Budgeting a ‘Fort’ for Defensive Sub-Packages
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - After losing Jordan Hicks to Arizona in free agency, the Eagles added a veteran linebacker to the mix by agreeing to a three-year deal with L.J. Fort on Thursday.
Fort, 29, originally an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa in 2012, had stints in a half-dozen cities before finally finding a home in Pittsburgh back in 2015. He finished up in Western Pennsylvania with his best season in 2018, tallying 48 tackles and a fumble recovery which was taken back for a touchdown.
Typically a reserve and special-teamer, Fort has only started three games in his career but has been effective when forced into action, ranking No. 19 out of 96 linebackers by ProFootballFocus.com last season. The sample size was small, though, with Fort playing in just under 30 percent of Pittsburgh's defensive snaps although that number increased to over 43 percent in the Steelers' final 10 games.
The fit makes sense for the Eagles, though, as the modern game continues to shift away from the traditional model on defense. While many casual fans consider three linebackers to be "starters," Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz really only employs one three-down linebacker with Nigel Bradham being penciled in for that role.
Hicks and Bradham got the majority of reps at the position in the nickel defense with the former being the three-down LB for the majority of his star-crossed career in Philadelphia. During the run toward Super Bowl LII, Bradham slipped into the role seamlessly when Hicks was down with a torn Achilles. When a calf cost Hicks a month last season, Bradham did it again, impressing enough that when Hicks was ready to return Schwartz stuck to the status quo and Hicks was ultimately off to the open market and a big deal with the Cardinals.
The second LB role in the team's nickel defense is still a significant one, however, and that's where Fort, a fast, athletic linebacker who excels in coverage is expected to compete with names like Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry, the ex-Nebraska safety who has been bulking up to handle the rigors of LB.
In a perfect world, you could see veteran Paul Worrilow return from an ACL to handle the Mike duties on a two-down basis with Bradham as the SAM 'backer and Fort handling the weak-side duties. Gerry is mainly working on Mike duties while Grugier-Hill has been an outside option at SAM and WILL but LB coach Ken Flajole is big on cross-training especially in the offseason and through training camp.
Schwartz also has the Malcolm Jenkins card in his deck enabling him to play more dime packages in a three-safety look where the versatile Jenkins is essentially playing the second LB role.
Fort signed a three-year deal and got $875,000 to sign with base salaries of $1.025 million in 2019 and $1.5 million in 2020 and 2021. The first year is guaranteed so Fort essentially got $1.9M for moving to Philadelphia so it's not like he was handed anything other than a significant role on Dave Fipp's coverage units. His skill set and ability to fit in as a coverage option to chase running backs and tight ends fit nicely with the changing landscape of the NFL, though.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen