Examining the Eagles’ Weak-side LB Competition
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - With Mychal Kendricks busy in Cleveland extolling the virtue of the talent there and Paul Worrilow tucked away on injured reserve after tearing his ACL during the Delaware native's first practice with the Eagles, Philadelphia's third linebacker spot remains up for grabs.
The race has narrowed with the free-agent pickup Corey Nelson falling off when compared to the two front-runners: special-teams standout Kamu Grugier-Hill and second-year player Nate Gerry.
"We got different guys with different skillsets, different strengths," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of the competition before a 5-0 setback to the Cleveland Browns. "This week, maybe next, but this week will go a long way to determine how we lineup."
Gerry, a former safety at Nebraska who was a fifth-round pick a year ago, started the first two preseason games before giving way to Grugier-Hill, once a rover in college at Eastern Illinois before being drafted by New England and ultimately ending up in Philadelphia after being picked up on waivers.
Both players needed to add bulk to stand up to the rigors of the job and have done so with each tipping the scales at about 230 or so after starting out in the 215 range.
“I think the days of 250-, 260-pound linebackers is definitely dead," Grugier-Hill said earlier this summer. "You still need to be able to be physical in the run game. It’s a lot easier when you’re a little heavier.”
Each player has coverage abilities that outpace the traditional LB and are built for the modern game, which attempts to get athletes in space against defenders who don't have the ability to keep up.
That said, you probably don't want to see a pulling guard like Zack Martin bearing down on a pumped-up 230-pound LB especially when the running back coming up the rear is Ezekiel Elliott.
The third LB remains a concern for the Eagles and perhaps one of their few issues the team has on paper going into the season. Despite Kendricks' current unpopularity in Philadelphia, he was a good player with the Eagles and turned out to be a Godsend during last year's Super Bowl run once Jordan Hicks went down with a torn Achilles.
Worrilow doesn't have Kendricks' raw talent but he is a savvy, assignment-sound veteran, much like Corey Graham is on the back end, and a player Schwartz would have felt comfortable with in short doses.
The third LB in Schwartz's scheme is probably only going to play about 25 percent of the time normally but things get hinky from the get-go because Nigel Bradham will be suspended for Week 1 against Atlanta, meaning Grugier-Hill or Gerry will be next to Hicks as one of the two, three-down LBs in the opener.
"We have another layer to that, is that Nigel Bradham is going to be suspended for the opener. So, it's not just trying to figure out one, but trying to figure out your best combinations," Schwartz explained.
Both KGH and Gerry played quite a bit in the dress-rehearsal game in Cleveland with Grugier-Hill starting and leading the entire defense with 45 snaps (63 percent) and Gerry No. 3 on the night with 34 (48 percent) but they often played together as nickel LBs. Gerry made the biggest splash play by re-routing a receiver resulting in an Avonte Maddox interception and was graded higher by ProFootballFocus.com.
"I'm night and day from where I was last year," Gerry said last week. "[Just understanding the] overall scheme and the physical and mental parts of the game."
Perhaps the final answer here doesn't come from column A or column B, something Schwartz may have been foreshadowing.
"We have a lot of different personnel packages. What skillset fits best in short yardage, what skillset fits best in third down, what one fits best in all these different things," the DC asked rhetorically.
That answer might be C and both players become situational contributors.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen