Handicapping the Murky Eagles LB Situation
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - When you use the term committee approach while discussing Philadelphia football, people will tend to gravitate toward the offensive backfield where the Doug Pederson era has been defined by a multiple approach as Howie Roseman has searched for a true three-down back.
On the other side of the football, the Eagles may be about to embark on a similar path at linebacker in the wake of Jordan Hicks' move to Arizona in free agency.
The issues with Hicks were all injury-related with a torn pec, an Achilles', and finally, a calf problem, limiting three of his four seasons in Philly. What can't be disputed is that when Hicks was on the field he was one of the more well-rounded linebackers in the NFL, a true three-down option and a luxury for Jim Schwartz and Ken Flajole.
"I think everybody is spreading you out and I think when we went through our offseason program and looked at all the tape we were probably in our nickel package about 70 percent of time," Flajole, the Eagles' LB coach explained when talking about the role of his pupils in the modern NFL. "Nobody gets in two backs anymore and pounds the ball on you like they used to. ... We're seeing so much three wides and we are in our nickel package so often that again, all the guys that run well and move well in space, I think it fits their game."
Hicks' running mate for the last three years has been Nigel Bradham. When Hicks was healthy he was the Mike LB in nickel situations with Bradham serving as the off-ball 'backer in the nickel defense. Bradham would then slide over when Hicks wasn't available and the Eagles are currently kicking the tires on who is best suited to play pass coverage in the modern NFL with the leader in the clubhouse being Kamu Grugier-Hill, a former rover in college at Eastern Illinois who has built up his body to the point he can handle the rigors of the LB position.
“We know what Nigel Bradham brings to our organization,” Flajole said. “He’s been a very productive guy. He’s filled in for Jordan [Hicks] when Jordan was hurt in the previous two years, so we know Nigel can slip in there [to middle linebacker]. I don’t know if that’s his most natural position but it may be the best thing for our football team. We’ll just have to see.”
The most obvious option might be to rely on veteran Zach Brown to be the MLB in the base defense and slide Bradham to that role in the nickel with KGH coming in as the other coverage LB.
“Zach is kind of a late addition, so he’s trying to play catchup a little bit,” Flajole said. “You can tell with him out on the field, he’s played a lot of football and he’s played a lot of good football, so he’s a veteran that gets it. He just needs to get more time in our scheme and he’ll be a good contributor for us.”
As for KGH, Flajole is impressed with his growth after often filling in at times last season when Hicks was unavailable.
“He’s shown a lot of good growth,” Flajole said of Grugier-Hill. “He’s made incremental progress every year that we’ve had him here. I fully expect him to take the next step and be more than just a special teams guy and a spot player on defense. I’d like to think he could be a real factor for us.”
Flajole's words regarding Bradham and the Mike role not being his "most natural position" could foreshadow an open door for others in the Mike role when in the nickel, most notably Nate Gerry, a former safety at Nebraska who handled the MLB role for the first-team in spring OTAs with Bradham rehabbing after surgery.
"Nate's never going to be a 250-pound guy but Nate, without a doubt, is probably the brightest guy," Flajole explained. "He's smarter than I am in the meeting room. He gets it. When you've got a back-end perspective, particularly when it comes to the coverage part of it, I think it gives you a unique perspective because all of a sudden, he's the one guy that understands how everything fits together with the back end."
Others in the mix include veteran free-agent pickup L.J. Fort, who handled the communication aspect for the second-team defense in the spring and also mixed in with the first-team when Gerry was out, veteran Paul Worrilow, who is still rehabbing a torn ACL, and even former CFL star Alex Singleton, a player Flajole is anxious to see when the pads come on in the summer.
"Alex has really done a nice job. The thing I'm anxious to see Alex is when we put the pads on because I got a sense he's a real tough nut and that he'll flourish when the physical part of the game comes into play," Flajole said. "That will come in when you put the pads on in training camp. I'm anxious to see that. He's a bright guy, he understands football."
Gerry's smarts, meanwhile, could be used in another role as well because he's the one guy Flajole trusts to play any of the LB positions in a pinch.
"I have a lot of trust in him. I think I could put him at any position and again, I'm not saying that we are bringing in Dick Butkus or anything but he knows what every position at the linebackers, what they do, all the pressure, all the zone coverages and for that reason alone, I think he becomes a very valuable guy to you," Flajole said. "Right now nobody can predict who gets hurt in a ball game. All of a sudden a guy goes down and if you want someone to go in and fill in and finish a game for you that hasn't practiced at that position during the week I would trust [Gerry]."
Versatility is always key.
“I think in the NFL, when you only carry six [linebackers] on a 53-man roster, or if you carry seven, guys have to be [versatile] in what they play,” Flajole said. “That’s going to be an experiment as we finish up and go through these OTAs this week and go into training camp and try to find out where guys are best suited and who’s really the best mix for us.”
Flajole, though, gave the template of what he's looking for to replace Hicks in the modern base defense, the nickel: "the guys that run well and move well in space."
And that means game on for KGH, Gerry, and Fort.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen