up just one run (on a solo homer by Freddie Freeman) over four walk-free innings to open the game. He was up 6-1 after four innings when the rains came and stopped the game for an hour and 53 minutes.
 
With Eickhoff bounced by the weather, Mackanin had to go to his bullpen. He used four relievers — Severino Gonzalez, Luis Garcia, Joely Rodriguez and David Hernandez — and all gave up runs.
 
Phillies relievers have pitched 77 1/3 innings this month and allowed 69 earned runs for an ERA of 8.03. So that’s one more thing Matt Klentak has to fix this winter, along with the offense that Mackanin wants to see addressed (see story).
 
Ultimately, Hernandez took the loss when he gave up three hits and a run in the bottom of the eighth. The other run in the inning was charged to Rodriguez.
 
As unbelievable as it may sound with rosters being expanded in September, the Phillies played this game shorthanded.
 
They did not have reliever Edubray Ramos. He had a sore elbow, Mackanin said.
 
They did not have outfielder Peter Bourjos, who had gone home to be with his wife for the birth of their child.
 
They also did not have outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who is out with a concussion.
 
Not having Bourjos or Goeddel forced Mackanin to use Darin Ruf in left field after Roman Quinn went out with an oblique injury in the sixth inning. Ruf failed to make a catch on a long fly ball by Tyler Flowers to the gap in left-center. The non-play extended the eighth inning and fueled the Braves’ comeback.
 
“It should have been caught,” Mackanin said. “If Quinn's out there, he catches it. He wasn't out there.”
 
Hernandez was the only free agent that the Phillies signed to a major-league contract this winter. The Phillies signed him with an eye toward using him as the closer. But Hernandez struggled much of the season and slipped into the middle innings while Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez rose to high-leverage roles.
 
Gomez lost the closer’s job last week and Mackanin was saving Neris to close out this game. That meant Hernandez had to pitch the eighth. He couldn’t protect the lead. He gave up the game-tying hit to Mallex Smith and the go-ahead hit to Emilio Bonafacio.
 
“Neris was going to close for us,” Mackanin said. “I thought about using him with two outs in the eighth. But, at some point, somebody else has to do a (bleeping) job. Somebody else has to (bleeping) step up. In two games now, every reliever I brought in has given up a (bleeping) run. That's unheard of.”
 
The bullpen’s unraveling threw cold (rain) water on Eickhoff’s solid start and Ryan Howard’s big night. Howard belted his 24th homer, a grand slam in the first inning, to highlight a 14-hit attack and help the Phils jump to a 6-0 lead.
 
“Eickhoff looked like he was having one of his best games and then the rain came. So that was our first disappointment,” Mackanin said. "Other than that, Howie swung the bat great. Hit that grand slam. We got 14 hits, but we stranded 12 runners. We have to keep adding on.”
 
Quinn had three of the Phillies’ 14 hits then added to his collection of injuries with the oblique strain that bounced him from the game in the sixth. He hurt himself taking a swing.
 
Oblique injuries generally keep a player sidelined for at least three weeks, so Quinn’s season is likely over. He missed six weeks with a similar injury at Double A Reading this summer. The 23-year-old outfielder came up from the minors on Sept. 11 and has been auditioning for a spot on next season’s opening day roster.
 
“It looks like it,” Mackanin said when asked if Quinn was done for what remains of the season.
 
Injuries have been a consistent hurdle for Quinn ever since he was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. He has missed significant time with a ruptured Achilles tendon, a wrist injury that required surgery, a torn quad muscle and an oblique strain. Now he has another one.
 
“It’s the same one I hurt before,” Quinn said. “It’s frustrating.”
 
Right now, just about everything is frustrating with this team. Good thing there are only five games left.

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