PHILADELPHIA – NFL teams are reporting to training camp this week. The Eagles, who hit the field at the NovaCare Complex on Sunday (Aug. 2) are one of the last teams to start camp.
When they do, there will be a quarterback competition as well as a slew of new defensive players to watch come together. This week, as we count down to the start of camp, we’ll take a look at some of the less obvious issues that will be addressed this summer. Today: the state of the linebackers.
A year ago, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin were set to start at outside linebacker for the Eagles, and first-round pick Marcus Smith was expected to take his time easing into the rotation. Brandon Graham, meanwhile, figured to lose playing time as Smith’s increased.
It was, in short, a relatively clear picture. This summer, with training camp about to open, that picture is a lot harder to see.
Cole is gone, a victim of turning 32 and counting nearly $8.5 million against the Eagles’ salary cap. Graham signed a new contract and is in line to replace Cole at outside linebacker.
Meanwhile, the Eagles added inside linebacker Kiko Alonso in the LeSean McCoy trade. Alonso, 24, is expected to start. So are Ryans and Kendricks. Simple math tells you there are three players and only two starting positions. Something has to give and no one had indicated yet exactly what that something is.
Simply put, the Eagles have too much depth at inside linebacker and not enough at outside linebacker.
Ryans seems like the obvious odd man out on the inside. He missed the second half of the 2014 season with a torn Achilles tendon, his second such tear in four years. Ryans turned 31 on Tuesday. That makes him six years older than Alonso and Kendricks, who will both be 25 by the end of September.
But there’s one small hitch in the plan to start Kendricks and Alonso: Chip Kelly really likes Ryans, as both a player and as a leader. During the offseason, after trading for Alonso, Kelly reworked Ryans’ contract, adding another year to it. Ryans is now signed through 2016 and remains very much in the picture as a starter.
There are ways for defensive coordinator Bill Davis to get Alonso, Kendricks and Ryans on the field at the same time. Indeed, that strategy would minimize the issue of lack of depth at outside linebacker. Kendricks and Alonso are both able to line up outside and blitz the quarterback or cover a tight end or running back.
Can Smith do those things effectively? The answer to that question will determine whether he plays more in 2015 or whether he is simply a bust. Kelly’s gaining of power over personnel decisions could be bad news for players drafted earlier. Kelly didn’t select them so he is not likely to carry them for the sake of appearance. He has been very matter-of-fact about Smith’s inability to crack the rotation at linebacker. Smith just wasn’t as good as Graham or Matthews.
If Smith shows up for camp looking and playing like a prospect, there will be room for him. Graham played on 43 percent of defensive plays last season. That workload will be available, with Smith, Travis Long and Bryan Braman vying for snaps.
The mainstay is Barwin, who had a breakout season last year. Barwin’s 14½ sacks were the most by an NFC player last season. A similar season is likely as Barwin gets more comfortable playing alongside defensive end Fletcher Cox and exploiting the opportunities created by Cox’s play.