With healthy offseason, Jordan Hicks hopes to improve run defense

With healthy offseason, Jordan Hicks hopes to improve run defense

After playing in all 16 games of the 2016 season, Jordan Hicks hopes he finally shed that injury-prone label. 

Now, he's reaping the benefits. 

Hicks entered his second NFL offseason in a very different place than his first. This time last year, Hicks was still rehabbing from a torn pectoral tendon and subsequent surgery. 

This year? 

Well, Hicks has been able to attack the offseason and focus on getting better instead of just getting healthy. 

"It's huge," Hicks said on Tuesday, a day after the Eagles' offseason program began. "It's huge to get a full year, really just that playing time. First and foremost, that's probably the biggest thing. And then going into the offseason and just being able to train and let your body heal from the season. 

"And then just pick up where you started and really build off of everything, not having to start off of square one and primarily focus on rehab. I've had that more times than not. It's really nice to be able to go into this thing confident. It does build your confidence just knowing that you've had that healthy season. You improved yourself in that area." 

Hicks won't turn 25 until June, but he has already put together two historic seasons for a linebacker. 

In his first two years in the league -- and in just 24 games -- Hicks has piled up seven interceptions (one returned for a TD), 14 passes defensed, four fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and two sacks. 

He's the fifth player in NFL history -- and the only linebacker -- with that many interceptions, fumble recoveries and forced fumbles in the first two seasons of his career. 

He's the first Eagle with seven interceptions in his first two seasons since Eric Allen in 1988-89. 

And there are only two members of the 2015 draft class who have seven interceptions: Hicks and Kansas City All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters (14). 

But Hicks entered his second offseason with the goal to get better, specifically against the run. While he has been dynamic in coverage, the young linebacker admitted toward the end of his second season that his run-stuffing ability needed to improve if his game was going to jump to the next level. 

Since he was rehabbing his left pec last offseason, Hicks wasn't able to strength-train as much as he would have liked. Obviously, building strength and becoming a better tackler/run-stuffer go hand in hand. 

"It's huge. It's huge," he said. "Because as a linebacker, especially in this defense, it's all taking on blocks, getting off blocks and making tackles. Defensive line is going to be disruptive but you're going to have to take on blocks to be able to get tackles. Being able to have that offseason and go into it healthy and not have to worry about rehabbing and starting off at square one is huge. Strength-wise and being able to punch and shed."

Hicks is about the same weight, he thinks, but is stronger now than he was last year. "I cut easy," he said. 

In addition to having a healthy offseason, there's another rare occurrence happening for Hicks. He's about to enter the second year playing in the same defense. Hicks played under four different defensive coordinators in five years at the University of Texas and has played under two in his first two years in the NFL. 

So Year 2 under Jim Schwartz, especially as a middle linebacker, is a big deal. 

"This time last year it was all questions," Hicks said. "You didn't know what to expect. You had seen press conference and had seen who he was through little snippets, but you didn't know him. Or I didn't know him, didn't have that type of relationship I have now. 

"You get a feel for the way he handles a game, the way he handles practice, his expectations going into certain situations and that communication and that ability to kind of read each other's mind and where we want to be and where we want this defense to be. We can only go up." 

On Tuesday, Hicks was asked about getting the recognition, a la postseason awards, and said he thinks that will come naturally with time. If he can improve upon his first two seasons in the NFL, those types of accolades won't be far. 

Minutes after the 2016 season finale, his veteran teammate Malcolm Jenkins was asked how much potential Hicks had yet to reach. 

"S---. I mean, from where I see it, he's trending to be one of the better linebackers in this league," Jenkins answered. 

"And there's a lot of good linebackers out there. But you look at the stats and the way he plays, you can compare him to anybody else."

Five Eagles land on PFF's list of top 101 players from 2016

Five Eagles land on PFF's list of top 101 players from 2016

The Eagles' didn't have a great season in 2016, finishing with a 7-9 record that followed a fast 3-0 start. 

While things didn't work out great in Doug Pederson's first season as head coach, there were some individual players who had good years. In fact, five Eagles made ProFootballFocus' list of the top 101 players in the league in 2016 after just two players made the same list in 2015. 

PFF reminds its readers that they try to take position out of the equation … otherwise the list would be filled with quarterbacks. 

