Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Linebackers

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Linebackers

Little change was made to the Eagles linebackers during the offseason. In fact, the only meaningful transaction was selecting Nathan Gerry in the fifth round of the draft – and he played safety at Nebraska.

It’s another year of Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham holding down the fort, and from the looks of things, another year of Mychal Kendricks largely standing by and watching. That being said, nothing is ever truly static in the NFL, so is this group of linebackers better or worse than last year’s?

BETTTER

Jordan Hicks

Some observers felt Hicks’ play warranted a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2016. It was certainly a nice season with 85 tackles, 1.0 sack and 5 interceptions – although he padded those numbers somewhat with a couple of picks in a meaningless Week 17 finale. Still, a solid campaign by any measure.

There’s also reason for optimism that Hicks, who turns 25 next week, could be well on his way to a bigger year and the national recognition that comes with it. First and foremost, he made it through ‘16 without major injury, and therefore didn’t spend the offseason rehabbing. Not only that, but it’s Hicks’ second season under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, so he should be comfortable and familiar in his role in the middle of the Eagles defense.

Both good health and continuity are relatively unfamiliar for Hicks, who has been through a lot injuries and systems going back to his college days, often consecutively. For a third-year player of this caliber to have the benefit of a full offseason program, putting work in with a scheme he’s already experienced, this alone has the potential to accelerate development.

Depth

Assuming Kendricks isn’t traded – dangerous, but we’ve been waiting two years for speculation to become reality – the Eagles got a little bit deeper behind Hicks and Bradham.

Kendricks and Najee Goode remain the top backups, and are a pair of capable, experienced veterans who can fill in relatively seamlessly. However, behind them is a group of intriguing, young players that may give the Eagles quality options even if Kendricks is moved.

Kamu Grugier-Hill was claimed last September after the sixth-round rookie was waived by the Patriots and appeared exclusively on special teams. Seventh-round choice Joe Walker missed all of his first season with a torn ACL, but rejoins the squad after a year on injured reserve. The Eagles added Nathan Gerry to the mix as well, and while he’s transitioning from safety to linebacker, the club is high on the 22-year-old.

Last year, Walker was on IR, Gerry was in college, and Grugier-Hill was the equivalent of a walk-on with no NFL experience, and no offseason work in Schwartz’s scheme. Whatever the pecking order winds up looking like in 2017, the Eagles appear to have more talent to choose from on the back end of the bench.

WORSE

Possible suspension for Nigel Bradham?

The good news is Bradham expects to be cleared of assault charges and any legal issues stemming from that incident in the near future. The bad news is Bradham hasn’t been cleared yet, so a positive outcome is not assured. Furthermore, even if Bradham is cleared, he is still subject to a potential suspension from the NFL. Even if it’s only for one game, that would be one game without a starter at linebacker – and a very good one at that.

THE SAME

Nigel Bradham

As good as Hicks was last season, an argument could easily be made Bradham was better. The sixth-year veteran had more tackles (102 to 85), more tackles for loss (10 to 6), more sacks (2.0 to 1.0) and more forced fumbles (2 to 0). It was a really strong year for the free-agent acquisition from the Bills, only to be overshadowed by his legal issues.

It no doubt helped Bradham has been in the league for longer. He also had a career year in Schwartz’s system while the two were Buffalo. The simply reality is the scheme suits Bradham’s abilities perfectly. He’s big and physical, and able to take on blocks and fill gaps behind a wide-nine front, but can also use his size and athleticism to cover tight ends down the field. At 28 years old this September, Bradham probably isn’t going to improve much at this stage of his career, but should also have plenty of prime years left.

THE UNKNOWN

Mychal Kendricks

The biggest question is will he or won’t he be here come Week 1, but that’s not even the only question with Kendricks. Is he a fit in Schwartz’s scheme? Will he be healthy for 16-plus games? Will Kendricks ever return to form as one of the top playmaking linebackers in the NFL, or was he a flash in the pan who struggles in coverage and tackling in space?

