Ryans Character Rubbing Off On Young Linebackers
Ask an Eagles coach about DeMeco Ryans and one word will keep popping up: professional. When the Eagles traded for the two-time Pro Bowler in March, they got more than a quality player from the Texans, they picked up a leader.
At 27 years old, Ryans is the elder statesman among his linebacker peers. On his strong side, Mychal Kendricks is a 21-year-old rookie. On his weak side, Brian Rolle is a 23-year-old entering his second season.
"He's a leader, and he's done it," said defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. "They can look to him, the way he carries himself, he's a professional all the way."
Ryans best season came in 2006, when he racked up 156 total tackles and 3.5 sacks. Ryans topped the 100 tackle mark in the following three seasons before a torn Achilles cut his 2010 season short and left him shy of 100 percent last year.
Ryans is also a better fit in the Eagles 4-3 defensive alignment than the Texans 3-4, so the Eagles are hoping they got a steal for the fourth round draft pick they gave up. Ryans acquisition is already paying dividends by elevating the play of those around him.
"If you have a guy at your position and he's a top dog and he's making plays, it's going to raise your level because you want to be the best," said linebackers coach Mike Caldwell. "If you're a professional athlete, you have that competitive drive to always be the best whether it's studying or making plays."
Castillo says Ryans' teammates were already gravitating towards him during mini camps and OTAs, and taking cues from the way he handled himself on and off the field. Perhaps it's played a role in helping Kendricks mature quickly.
"He's been diligent in studying and he's asking good questions, so the thing about him - he wants to get it right the first time," Caldwell said. "His progression has been good."
In recent years, the Eagles have not been eager to label their linebackers as strongside or weakside linebackers. With Kendricks, though, the Birds almost immediately declared him their likely starter at the SAM (strongside). Castillo says Kendricks' athleticism, build and personality were key in that decision.
"He was athletic; he was relentless; he's a guy you don't want to meet in a dark alley, man," Castillo said. "He's got that look, you know? He was meant to be a Philadelphia Eagle."
On the other side, Brian Rolle and Jamar Chaney head into training camp battling for the starting job at the WILL. The Eagles expect Rolle to improve significantly from his rookie year into his second season.
"That's your biggest jump," Caldwell said. "You understand how to be a professional, you have the experience under your belt, so now you just take that and that's when you become the better player, that year. You see a big increase in productivity and thats what we expect from [Rolle]."
Chaney, the only linebacker to start all 16 games for the Eagles, seems like a forgotten man. With his middle linebacker spot taken over by Ryans, Chaney will try to battle his way into playing time.
With players like Chaney, Rolle, Moise Fokou, Akeem Jordan, Keenan Clayton and Casey Matthews able to play either outside linebacker position, there are seemingly endless possible combinations. Caldwell isn't worried about the challenge of finding the perfect group to compliment each other.
"The players find the right combinations, it's really not - the coaches don't do that," Caldwell said. "You're out on the field and you're performing - you're going to separate yourself from other guys. That's how you become the guy."
Last year, the Eagles utilized their young linebackers in specific packages in order to limit the number of assignments they needed to learn and play to their strengths. That's a possibility again this year.
"Once you're the guy, then if there are other guys that are performing well, doing things well in practice in a specialty area then they can earn that opportunity to be a specialty guy," Caldwell said.
For now, all eyes are on Mychal Kendricks as the rookies make the most of their time before veterans report to Lehigh. By tomorrow night, the full team will be in camp and the battles will heat up at a position the Eagles hope is one of their most improved.
Ryan Messick covers the Eagles for 97.3 ESPN FM. Follow him on Twitter.