For the Eagles, it starts with a former first-round pick who has taken a quite unusual career path: 

9. Brandon Graham 
The guys at ProFootballFocus don't just like Brandon Graham. They like like Brandon Graham. No, the sack total wasn't very high at 5 1/2 in 2016, but he brought consistent pressure. Graham went from unranked a year ago to No. 9 in 2016. 

They go into Graham a little deeper here.

55. Fletcher Cox 
Cox dropped from 28 in 2015 to 55 in 2016, but still had a really good season. 

PFF writes that he was an "unblockable force at times this season." His best game was Week 17 against the Cowboys and he had eight QB pressures in two games against the Cowboys' vaunted offensive line. 

78. Jason Peters 
The old veteran bounced back in 2016 to take a spot on this list after going unranked a year ago. While PFF said he was inconsistent in the run game, he was one of the NFL's best at pass blocking. 

85. Brandon Brooks 
This ended up being a pretty good free-agent signing. Sure, Brooks got a big deal in free agency, coming over from the Texans, but he proved his worth. He allowed one sack and two QB hits all season. He had a public struggle with anxiety but appears to have figured out a way to be able to play on Sundays. He was unranked last season. 

95. Jordan Hicks 
The young linebacker makes his first appearance on this list for his performance in 2016. PFF says he was "sensational" in pass coverage. He had five interceptions. No surprise here, his best week was during the middle of the season against the Cowboys. 

After coming in at No. 25 on last year's list, Malcolm Jenkins fell off the 101 for 2016. 

2017 Eagles Cost Analysis, LB: Mychal Kendricks on the trade block?

2017 Eagles Cost Analysis, LB: Mychal Kendricks on the trade block?

In 2015, trade rumors were swirling around Mychal Kendricks. He was entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the Eagles had just made sizeable investments in a bunch other linebackers. Then, out of nowhere, Kendricks signed a four-year extension during training camp worth $29 million, with $16 million guaranteed plus incentives.

Fast forward to 2017, and you should expect those rumors to return, only for vastly different reasons.

At the time of the extension, Kenricks was one of the Eagles' top playmakers, not to mention one of only three linebackers in the NFL to rack up at least 8.0 sacks, three interceptions and five forced fumbles in a two-year span. Since then, big plays have been few and far between, performance has been inconsistent altogether and now he's barely even on the field. According to Football Outsiders, Kendricks lined up for only 26.8 percent of the defensive snaps in '17.

The combination of his up-and-down performance and reduced playing time no longer justify Kendricks' rising salary. Also, surprise, the five-year veteran isn't very thrilled about being the third and least utilized of the linebackers in the base defense, nor should he. For the sake of comparison, both Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks were on the field at least 95 percent of the time.

Moving on from Kendricks isn't entirely financially motivated, either. Because the Eagles still owe $4.8 in prorated signing bonus over the next three years, the club can only save $1.8 million of his hit against the salary cap for '17. Until they pay a veteran replacement, much of that money — if not all, and then some — is being put right back into the position.

Still, there is likely a team out there that's willing to take a chance on Kendrcks in exchange for a mid-to-late-round draft pick. His $4.85 million base salary this season is very reasonable if he can return to his 2013-14 level of production, which in the right scheme, if he's allowed to blitz and freelance more, could potentially happen.

As long as he's with the Eagles, he's not going to get off the bench unless Bradham or Hicks get hurt. Even then, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz doesn't like to blitz, perhaps Kendricks' greatest strength. This simply may not be the right fit regardless, which isn't really anybody's fault. That tends to happen when regimes change.

The best case scenario for both sides at this point would be the Eagles take what they can get for Kendricks and give him a chance to play. In fact, it might be an upset if something doesn't go down this offseason.

LINEBACKERS UNDER CONTRACT

Mychal Kendricks
Age: 27*
Cap Number: $6,600,000

Even in 2015, widely considered a down year for Kendricks, he managed 3.0 sacks, three pass breakups and a forced fumble in 13 games. Last season, he finished with zero sacks, zero interceptions and zero forced fumbles. The only time Kendricks got his hands on a football was a lone pass breakup. Part of the issue seems to be player regression, which is going to drive his trade value down. Regardless, there's really no reason for the Eagles to keep him around at that price. It's awfully expensive for depth, especially considering he hasn't looked very good. Some new scenery might be what the doctor ordered for Kendricks at this point, because it hasn't been working out in Philadelphia for awhile.