Kendricks truly is one of the biggest mysteries on the roster. In 2013 and ’14, the former second-round pick recorded 8.0 sacks, 3 interceptions and 5 forced fumbles. In 2015, he had 3.0 sacks, no interceptions and 1 forced fumble, and looked clueless while doing it. Last season, Kendricks played only sparingly, and failed to record a single sack, pick or forced fumble.

Part of Kendricks’ issue last season, aside from lack of playing time, is his best trait goes essentially unutilized in the Eagles’ scheme. He’s an outstanding pass rusher, but Schwartz seldom blitzes. That being said, Kendricks also seems to have regressed in coverage – size was always an issue against bigger tight ends, but he’s frequently out of position. Tackling was never his strong suit, either, but seems to have gotten worse.

At this point, Kendricks doesn’t want to be a member of the Eagles, and it’s had to blame him. There apparently hasn’t been much interest the 26-year-old around the league, though, which is not terribly difficult to understand, either. After all, who is Mychal Kendricks really?

BETTER OR WORSE?

If Hicks’ development continues, he could take a big step forward in 2017, which is saying something. Stardom is not out of the question there. Bradham isn’t likely to miss more than a couple games at most and gives the Eagles an excellent combo at linebacker. The depth is clearly better as well. Now, if Kendricks gets traded, this group as a whole is going to look significantly worse on paper. As they’re comprised right now, the Eagles should be marginally improved, at minimum. Better

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Wide receivers

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Wide receivers

It was widely assumed the Eagles would add a wide receiver in free agency and another in the draft. Instead, the Eagles signed two wideouts, then chose two more in the draft.

Veterans Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith were brought in to provide an instant boost to a receiving corps previously headlined by Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor. North Carolina’s Mack Hollins and West Virginia’s Shelton Gibson are also aboard, enhancing the unit’s outlook for the future. After everything the Eagles did, is there any doubt they upgraded at wide receiver for 2017?

BETTER

Playmakers

The Eagles finished tied for 28th last season with 39 completions of 20 yards or more, and tied for 26th with 6 completions of 40 yards or more. The offense was also tied for 28th with 16 touchdown passes. Needless to say, they lacked firepower in the aerial attack.

No more. Alshon Jeffery ranks 11th among active receivers with 15.0 yards per receptions and 10th with 72.2 receiving yards per game. At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Jeffery can also be a beast in the red zone, once hauling in 10 touchdowns in a season. And Smith is one of the preeminent deep threats in the NFL, provided we overlook a disappointing 2016 campaign. Even after a down year, Smith is third among active players with 17.0 yards per reception and has also eclipsed 10 scores in a single season.

Both Jeffery and Smith posted disappointing numbers their final year with the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. Yet, both are also capable of so much more. Jeffery is a physical freak who excels at winning 50/50 balls. Smith is a burner who safeties must respect down the field even when the ball isn’t coming his way. The fact that either or both could go off for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns AND make the highlight reel every week is a scary thought for opposing defensive backs.

Jordan Matthews

Entering his fourth NFL season, Matthews pretty much is who he is at this point. So why is he in the “Better” column? You can thank Jeffery and Smith for that.

Matthews is a better player than he’s often given credit for, but for the past two seasons, he’s been the Eagles’ proverbial feature receiver from the slot. The problem is, without a legitimate deep threat in the offense, or really any respectable presence on the perimeter, defenses have been able to clamp down on the short and intermediate routes in the middle of the field. That just happens to be where Matthews makes his money.

The pressure is largely off Matthews now. Teams will occasionally double cover Jeffery, and safeties will back up with Smith on the opposite side, leaving a lot fewer defenders in the middle of the field and a lot more room to run. Matthews is always going to drop the occasional pass, and he may be best suited for a complementary role. He is also somebody only one year removed from 85 receptions for 997 yards and 8 touchdowns. With this supporting cast, Matthews will have a chance to best those numbers.

WORSE

Uhhh…

It may surprise you to learn the Eagles didn’t have the absolute worst receiving corps in the NFL last season – but it was close. The 2016 unit might even be in the conversation for most inept in franchise history. There doesn’t appear to be a single measureable way in which the incoming group isn’t improved, though, so that’s obviously a plus.

