Eagles Training Camp Preview: Linebackers
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The skies are pretty clear in Philadelphia when it comes to professional football but if you do see a few ominous clouds on the horizon, it almost certainly starts at the linebacker position.
It's hardly the storm of the century, however, because the Super Bowl champions do still have two really good players at what is a devalued position in the modern game where there are typically only two are full-time players.
In other words, as long as Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham stay healthy things should be copacetic for LB coach Ken Flajole. If a sequel to last season unfolds when Hicks was felled by a torn Achilles' things get much trickier because Mychal Kendricks is now in Cleveland and Paul Worrilow is already on injured reserve with a torn ACL.
Hicks and Bradham have proven themselves. The latter, however, is the only one who has been able to stay healthy while two of Hicks' three professional seasons have been cut short by injuries: a pec tear during his rookie campaign and the torn Achilles' which forced the Eagles to go on the street late last season to bring in a veteran like Dannell Ellerbe for depth.
Bradham, meanwhile, will miss the season opener on a league-manded suspension from an incident in South Florida two summers ago where he was accused of attacking a cabana boy at a Miami Beach hotel due to poor service.
DEPTH TAKES A HIT
Kendricks proved to be an excellent insurance policy as the third LB and stepped in admirably for Hicks in the run toward Super Bowl LII but Howie Roseman understood Kendricks' contract was no longer viable if he was back in a sub-package role and playing only 25 percent of the time.
That's why veterans with some special-teams acumen like Worrilow and Corey Nelson were targeted in free agency, to take over the Will LB position in the base defense while also providing some insurance in case of injury.
Worrilow, however, never made it through his first OTA practice after colliding with Nelson in the NovaCare Complex practice bubble.
Nelson remains standing and the ex-Denver Bronco is the odds-on favorite to take over the Kendricks' role but another option seemed to emerge during the spring, second-year player Nate Gerry, the former Nebraska safety who is trying to make the switch to LB at the professional level.
A POTENTIAL SURPRISE:
A fifth-round pick in 2017, the Eagles saw something in Gerry and wanted him to bulk up from the 212 pounds he played at in Lincoln to the 231 pounds he now carries on a 6-foot-2 frame in Philadelphia.
In other words, Gerry was always going to be a developmental project and now that he's remade his body the Eagles are hoping his coverage skills can turn him into a potential three-down LB.
“Last year it took me a while to get going,” Gerry admitted. “... I was able to have a lot of practice time and the transition got easier and easier. I think it went kind of smoothly for me. Now I am much more comfortable and understands things better."
Gerry credits Bradham, who took over the leadership role on a Super Bowl defense seamlessly after Hicks went down last season, as the player who's helped him most.
"Nigel is quiet so many people don't know how smart a player he is," Gerry explained. "He has been there for me. Any question I have he is always willing to help."
With Hicks still rehabbing his Achilles and not working in team drills this spring and Bradham getting a few days off to welcome his daughter to the world Gerry got plenty of opportunities to work with the first-team defense in OTAs, an important step for the young player.
"It really is important," Flajole said. "Getting those kind of reps is going to help any young player and Nate did a really good job with them.
"... All the young guys, the Kamus [Grugier-Hill], the Nate Gerrys, the Joe Walkers, they’re all in the mix and I think any time that you lose a starter, I think they see it as an opportunity for them to maybe get a chance to get on the field."
In Gerry's case, like Grugier-Hill, another undersized LB who played more of a rover role in college at Eastern Illinois, Flajole understands August and the pads will be important because while athleticism and coverage skills are important, physicality often trumps everything at LB.
“Training camp will really be the litmus test for us — when we put the pads on through training camp and through the preseason," Flajole admitted. "When we actually play tackle football. We’ll get a better idea of who’s going to emerge as a starter at the Will position for us in the base defense.”
SPECIAL TEAMS HELP
Six-year veteran LaRoy Reynolds was a sneaky free-agent signing because of his value on special teams as a potential core four play. Reynolds also has valuable starting experience with the Falcons but he's not a player who want seeing extended snaps.
MLB1 Jordan Hicks - Playmaker who needs to find a way to stay healthy.
SAM1 Nigel Bradham - Jim Schwartz favorite who will be suspended Week 1 for the Miami cabana boy incident. Proved to be the front seven's cerebral and emotional leader last season.
WILL1 Corey Nelson - Excellent special teams player who should be fine in limited base defense role.
LB4 Kamu Grugier-Hill - Great special teamer who has some coverage skills.
ON THE BUBBLE:
LB5 LaRoy Reynolds - Former Falcons special teams star who you don't want playing on defense.
MLB2 Joe Walker - Eagles were not happy with his performance last season before neck injury.
PRACTICE SQUAD HOPEFULS:
LB Asantay Brown - At 6-foot, 215 the theme continues, Eagles looking for coverage linebackers.
LB Kyle Wilson - Undrafted rookie was brought in after Worrilow went down.
LB Paul Worrilow - Extensive starting experience in Atlanta and Detroit would have made him team's most valuable backup.
LB POSITION GRADE: 5.5
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-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen