This is the seventh in a series of posts breaking down the Eagles position by position in advance of the upcoming draft and (hopefully) free agency. We’ve already looked at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, and defensive line. This time we’ll examine the linebackers.
2010 Recap: Stewart Bradley returned to middle linebacker after missing all of 2009 with a knee injury, but didn't display the same explosive form he showed in the NFC Championship Game run in 2008. Pro Football Focus grades showed that he improved as the year went on, but Bradley hurt his elbow in Week 14 and missed the rest of the year. New addition Ernie Sims was highly touted after the Eagles traded a fifth round pick for the former Lion, but had more of an impact hitting his teammates too hard in practice than he ever had in a game. Moise Fokou took over for Akeem Jordan at strongside linebacker and did alright. He certainly wasn't anything special, but there weren't many problems either. The brightest spot was seventh-round pick Jamar Chaney, who started in place of Bradley over the last few games and performed better than anyone expected. Jordan, Omar Gaither, and fourth-round pick Keenan Clayton mostly contributed on special teams.
Who’s Leaving: The team declined to offer restricted free agent tenders to Sims, Gaither or Jordan -- signaling that they don't want any of them back. Bradley, who has four years of experience, was tendered at the second-round level, meaning any team who wanted to sign him under the current rules would have to send the Eagles a pick in that round. Presumably Bradley will be back in midnight green next season. He deserves a shot to show he can improve in year two after his ACL tear.
2011 Depth Chart: The likely starters are Fokou at strongside, Bradley in the middle, and Chaney on the weak side. Clayton would need a big jump in year two to win a job over one of the other three. That leaves two or three more back up spots, which will likely be filled in the draft of free agency. The team already signed one competitor, Rashad Jeanty, a veteran back up and special teams player with the Bengals in 2009 before a fractured tibula caused him to miss all of last season.
Potential Additions: Eagles have never drafted a linebacker higher than the second round in the Andy Reid era, and both of those picks were busts. Furthermore, the team has only drafted one linebacker as high as the fourth round since 2007, despite constant turnover at the position. Thus, unless new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has a completely opposite philosophy from his predecessors, I don't expect the Eagles to draft any highly-rated linebackers. They will likely draft one or two more in the mid-to-late rounds, along with a free agent or two who can give at least token competition to the starters.
Future Outlook: The Eagles don't have any old linebackers. That means there's a lot of potential, but not much guaranteed. Maybe Chaney, Fokou and Clayton are the future of the Eagles linebacker corps, or maybe none of them have the talent to make it long term. Bradley's been around for four seasons and is still a question mark. Most likely, until the front office changes priorities and chooses to focus more resources (money, high draft picks) on the position, it will remain a question mark year after year.