This time last year, the Eagles were so deep at linebacker, we were openly wondering how everybody would get on the field. In a matter of months, the club re-signed DeMeco Ryans, traded for Kiko Alonso, drafted Jordan Hicks and extended Mychal Kendricks, creating a star-studded logjam on the interior. Of course, it wound up not being an issue because none of them could stay healthy, while the only player among them who looked like a star was Hicks.
What a difference a year makes. Ryans was released and possibly headed into retirement, while Alonso was traded again and hoping a change of scenery revitalizes his career. The Eagles also switched from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 alignment, which means Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham are no longer linebackers at all.
As always, some good and some bad comes with a scheme change. For instance, it's not as if Hicks and Kendricks are ill-suited for a 4-3 -- Kendricks arguably is a better fit. Unfortunately, it's never easy to replace four starting-caliber linebackers in one offseason, even when one less is going to be on the field at all times and two of them weren't very good anymore. The result is a unit that's a little top heavy and lacking talent on the back end. Overall, will that work out to be an upgrade or another step back?
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Bradham quietly might be one of the best free-agent additions the Eagles made in the past year, which is saying something in an offseason that brought Rodney McLeod and Brandon Brooks to the party. The former fourth-round draft pick of the Bills may not seem like such a big deal when you look at his career stats, but the fact that he's a perfect fit in Jim Schwartz's scheme is what really stands out.
2014, Bradham's lone season with Schwartz as defensive coordinator, was by far the outside linebacker's best in the NFL with 104 tackles, 2.5 sacks, six pass breakups, an interception and two forced fumbles over 14 games. Those are pretty strong numbers, and he only turns 27 in September, so perhaps he's still just scratching the surface. At 6'2", 241 pounds with 4.6 speed, Bradham certainly has the tools to be a difference maker, and putting him back in the defense he was most comfortable is the smart way to try to unlock that potential.
Given that this job would've belonged to Kiko Alonso, who looked slow and undersized last year — in a 3-4 scheme no less — the Eagles were probably wise to take a flier on Bradham.
The Eagles may have a real situation at linebacker if there are one or two injuries, which seems likely considering none of the three have ever started 16 games in a season. Currently, the only backups on the roster with NFL experience are Najee Goode and Deontae Skinner, each of whom have made exactly one start, and Skinner isn't even a lock to make the team. A seventh-round pick was used on Joe Walker, and a pair of undrafted rookies were signed in Myke Tavarres and Quentin Gause, but that right there is your depth chart.
Don't be surprised if the Eagles add a veteran at some point during training camp — veteran Stephen Tulloch is available and well versed in Schwartz's system. As of right now though, the lack of depth behind an injury prone group of linebackers is nothing short of scary.
We could just as easily put Kendricks under unknown, because consistency has not been his thing. He was a big-time playmaker during the 2013-13 campaigns — one of only three linebackers in the NFL to total 8.0 sacks, three interceptions and five fumbles during that span -- yet wasn't the surest tackler and at 6'0" could struggle against taller tight ends in coverage. Then last year, it was more of a game-to-game or play-to-play inconsistency, as he could blow up the quarterback or ball-carrier one snap, then miss a tackle or get broken down in coverage the next. Oh, you can count on him missing a game or two as well.
Kendricks isn't a bad player. Actually, there aren't many more talented linebackers out there. Until he can clean up the miscues however, the 2012 second-round pick will continue to be something south of a Pro Bowler. The Eagles hope reverting back to a 4-3 and simplifying the defense makes for a more instinctive Kendricks, but perhaps what we've already seen is all we get.
Hicks was well on his way to being a frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors last season before a freak torn pectoral ended his season early. The third-round selection was making huge plays on a weekly basis, with 50 tackles, a sack, three pass breakups, two picks, a forced fumble, three fumbles recoveries and a touchdown in essentially six-and-a-half games. What's not to like?
To begin with, it's clear the Eagles have a player in Hicks. How good is still in question. The sample size simply isn't large enough to declare him a perennial Pro Bowler, and that's before we see him as the mike linebacker behind a wide-9 front — an extremely demanding position. From a football IQ standpoint, there's no question Hicks can handle it. From a physical ability and talent standpoint, he needs to prove it. Hicks is an exciting prospect and could knock the job out of the park. We just need to see it first.
BETTER OR WORSE?
The linebacker play in 2015 was absolutely brutal, particularly inside. It has the potential to go either way, largely based on the unpredictable nature of player health. If Bradham, Kendricks and Hicks all stay on the field, consider this group a vast upgrade in a simplified scheme. If starters begin going down, on the other hand, it has the potential to get ugly real fast. Depth is a serious issue, but we have to go on the assumption the top three will be available at least most of the time, so for now we'll call this an improvement — just hedge your bets. BETTER