Nigel Bradham
Age: 28*
Cap Number: $4,750,000

Bradham turned out to be an absolute steal for the Eagles in free agency, although that wasn't much of a surprise. His best season had been under Schwartz with the Bills in 2014, so there was a feeling he might find similar success back in the same scheme. Sure enough, Bradham led the Eagles with 102 tackles while recording 2.0 sacks, five pass breakups, an interception and two forced fumbles. There's still some lingering legal troubles out there, which might be the only reason he wouldn't get his two-year deal extended this offseason. If the Eagles feel comfortable that those charges will go away or with minimal repercussions, nor will this be a recurring theme for Bradham, it might be wise to work out something long-term now, before he hits the market again. They might even be able to lower his number for '17.

Jordan Hicks
Age: 25*
Cap Number: $796,183

Hicks answered any doubts about whether he could play in Schwartz's scheme, or hold up to the rigors of being a middle linebacker in the NFL in general. Many felt the second-year player was snubbed by Pro Bowl voters, as he finished with 85 tackles, 11 pass breakups and five interceptions — granted, two of those picks were in Week 17. Regardless of individual accolades, the Eagles have a linebacker in Hicks who can literally play in any scheme. Perhaps best of all, he's no eligible for a contract extension until 2018, so he's cost-controlled for another year. Then again, if Hicks keeps this up, he could be looking at something in the neighborhood of $10 million annually. Of course, that would be a small price to pay for his leadership, versatility and playmaking ability.

Kamu Grugier-Hill
Age: 23*
Cap Number: $540,000

A sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots, Grugier-Hill didn't make the 53-man roster our of training camp, and the Eagles pounced. He wound up playing exclusively on special teams, but proved to be a worthwhile investment there, making eight tackles in 12 games. Now Grugier-Hill will have a full season to pick up Schwartz's system and could compete for more work as a reserve, or even for a spot in the rotation.

Joe Walker
Age: 25*
Cap Number: $480,034

Walker was slated to be Hicks' backup at middle linebacker until suffering a torn ACL in training camp. Fortunately, the starter played all 16 games, anyway, but it's a lost year for a seventh-round rookie who would've been battling just to make the roster many other places. Seeing as the Eagles are likely to upgrade the position this offseason, he may find himself in that situation this camp around.

Don Cherry
Age: 23*

A late addition to the roster during camp last summer, the Villanova product eventually wound up landing on the practice squad, too, signing a futures contract at season end. Cherry initially caught on with the Bears as an undrafted rookie before landing on his feet with the Eagles, but the fact that he didn't make it to cut-down day with his first employer suggests his prospects aren't very good.

EXPIRING CONTRACTS

Stephen Tulloch
Age: 32*
2016 Cap Number: $2,500,000

The injury to Walked necessitated the Eagles go out and find a backup for Hicks, who has a long and distinguished injury history. On the bright side, Tulloch wasn't required to play too much. He has plenty of experience in wide-nine defenses and with Schwartz specifically, but all that experience also means he's at the tale-end of his career. That much seemed clear when he played extensively against the Lions in Week 5. Simply put, the Eagles need to find some young reserves to groom behind Hicks and Bradham, not go dumpster diving for the Tullochs of the world. It was a fine career, but there's a reason he was still available in August. Retirement seems like the next step here.

Najee Goode
Age: 28*
2016 Cap Number: $675,000

Goode signed a one-year deal with the Eagles, and while he wasn't needed to fill in much on defense, which he's done a fine job of in the past, he too was excellent on special teams. The five-year veteran had 10 tackles in 16 games while playing pretty much exclusively in the third phase. It will be interesting to see whether Goode draws more interest in free agency in '17. Goode can clearly help on special teams, and when he is pressed into the game on defense, he can definitely hold his own. It certainly wouldn't be a bad thing if the Eagles could bring him back given their depth issues at linebacker, especially if Kendricks is dealt. A one- or two-year deal right around $1 million annually seems fair and isn't going to break the bank.