Eagles Bye Week Breakdown: The Linebackers
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Linebacker, especially inside linebacker, was supposed to be the strength of the Eagles' defense in 2015, and the group has certainly held its own, although not with the people you may have thought.
Injuries to Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks have robbed Bill Davis of his the two most talented options at the position but veteran DeMeco Ryans and rookie Jordan Hicks have picked up the baton and excelled.
While Alonso has dealt with another ACL scare and Kendricks continues to do battle with a pesky hamstring problem, Mufasa and Simba have done more than hold down the fort.
Ryans was supposed to be on a pitch count after suffering an Achilles tear late last season but he's been forced into far more reps than envisioned before suffering a hamstring injury of his own against the New York Giants a couple of weeks ago.
(Listen to John McMullen discuss the Eagles linebacking core)
Before he was forced to leave against New York in the second quarter, however, Ryans completely turned the tide of the game and kept the Eagles in the NFC East race.
With Philadelphia down 7-0 Ryans ripped the football away from Larry Donnell at the Eagles’ 22-yard-line. In essence it was a completed pass that Ryans simply wrestled away from the Giants tight end, shifting the momentum back toward Philadelphia. The Eagles then promptly went on a seven-play, 78-yard drive culminated by the 32-yard hookup between Sam Bradford and Riley Cooper. Ryans also added a fumble recovery to his stat line before exiting.
Meanwhile, Hicks, the team's third-round pick back in April, has been the front seven's biggest playmaker. He leads the Eagles in tackles, and has a triple crown as a freshman, already recording an interception, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries.
“It’s hard,” Hicks said of all the injuries at the position. “You don’t want to see anybody go down for any reason. I’m hoping they come back quick, but until they come back, you have to be ready when your number is called.”
The outside has been a more difficult ride as Connor Barwin hasn't been able to follow up his career year in 2014 and Brandon Graham, while solid as an all-around player, hasn't been able to generate the consistent pass rush that the Eagles were hoping for.
Injuries to presumed top backup Travis Long (torn ACL) and Marcus Smith (hamstring) also forced the Eagles to waste their time by attempting to move Vinny Curry from the defensive line to OLB.
With Smith healthy again Philadelphia pulled the plug on that but the former first-round pick has continued to frustrate the team and rarely gets on the field, making depth a serious issue.
Hicks has been the best player although he did get exposed for the first time byt the strong interior front in Carolina, which pushed the rookie around a bit. Meanwhile, Ryans' absence in that game proved how valuable the veteran is, especially when defending the run. The Eagles have been lights out stopping things on the ground with Ryans on the field and his consistency and leadership give him the mantle of most valuable LB right now.
Better Days to Come: Alonso
You were teased by Alonso's blend of size, speed and athleticism in Atlanta when he made that brilliant interception but his knee problems continued and although Dr. James Andrews fended off another potential season-ending situation with arthroscopic surgery, it's pretty clear you are not going to see the Buffalo Pro Bowl version of Alonso until 2016 at the earliest.
It's just not going to happen: Smith
Smith is Johnny Bravo and for those who don't understand that dated reference, the former first-round pick looks the part but the intangibles, namely football IQ and the ability to stay off the trainer's table, are just not there. The fact that Philadelphia tried to give a crash course to Curry at OLB rather than let Smith sink or swim in an expanded role tells you exactly what this staff thinks of him.
Biggest Surprise: Hicks
Most draft observers had a fourth- or fifth-round grade on Hicks but Chip Kelly was enamored with his smarts and well-rounded skill set, one the coach envisioned could turn the University of Texas product into a three-down linebacker. A natural leader, Hicks has actually improved the defense when he has been on the field, an almost stunning development considering the reputations of Alonso, Kendricks and Ryans.
“We were really excited about Jordan when we got him,” Kelly said. “We talked about him being a third-down linebacker. You’re starting to see that. He’s got great coverage skills. There’s a calmness to Jordan. I don’t think anything is too big for him.”
Biggest Disappointment: Kendricks
The concern over extending Kendricks surrounded his inability to stay on the field consistently. The Eagles took the plunge anyway and the hamstring issues have been nagging, a tough situation for a player whose strength is speed. He finally got back on the field against the Panthers and was able to finish but the rust was evident and the gap discipline was egregious.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973ESPN.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen