PHILADELPHIA -- You can trust your eyes or you can trust your eyes.
Trust them when Philadelphia Eagles inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans is on the field and you see a veteran who was playing, according to his defensive coordinator, at a Pro Bowl level late in the 2013 season.
Or trust them when you see the orange box in the Pro Football Focus graphic and the image of Ryans in the NFL.com photo display of veterans likely to be released by their teams for salary reasons.
Reading through last week’s positional analysis of the Eagles’ inside linebackers, I certainly didn’t portray Ryans as a huge issue. Bearing in mind that the Eagles moved from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, and that Ryans was in charge of getting everyone lined up correctly and maintaining order, the 29-year-old had a solid season. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis backed that up.
"DeMeco is the leader of our defense, and he's having an outstanding Pro Bowl year,” Davis said in November. “We couldn't be happier with everything DeMeco is doing for us."
In its look at the Eagles’ projected 2014 lineup, PFF classified Ryans as a “below-average starter/adequate role player” -- one of four orange boxes on the site’s graphic representation of the Eagles' defense. Cornerback Cary Williams and safeties Patrick Chung and Earl Wolff were the others (free agents, including Nate Allen, were not included).
NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal included Ryans on his list of veteran players whose 2014 salaries make them candidates to be released.
“His reputation and salary far exceed his play on the field (especially on passing downs),” Rosenthal writes. “Do the Eagles want to pay $6.9 million for leadership?”
Two quick reactions: Ryans provided more than leadership, especially as the defensive line improved in front of the linebackers. Logic suggests he can be even more effective as the rest of the defensive players improve within Davis’ scheme.
But Rosenthal and the guys at PFF aren’t making this stuff up. They know their stuff and viewed Ryans’ play with dispassionate eyes. So it might make more sense that the Eagles spent a fair amount of time talking to inside linebackers during Senior Bowl week. Jimmy Kempski of philly.com noted Eagles personnel talking to LSU’s Lamin Barrow, Wisconsin’s Chris Borland, Illinois’ Jonathan Brown, and Florida State’s Christian Jones.
Ultimately, I think Ryans is still starting for the Eagles in September even if the Eagles draft his long-term replacement. Davis is not going to want his defense to take a step back while a rookie learns the system and how to diagnose offensive formations. Free agency doesn’t seem like a viable option -- if the Eagles are going to pay top dollar for a veteran, they’re better off with Ryans.