Eagles Mailbag: Linebackers, stats for Zach Ertz and Derek Barnett

Eagles Mailbag: Linebackers, stats for Zach Ertz and Derek Barnett

I answered half of your questions yesterday, but we got a lot, so here are the rest: 

Well, the Eagles' linebackers were pretty good last year. At least they certainly weren't the problem. 

Jordan Hicks is returning for his third season and has Pro Bowl potential. The last thing he needs to improve is his run-stuffing ability. If he does that, he'll be very good. Nigel Bradham had an under-the-radar season in 2016. He worked very well with Hicks and is entering the last year of his deal. Now, he has a trial coming up in July for a felony assault charge, but as long as that doesn't keep him off the field, he should have another good year. Then, Mychal Kendricks, for as much as he gets criticized, isn't a bad third option for a third of plays. 

I'd agree that after those three, there's a clear lack of depth. Najee Goode, Joe Walker, Steven Daniels, Nate Gerry. Not super deep. But Goode is a decent backup, they liked Walker from last year before the ACL tear, Daniels is a wild card and Gerry is switching positions from safety to linebacker. 

Running back. No question. Carson Wentz would be decapitated in a quarter if I was at right guard. 

At least at running back under Doug Pederson, I wouldn't get the ball very often. And when I'd get the ball, I'm so small and so slow, maybe I'd be like a changeup in baseball and linebackers would miss me altogether. Until they hit me and I leave the field crying. 

Ertz: 80 catches, 900 yards, seven touchdowns. Those would be very slightly above the numbers he's put up in recent years, but in his second year with Wentz, that's reasonable. And seven touchdowns is a lot, but I don't think it's crazy. 

Barnett: Six sacks. This would be a pretty good rookie season. I'd set the over/under number at 6½, so I have Barnett slightly under just because he'll have to fight for time with a few players. 

Blount: This one is tougher — 700 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns. No, I don't expect Blount to have another 1,000-yard season. That's a lot of touchdowns, but Ryan Mathews was able to pick up eight last year and Blount should be better in short-yardage situations. 

1. I don't even know what a breakout season is anymore. Ertz is a good tight end. He's not Rob Gronkowski. He's never going to be Rob Gronkowski. So break out? Maybe not. But he's a solid piece of the offense, who needs to score more touchdowns. 

2. No. 

3. Yeah. At this point, I expect Dorial Green-Beckham to be the odd man out. Vinny Curry will be on the team and will have a cap hit of $9 million this year. 

Hi, Corey. Big fan. If Donnie Jones isn't a household name, I'd start to question your household. 

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.