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.

Best of MLB: Indians rally off Papelbon, stun Nationals, 7-6

Best of MLB: Indians rally off Papelbon, stun Nationals, 7-6

CLEVELAND -- Francisco Lindor pushed an RBI single through Washington's drawn-in infield with one out in the ninth inning, and the Cleveland Indians rallied for three runs in their final at-bat to stun the Washington Nationals 7-6 on Tuesday night in a matchup of two first-place teams with sights on October.

Down two runs and three outs from their losing streak reaching a season-high four games, the Indians rallied against Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon (2-4), who did not get an out before he was pulled by manager Dusty Baker.

With the bases loaded, Lindor fisted his base hit into right field and danced his way up the first-base line as the Indians celebrated an improbable victory.

Bryan Shaw (2-4) got two outs in the ninth and picked up the win as Cleveland won its first home game since July 10 (see full recap).

Cardinals take first game of doubleheader with Mets, 3-2
NEW YORK -- Jedd Gyorko homered again, hitting a two-run drive off Noah Syndergaard that sent the St. Louis Cardinals over the New York Mets 3-2 Tuesday in the first game of a doubleheader.

Gyorko connected for the sixth time in eight games, giving him 13 this season. The Cardinals lead the NL in home runs with 137, matching last year's total.

The Mets played at home for the first time since the All-Star break and lost in a matchup of NL wild-card contenders. Citi Field was nearly empty at the start, a day after a rainout forced the twinbill.

Carlos Martinez (10-6) gave up a two-run homer to Rene Rivera and left after the fifth inning with a 3-2 lead. Three relievers finished, with Seung Hwan Oh getting his fifth save in six chances.

Syndergaard (9-5) has won only one of his last five starts (see full recap).

Colon, Mets top Cards, 3-1, for doubleheader split
NEW YORK -- Bartolo Colon pitched three-hit ball for seven sharp innings and the New York Mets overcame another home run by Jedd Gyorko to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1 Tuesday night for a doubleheader split.

Gyorko homered in both ends and has connected seven times in nine games. His two-run shot helped St. Louis win the opener 3-2.

Colon (9-5) struck out eight and walked none. After Gyorko homered in the second and Alberto Rosario doubled in the third, Colon set down 14 of his final 15 batters.

Addison Reed worked the eighth and Jeurys Familia closed for his 36th save this year and 52nd in a row during the regular season.

White Sox avoid Chapman, down Cubs 3-0 behind Shields
CHICAGO -- James Shields allowed four singles in 7 2/3 innings, Adam Eaton homered and the White Sox stayed unbeaten since Chris Sale's suspension by beating the Cubs 3-0 Tuesday night in Chicago's crosstown rivalry.

The Cubs lost their second straight and never got to use new closer Aroldis Chapman hours after he joined the team and struggled answering questions related to an altercation last year with his girlfriend.

Shields (5-12) struck out five and continued an impressive turnaround from a terrible first three starts after being acquired from San Diego last month. Nate Jones finished the eighth and David Robertson worked the ninth for his 24th save in the White Sox's fourth straight win since their ace was sent home for destroying throwback jerseys.

Jose Abreu had two hits, including an RBI single in the first off Kyle Hendricks (9-7) that ended his streak of 22 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run (see full story).

Jerad Eickhoff's 'outstanding' start wasted by Phillies in shutout loss to Marlins

Jerad Eickhoff's 'outstanding' start wasted by Phillies in shutout loss to Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — The Phillies enjoyed a three-week stretch before the All-Star break when they were the best hitting team in baseball.

In the final 19 games before the break, they hit .308 with a .871 OPS. Both marks were tops in the majors over that span. They averaged 5.63 runs per game in that stretch.

The run of sturdy offense created some excitement and anticipation heading into the second half of the season. But that excitement and anticipation has now dissipated. Since coming back from the break, the Phillies’ offense has retreated back to invisibility.

The Phils were blanked, 5-0, by the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night, wasting a terrific start from Jerad Eickhoff (see Instant Replay).

After the game, manager Pete Mackanin was peeved.

“The only thing positive I can say about this game is Eickhoff,” Mackanin said. “He was outstanding. He had a great curveball, hit his spots, pitched well. It was a pitchers' duel up until the end. I’m real happy about that. 

"But that’s about all I’m happy about.”

Marlins starter Tom Koehler and a trio of relievers held the Phillies to just four singles.

Phillies hitters struck out 10 times. They have averaged 9.5 strikeouts in 12 games since coming back from the break and hit just .208. They are averaging just 2.75 runs in the 12 games since the break and carrying a 4-8 record.