THE SAME

Dorial Green-Beckham

NFL players often improve with time in the same scheme and increasing familiarity with their surroundings, and that may well be the case for Green-Beckham. However, there continues to be this seeming disconnect between his raw physical ability and his presence on the football field.

Green-Beckham is 6-5, 237 pounds with 4.4 speed and a 33.5-inch vertical jump. Yet, he never seems to be open down the field, never seems to win a jump ball and doesn’t catch many contested passes, period. At this point, it may not be a matter of learning on an offense or building a rapport with the quarterback. He simply doesn’t have great ball skills, and that probably isn’t coachable. Realistically, Green-Beckham would have a hard time cracking the 53-man roster anyway, but if he somehow did, don’t anticipate a big change.

THE UNKNOWN

Nelson Agholor

Agholor had a tremendous spring at OTAs and minicamp. Then again, Agholor has always looked sharp in practice. It’s the games that are the problem. Still, he looks noticeably bigger and remains committed to improvement, so maybe his offseason is a sign of bigger things to come.

Normally, we would be ready to give up on a first-round pick with 59 receptions for 648 yards and 3 touchdowns through two seasons. Then again, it would cost the Eagles more to release Agholor than keep him on the roster, so he’s likely here for 2017. And in all honesty, it’s a bit of a mystery why his talent hasn’t panned out at this level. He’s not No. 1 material or anything, but Agholor could still be a contributor for the Eagles, especially if spring workouts were a sign of his growth and maturity.

Rookies

Neither Mack Hollins nor Shelton Gibson are likely to play a huge role in 2017. Hollins has the better chance of the two. He’s impressed bystanders this spring, some even just commenting on his chiseled physique, and is likely to be active on Sundays because he plays special teams. Gibson has struggled to hold on to the football, plus his skill set is a duplicate of Smith’s right now, so we may not see a whole lot of him.

No matter what happens, it’s unlikely we’re going to get a sense of whether the Eagles hit or miss with either player. Jeffery, Smith and Matthews will see the bulk of the playing time, provided they are healthy, and Agholor is the first guy off the bench. Injuries and sub-packages may get Hollins on the field occasionally, but that should be all.

BETTER OR WORSE?

The Eagles essentially added a Pro Bowl receiver, a proven deep threat and two rookies to a receiving corps with Matthews and Agholor, without subtracting anybody. That speaks to both the improvements made and how bad the unit was last year. Just about any combination of moves would’ve amounted to an upgrade here, although with Jeffery and Smith in particular, the Eagles receivers have the opportunity to be better by leaps and bounds in 2017. Better

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Defensive line

Eagles Better or Worse 2017: Defensive line

The Eagles’ defensive line underwent a massive overhaul this offseason, beginning with the release of Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan’s departure in free agency. The front office then took a three-pronged approach to filling the holes created by those departures, adding Chris Long in free agency, trading for Tim Jernigan and using a first-round draft pick on Derek Barnett.

Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham remain as the unit’s foundation, but the Eagles were charged with replacing 50 percent of the starting lineup and roughly 30 percent of the total playing time up front. Doing that – and getting better at the same time – is no easy task.

BETTER

Interior

One of the most underrated additions of the entire offseason was the trade for Tim Jernigan. The Eagles swapped third-round picks with the Baltimore Ravens, dropping from No. 74 to No. 99 for Jernigan, who had 5.0 sacks in 2016 and at least 4.0 sacks in each of his three NFL seasons. That may not seem like a ton, but to put those numbers in perspective, Bennie Logan was second to Fletcher Cox among Eagles interior linemen with 2.5 sacks last year.

Jernigan was primarily used as a two-gap lineman in Baltimore as well, which meant his job was to fill space. In the Eagles’ wide nine, Jernigan – 25 in September – will be cut loose and free to pursue the quarterback, which means theoretically his sack totals stand to increase.

Jernigan bumps Beau Allen into a rotational role, along with Destiny Vaeao returning for his second season and seventh-round choice Elijah Qualls. The group is definitely deeper, and possibly vastly improved at the top.

