The Eagles let a promising-yet-oft-injured potential star walk in the offseason, though the team was not idle, adding two quality players to mix. Will the linebackers be better off as a result in 2019?
Key additions: L.J. Fort (free agent, Steelers), Zach Brown (free agent, Redskins)
Key departures: Jordan Hicks (free agent, Cardinals)
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Why they could be better: Depth
Last summer, the battle for the Eagles' third linebacker job was between Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry, neither of whom played much up to that point, and Corey Nelson, who didn't even make the team. Grugier-Hill and Gerry are still in the mix here, though the competition for spots two through seven behind Nigel Bradham will be much stiffer.
Jordan Hicks' departure does create another hole in the starting lineup, one likely to be filled by either L.J. Fort, Zach Brown or Grugier-Hill. But that trio all bring experience to the table - Brown has been to a Pro Bowl - plus Paul Worrilow returns from a torn ACL, offering another veteran presence. Gerry got some opportunities last year, and even he'll be pushed by CFL star Alex Singleton and undrafted rookie/ All-American T.J. Edwards. How much deeper is this group? In 2018, the guys behind LB4 Gerry were all exclusively special teamers.
Why they could be worse: Down a playmaker
How much will the Eagles miss Hicks? Hard to say. They won a Super Bowl without him in 2017, and after missing more time last season, he eventually returned to find Bradham had taken over as the defense's No. 1 linebacker. Can't blame the club for its unwillingness to match $36 million over four years for somebody who's injured so frequently.
That being said, there's no denying Hicks seemingly has a nose for the football. He played only 43 games over four seasons, yet managed to amass 19 pass breakups, 7 interceptions, 5.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, six fumble recoveries and 12 tackles for loss. Only a small handful of players even come close to matching that big play production during the same span – none with at least as many of each, and all in at least 10 more games. When he's on the field, Hicks is a difference-maker, an ability as difficult to replace as it can be to quantify.
The X-factor: Who takes Hicks' spot?
It was kind of surprising Brown was still on the street in May. Sure, he turns 30 this year, coming off a season in which he lost his starting job in Washington and is nowhere near the impact player he was earlier in his career. He still posted over 200 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 22 tackles for loss over the last two years.
Brown may be best suited for LB3 snaps in the Eagles' defense. There's not a lot of blitzing, minimizing one of his best attributes of rushing the passer, and as he's aged, his coverage ability has seemingly diminished. Yet, he's still stout against the run, and who else is it going to be? This could wind up becoming more of a platoon role, with Brown seeing first- and second-down snaps, then either Fort or Grugier-Hill in the nickel. There's potential in such an arrangement. The question is whether opponents will be able to attack the shortcomings of Hicks' part-time replacements.
Are the Eagles' linebackers better or worse?
There's a chance the Eagles let a special one go in Hicks, but the bottom line is he's seldom available anyway - an issue that issue dates back to college, by the way. On paper, you probably take Hicks over the field, including Bradham. However, in reality, having a bunch of competent, experienced players who will actually be in uniform might be the safer route at this point. BETTER
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