“Poor plate discipline,” Mackanin said. “Poor plate discipline. Swinging at too many bad pitches. We get ourselves out too often. That’s about all I can think of.

“Koehler pitched well. But we helped him out a lot. We didn’t give him a chance to walk us. We swung at too many bad pitches. That’s our problem. We just get ourselves out too often. That’s what it boils down to.

“If you’re a free swinger who’s going to hit 30-plus home runs and drive in 100 runs, that’s acceptable to me. But if you’re not a power hitter, it’s unacceptable. You’ve got to make adjustments. You’ve got improve on it. You’ve got to work on it.”

Peter Bourjos offered his thoughts on the Phillies’ offensive struggles since the All-Star break.

“It's almost like it was probably bad timing for that break,” he said. “Everything was rolling. We were swinging the bats really well. Everyone looked comfortable in the box and feeling good and it's tough right now. You can see what there was with the offense. I think it's going to come back. We just need to get back into the rhythm that we had and everything's going to be all right.”

Eickhoff scattered five hits and a run over seven innings. He walked one and struck out eight, a big improvement over his previous start when these same Marlins tagged him for nine hits and six runs in five innings.

“I was more aggressive,” Eickhoff said. “It’s amazing what being aggressive will do for your game and how hitters will react. I threw my fastball inside and that set up my curveball so much more.”

The poor run support was nothing new for Eickhoff. He entered the game receiving an average of just 3.53 runs per game, 10th worst in the majors.

It was a scoreless game until there were two outs in the sixth. That’s when Giancarlo Stanton swatted a two-out RBI single to right, scoring Martin Prado from second. Stanton’s hit rolled untouched through the second base area because the Phillies’ defense was shifted to the pull side.

“We’ve got to play a shift on him,” Mackanin said of baseball's most fearsome power bat.

The game got out of hand when the bullpen was tagged for four runs in the eighth. Ichiro Suzuki stroked career hit No. 2,997 to get the Marlins’ late rally started.

In the first inning, Suzuki launched a long drive to the gap in right-center. Rightfielder Bourjos ran the ball down and made a terrific catch while crashing into the wall. He left the game with a jammed right shoulder and could miss some time (see story).

Instant Replay: Marlins 5, Phillies 0

Instant Replay: Marlins 5, Phillies 0

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jerad Eickhoff pitched seven innings of one-run ball, but still came away with a loss as the Phillies were shut out, 5-0, by the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night.

Giancarlo Stanton drove in the Marlins’ first two runs with a single and a double.

Stanton gave the Marlins a 1-0 lead with a two-out base hit to right field against Eickhoff in the sixth inning. Stanton’s groundball hit rolled through the second base area, which had been vacated by the shift.

The Marlins blew the game open with four runs against the Phillies’ bullpen in the eighth.

The Phillies are 4-8 since the All-Star break and 46-56 overall.

Starting pithing report
Eickhoff scattered five hits and a run over seven innings. He walked one and struck out eight.

Miami manager Don Mattingly pulled Tom Koehler after the right-hander pitched six shutout innings and had allowed just three hits. Koehler walked one, struck out five and threw just 73 pitches. He exited with a 1-0 lead.

Koehler pitched eight innings of two-run ball in a win over the Phillies last week.

Bullpen report 
Andrew Bailey was charged with three runs in the eighth.

Mike Dunn, David Phelps and Nick Wittgren completed the shutout for the Marlins. 

At the plate
The Phillies had just four hits, all singles, and struck out 10 times. They were 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position and are 1 for 13 the last two nights.

Stanton had been just 3 for 35 against the Phils this season before his shift-beating RBI hit in the sixth. He hit the ball much harder in the eighth inning when he clouted an RBI double to right-center against Bailey.

Adeiny Hechavarria padded the Marlins’ lead with a two-run single in their four-run eighth inning.

Ichiro Suzuki’s eighth-inning single left him three hits shy of 3,000 in his big-league career.

Health check
Rightfielder Peter Bourjos injured his right shoulder making a catch against the wall in the first inning and left the game (see story).

Minor matters
Ranger Suarez, a 20-year-old left-hander from Venezuela, pitched a seven-inning no-hitter for the Phillies’ Single A Williamsport club on Tuesday night.

Up next
The series concludes on Wednesday afternoon. Zach Eflin (3-3, 3.40) pitches against Miami lefty Adam Conley (6-5, 3.58).