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.

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Catcher Jorge Alfaro is making his second straight start after Saturday's 10-8 win.

Alfaro, the Phillies' top catching prospect, has gone 0 for 11 with a walk in his three career starts, all coming in the last two weeks since he was called up. Alfaro was acquired in the Cole Hamels trade last July and is 1 for 13 with a walk in five games. 

The 23-year-old will catch Jake Thompson in a game that means a lot more to the Mets (1:10/CSN).

Giving Alfaro playing time allows Phillies fans the chance to get a glimpse of the future. Roman Quinn has received plentiful playing time after was called up in the mid-September and Alfaro, like Quinn, is trying to leave an impression on the Phillies' brass before spring training.

Quinn is not in the lineup on Sunday as Aaron Altherr and Cody Asche man the corner outfield spots. Freddy Galvis moved up to second in the lineup after staying in the bottom half of the lineup in recent games.

Ryan Howard will bat fifth, playing likely his final game at Citi Field with the Phillies. While he has batted just .203 in 52 career games at Citi Field, he alos has 11 home runs there after smashing 12 homers at Shea Stadium, the Mets' previous stadium.

Here's the full lineup that will oppose Robert Gsellman and the Mets.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cody Asche, LF
7. Aaron Altherr, RF
8. Jorge Alfaro, C
9. Jake Thompson, P

For more on today's game, check out Steven Tydings' game notes

Phillies-Mets 5 things: All the pressure on Mets, Gsellman

Phillies-Mets 5 things: All the pressure on Mets, Gsellman

Phillies (70-85) at Mets (82-73)
1:10 p.m. on CSN

After two rough losses for the Phillies and their pitching staff, the offense picked them up and came through with a 10-8 win. 22-year-old Jake Thompson takes the hill this afternoon while Robert Gsellman starts a crucial game for the Mets.

Here are five things to watch on Sunday.

1. All the pressure on New York, Gsellman
The Mets remain 0.5 games up on the final National League playoff spot. 

While their pitching staff was falling apart at the seams going into (and during) this series, the one saving grace for New York was its soft schedule, facing the Phillies seven times in its last 10. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals have to deal with the MLB best Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants end the year vs. the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.

However, a loss on Saturday (thanks in part to Noah Syndergaard getting scratched with strep throat) puts the Mets in a precarious position. They're tied in the loss column with the Cards and Giants while fighting for one of two playoff spots and their rotation most closely resembles their Triple A team from Opening Day. 

Gsellman is one of those pitchers who started the year never having tasted the major leagues. In fact, he started the year in Double A. His first career start came at Citi Field last month against the Phillies and resulted in his first career loss after he allowed four runs in six innings. 

He's been better since that start, carrying a 3.13 ERA into Sunday. The 23-year-old righty will likely start vs. the Phillies again next weekend, meaning the Mets' season rides in part on a rookie with just 31 2/3 innings in the majors. 

2. Young man on a roll
While Gsellman lost his last start, Thompson has won his last two starts. The young righty is on a hot streak as his season nears an end.

Thompson's ERA has goe down in each of his last five starts, a stat made less impressive by the fact that he began that run with a 9.78 ERA. He has gone at least five innings in his last eight starts and has shown glimpses of why he was such a valued prospects.

In September, Thompson is 2-1 with a 3.09 ERA over four starts. He's still allowed 33 baserunners in 23 1/3 innings during that span, but it's been much better than his lackluster August.

While Thompson is in line to start next weekend against the Mets as well, today could be his final start of the season. He has already set a career-high in innings and the Phillies may not want to extend him one more start.

3. What to look for in the season's final week
Including Sunday, the Phillies have just seven games left in their season. They're eliminated from playoff contention, but there's still plenty to watch as the Phils take on Braves and Mets.

Ryan Howard's final fairwell: With his five-year, $125 million deal coming to a close this year, Howard is almost certainly playing his final games in Philadelphia next week. He'll get plenty of starts and may even face the Mets' Bartolo Colon, who he's smacked three home runs off of in his career.

Playing spoiler: As mentioned above, the Mets have everything on the line both today and next weekend in Philadelphia. There are few better ways to end a postseason-less season than knocking a rival out of playoff contention.

More looks at the kids: Roman Quinn's emergence over the last two weeks has been fun to watch and Jorge Alfaro may get more chances in the last seven games. Beyond them, Thompson, Tommy Joseph and others close out a nice first season. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Maikel Franco has looked more like his 2015 self over the last few weeks. He's batting .310 in September with three home runs, matching his August total. His 15 RBI this month are his most in a month other than July. 

Mets: Asdrubal Cabrera has been on fire this month as well. After battting .405 in August, he's batting .333 and has five home runs, including the walk-off homer on Thursday. He's slugging .628 this month after putting up a .786 slugging percentage in August. 

5. This and that
• In Gsellman's August start vs. the Phillies, he only allowed one run while he was in the game. However, he left the bases loaded in the 7th with no outs before A.J. Ellis knocked in the decisive two-run double to give the Phils a lead they would not relinquish.

• Six different Phillies batters had hits off Gsellman, including Jimmy Paredes who went 2 for 3 with a double and an RBI. 

• Despite pitching injuries, the Mets have the eighth-best team ERA in September with a 3.64 average. The Phillies are 15th in baseball with a 4.10 ERA this month.

• The Phillies are 6-9 against the Mets this year. They're already ensured of a better finish than last year's 5-14 mark vs. New York.

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