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.

Instant Replay: Cubs 7, Phillies 2

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USA Today Images

Instant Replay: Cubs 7, Phillies 2

BOX SCORE

CHICAGO – The Phillies completed a dreadful road trip with a 7-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoon.
 
The Cubs swept the three-game series by a combined score of 17-5.
 
The Phils were 1-5 on the trip. They lost two of three in Detroit to start the trip.
 
The Cubs tagged Phillies starter Vince Velasquez for seven runs in 4 ⅔ innings Sunday.
 
The Cubs belted six homers in the three games. The Phillies had two and they both came late in Sunday's game after they were down, 7-0.
 
The Cubs have the majors’ best record at 34-14.
 
The Phillies have been held to two or fewer runs 19 times this season. They head home with a record of 26-24.
 
Starting pitching report
Velasquez was tagged for nine hits and seven runs in 4 ⅔ innings. He gave up two homers, a solo shot in the second and a three-run blow in the third.
 
Velasquez did not have a good trip. Against two of the toughest lineups in baseball, he pitched 8 ⅔ innings over two starts. He gave up 18 hits, five of which were homers, and 10 earned runs.
 
The righthander is 5-2 with a 3.63 ERA in 10 starts.
 
Cubs’ right-hander John Lackey gave up just four hits and one run in seven innings.
 
Cubs starting pitching held the Phils to three earned runs in 22 ⅓ innings in the series. And Jake Arrieta did not pitch.
 
Bullpen report
Brett Oberholtzer walked three in 1 ⅓ innings, but did not allow a run. 
 
At the plate
Tyler Goeddel homered for the Phillies’ first run. Tommy Joseph homered in the ninth.
 
The Phillies were out-hit, 10-6. They had just six extra-base hits in the series. The Cubs had 11.
 
The Cubs used three hits, none of which were hit particularly hard, to score a run in the first inning. Miguel Montero crushed a 2-0 fastball from Velasquez over the wall in right to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead in the second and Ben Zobrist made it a 5-0 game with a three-run shot off Velasquez in the third.
 
In the field
A day after manager Pete Mackanin praised him for his defense, shortstop Freddy Galvis had a tough day in the field.
 
His 44-game errorless streak ended in the fifth inning when made just his second error of the season.
 
Two innings earlier, with two outs in the third, Galvis failed to make a play on a scorching one-hopper by Kris Bryant. The play was scored a hit because it was hit so hard, but Galvis had made plays like that before. The play proved pivotal because it extended the inning. Velasquez then issued a two-out walk, setting the table for Zobrist’s three-run homer, which gave the Cubs a 5-0 lead.
 
Joseph started at first base as manager Pete Mackanin sat Ryan Howard for the second time in a week against a right-hander pitcher. Joseph made a nice defensive play with the bases loaded to end the sixth inning.
 
Health check
Cody Asche’s minor-league rehab stint ends Wednesday. The team can bring him to the majors at any time or option him to the minors when the rehab stint ends.
 
Up next
The Phillies return home Monday to start a 10-game homestand that includes visits from the Nationals, Brewers and Cubs. Here are the pitching matchups for the series against the Nats:
 
Monday night – RHP Jeremy Hellickson (4-3, 3.97) vs. RHP Tanner Roark (3-4, 2.71)
 
Tuesday night – RHP Aaron Nola (4-3, 2.86) vs. RHP Joe Ross (4-4, 2.52)
 
Wednesday night – LHP Adam Morgan (1-3, 6.67) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (5-4, 4.05)

NBA draft profile: Providence PG Kris Dunn

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NBA draft profile: Providence PG Kris Dunn

Kris Dunn

Position: Point guard

Height: 6-4

Weight: 205

School: Providence

Point guards are coveted on NBA rosters, and a team could land a long-term solution with Dunn. Last season, he averaged 16.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.5 steals in 33.0 minutes per game. The Sixers met with Dunn at the draft combine and plan to work him out as well. In order for the Sixers, who hold the first, 24th and 26th picks, to acquire Dunn, they would have to make a trade to move up in the selection order. 

Strengths
Dunn brings a physical presence to the one spot. At 6-foot-4, he has a 6-9 wingspan and can create size mismatches at the point guard position. Dunn is athletic with strong leaping abilities, which allows him to move well without the ball to the basket and attack the rim as well. While Dunn can score (16.4 points per game), he also averaged 2.5 steals per game this season.

Beyond the numbers, he has immeasurable mental strength and focus after overcoming obstacles to reach the highest level of basketball.

“You’re going to get someone who works hard every day,” Dunn said at the combine. “I like to say I’m a blue collar worker. Nothing was ever given to me and I go after it with everything I have.”

Weaknesses
As an NBA point guard, Dunn has to be disciplined running the floor. At times in college he went for the highlight play over fundamentals, resulting in turnovers (3.5 per game). He will have to improve shot selection in the pros. Dunn took 21 more field goal attempts from his junior to senior season but actually made one less year to year. He also shot 69.5 percent at the line. 

How he'd fit with the Sixers
The Sixers had a revolving door at the point guard position this season. They didn’t have a consistent starter until late December when they traded to re-acquire Ish Smith, who is a free agent this summer. Dunn could be their point guard for the future. 

NBA comparison
Dunn has been compared to Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall. At the combine, Dunn said he liked that comparison because of Wall’s defensive skillset.

Draft projection
Dunn is projected to be drafted as high as in the top five. He could be selected lower, though, given teams close to the top already have point guards.

MLB Notes: Sore left foot sidelines Red Sox's David Ortiz against Blue Jays

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MLB Notes: Sore left foot sidelines Red Sox's David Ortiz against Blue Jays

TORONTO -- Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz has been scratched from the lineup for Sunday's series finale against the Blue Jays with a sore left foot.

He is day to day.

Ortiz, who leads the major leagues with 46 RBIs, 23 doubles, and 121 total bases, was hit on the foot by a pitch in the fifth inning of Saturday's 10-9 loss. Ortiz struck out on the play.

Hanley Ramirez moved from first base to DH, Travis Shaw moved from third to first and Josh Rutledge replaced Shaw at third.

Ortiz is batting .339 with 13 home runs. He has announced his intention to retire at the end of the season.

Yankees: Beltran misses Rays game with shoulder tightness
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- New York Yankees right fielder Carlos Beltran is out of the starting lineup Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays because of right shoulder tightness but says he is available off the bench.

Beltran was hurt Saturday on a checked swing.

He said Sunday: "A little sore, but I'm good. I saw the doctor yesterday and he said that it should go away in a couple days, so I'm not worried."

Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira didn't start for the fifth consecutive game because of neck stiffness but said he "felt pretty good" after resuming batting practice and taking grounders.

Teixeira had a cortisone shot Thursday. He said that made a "night and day difference."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi is hopeful that Teixeira can start Monday night's game at Toronto.

Royals: C Salvador Perez out 7-10 days
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez is expected to be out 7 to 10 days with a bruised left thigh after colliding with rookie third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert while catching a foul pop up in the ninth inning Saturday.

Perez had a MRI on Saturday night, which confirmed the injury was a contusion with no structural damage.

"Hopefully it's not going to require a trip to the DL," Royals manager Ned Yost said Sunday. "We're hoping he'll be back in 7 to 10 days. It could be earlier or later. We'll just have to wait and see and just manage it day to day.

"Great news, you don't want to have to put him on the DL and he's ready to play in eight days and has to sit there for another week."

The Royals recalled catcher Tony Cruz from Triple-A Omaha, where he was hitting .278 with three home runs and 20 RBIs in 31 games. Cruz has a .220 average in 229 games with St. Louis the past five years (see full story).

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