Eagles Outlook: Who will emerge at linebacker?
The oft-maligned Eagles' linebacking corps has become a frequent talking point in recent years. While some the names that permeate the depth chart may have changed over the past few months, the questions and skepticism surrounding the position continue to loom. The only thing that appears evident on the surface, is that Nathan Gerry and T.J. Edwards, two of the most productive special teams performers on the Eagles a season ago, project as starters.
Gerry, entering his fourth season, has made strides and is a favorite of the coaching staff and Edwards proved to be a tremendous post-draft signing last season, producing the highest tackle rate among linebackers with a minimum of 100 snaps and the second-best run defense grade among linebackers, per PFF's grading system. Beyond the projected starting duo, however, there is much uncertainty, so I opted to take a closer look at three players vying for a defensive role in 2020.
To me, Riley is the most intriguing of the players in contention for a prominent role in 2020. Riley, of course, was acquired in a late-September trade with the Atlanta Falcons for safety Johnathan Cyprien and a 2020 seventh-round pick.
A former third-round pick in 2017, Riley started 16 games for the Falcons over his first two seasons, before multiple surgeries and inconsistent play ultimately stunted his progress and limited his role.
The 6-foot-1, 218-pound linebacker quickly asserted himself on Dave Fipp's special teams unit, however, finishing with the 4th-most special teams snaps on the Eagles. Following a season-ending injury to fellow linebacker and special teams ace Kamu Grugier-Hill in December, Riley was named a team captain, joining Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Kelce, Carson Wentz, and Fletcher Cox.
While Riley is considered vastly undersized for a linebacker, the 25-year-old brings sub-4.6 speed and tremendous range and athleticism to the second-level of the Eagles' defense. Now that he's had adequate time to acclimate himself, it will be interesting to see if the team can unlock the potential of the former LSU standout.
Signed to a modest 1-year deal in the second wave of free agency after experiencing varying degrees of success in his four seasons with the Chargers, Brown finds himself in an ideal situation in Philadelphia, as he aspires to rekindle his early-career success.
A fifth-round pick in 2016, Brown appeared in 56 games (23 starts) during his Chargers' tenure. Although he was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team in 2016, Brown also enjoyed a strong 2018 campaign, where he compiled a career-high 97 tackles across 10 starts. Injuries and inconsistencies kept him off the field in 2019, however, and Brown eventually became an afterthought, playing just 92 defensive snaps.
The Akron product becomes Eagles' most experienced linebacker and should immediately push for playing time this summer if he remains healthy and avoids mental lapses. Not unlike many of the team's linebackers, the 5-foot-11, 221-pound Brown is an undersized second-level defender with enticing speed, range, and coverage acumen who is at his best when playing in space.
The Eagles continued to bolster the linebacker position over the offseason, selecting the tantalizingly athletic Davion Taylor in the third-round of April's draft.
Taylor, an immensely raw, albeit upside-laden rookie, experienced an untraditional path to the NFL. In high school, Taylor participated in football practice throughout the week but was forbidden to take part in Friday night and Saturday evening games, as his family observed the Seventh-day Aventist Sabbath. He then spent two seasons at Coahoma Community College, where he became the seventh-ranked junior college prospect in the country.
Following two seasons of dominance at the junior college level, Taylor advanced to the Pac-12 ranks and became an immediate contributor for the Colorado Buffaloes. In 24 games, Taylor accumulated 129 tackles (18 for loss), 2.0 sacks, six passes defended, three fumble recoveries, and a touchdown.
Few players would have benefited more from a full offseason than Taylor. Although Taylor boasts explosive traits that suggest he can help in some capacity as a rookie -- he ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine -- there are areas of his game that must be refined before he can be relied upon as a fixture on defense. While he continues to learn how to locate the ball in coverage and improve his play recognition, however, I can foresee the Eagles finding a specialty role for Taylor as the season progresses, while featuring him saliently on special teams.
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