Pass-rush depth

In a sense, the Eagles swapped out Connor Barwin for Chris Long and Derek Barnett. That doesn’t necessarily mean more production at the top of the depth chart, but it does make for a deeper talent pool at defensive end. As a result, Marcus Smith is pushed down from DE4 to DE5 – and nobody is going to be unhappy to hear that.

WORSE

Marcus Smith’s odds of ever panning out

Smith actually ended 2016 on something of a positive note, unbeknownst to the majority of observers, finishing with 3 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits. For the sake of comparison, Barwin didn’t fare much better (6 TFL, 5.0 SK, 10 QH), especially considering he played over three-times as many snaps. It was the most extensive playing time of Smith’s career, and the former first-round pick showed some semblance of growth.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to imagine Smith will see as much action in 2017, if he’s on the 53-man roster at all. His tumble down the depth chart has been noted, and he may have conceded any shot at beating out Long for more playing time when he decided to skip voluntary OTAs this spring. Smith waded into bust territory long ago, but any remote chance he had of living up to his draft status or even becoming a regular contributor is fading fast.

THE SAME

Fletcher Cox

Cox underwhelmed last season after signing a contract extension worth over $100 million. Nine tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits are quality numbers for an interior lineman, but it’s not the otherworldly presence the Eagles should expect for the money.

Fortunately, the case can easily be made Cox will be benefit from the upgrades around him in 2017. Jernigan and the improved pass-rush depth on the edge should take some of the offense’s focus away from the two-time Pro Bowl selection, who is still an absolute nightmare one-on-one. We’ll project Cox to experience a rebound of sorts, with something between his production last season and in 2015, when the 26-year-old finished with 11 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits.

Brandon Graham

It’s great to see Graham is finally getting his due, earning second-team All-Pro honors in 2016. He’s been a terrific two-way defender for years and was always more disruptive than sack numbers indicate.

But therein lies the question with Graham. The eighth-year veteran is a very good player, but averaging 5.5 sack per season does not make a great NFL player. What will be interesting to see is whether Graham can take the next step toward becoming an elite pass rusher at age 29. His 22 quarterback hits last season were tied for 13th in the league, and if he could just finish a few more of those, double-digit sacks would be in sight. Even though he’s getting older, you may not want to rule out another breakout season for Graham just yet.

THE UNKNOWN

Vinny Curry

Most people have given up on Curry as being anything more than a rotational player, and you can’t blame anybody for feeling that way, particularly after he failed to live up to a massive contract extension in 2016. With 6.0 sacks total over the past two seasons, and accounting for $9 million against the salary cap in 2017, there is definitely some buyer’s remorse with Curry right now.

Of course, Curry was also battling a knee injury for much of last season, which there’s no telling how that affected his play. Furthermore, he had 9.0 sacks alone in 2014, so we know he’s capable of much more. Curry turns 29 this month, so his best years could certainly still be ahead of him. This is probably his last chance to live up to his deal with the Eagles, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Derek Barnett

We have no idea if Barnett is going to be a great NFL player, but with 29.0 of his 33.0 career sacks at the University of Tennessee coming against SEC opponents, it’s hard to believe he won’t make any impact. As is the case with pretty much any incoming rookie, it’s a question of ceiling, especially in his rookie year.

Oftentimes, pass rushers don’t have a huge impact their first year in the league, and are usually limited to a handful of sacks whether they are backups or starters. However, players taken as high as Barnett – No. 14 overall – are far more likely to get regular playing time and approach double-digit sacks, as you might expect. There’s no telling which column he will fall under, but if we guess somewhere in between, Barnett could be good for around 6.0 or 7.0 sacks this year.

BETTER OR WORSE?

Barwin turned 30 last year, and both he and Logan were better fits in the 3-4 defense under the last coaching regime. Long is no spring chicken, either, at 32, but has played in 4-3 schemes and wide-nine alignments is whole career, and along with Barnett, there is simply have more firepower on the edge. Up the middle is no different, as Jernigan is a likely upgrade in the Eagles’ system. The 2017 version of the D-line looks vastly superior, and that’s before wild cards like Curry and to a lesser extent Smith come into play. Better