The story at outside linebacker for the Eagles has more to do with changing roles than new faces.
With the Birds moving to a 3-4, Brandon Graham and Trent Cole are expected to transition from defensive end. The team also added Connor Barwin as a free agent.
A couple other new names who figure to line up at outside linebacker as well in the spring: Everette Brown and Chris McCoy. Brown was originally a second-round pick by the Panthers in 2009. McCoy spent the last two seasons in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders.
The Eagles also still have Phillip Hunt.
As we mentioned yesterday, on average, 3-4 teams kept 8.1 linebackers last season. Here’s a look at the players on the roster:
Connor Barwin 6-4 260 26 4/31
Everette Brown 6-1 263 25 3/3
Trent Cole 6-3 270 30 8/113
Brandon Graham 6-2 265 25 3/12
Phillip Hunt 6-1 254 27 2/0
Chris McCoy 6-3 261 26 0/0
Pencil ’em in: Barwin, Graham, Cole.
Barwin is the only player on the roster with experience playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 (in the NFL, that is). He had 11.5 sacks in 2011, but Barwin’s production dropped off (3.5 sacks) last year. Howie Roseman has said that had to do with how the Texans used him. We’re in the process of taking a closer look to determine how credible of an excuse that is.
Graham was the Eagles’ most effective pass-rusher last season. As we noted earlier this offseason, he made something happen (sack, hurry, hit, batted pass) on 20.5 percent of his pass-rushing attempts in 2012. Now he’ll look to be productive in a new scheme at a new position.
Billy Davis and company are in the process of evaluating the Eagles’ defensive personnel. In all likelihood, Graham will be used in a role that maximizes his abilities as a pass-rusher. But he’ll have to prove this offseason that he’s capable of dropping back when called upon.
Cole played through an injury in 2012, but has admitted that he had a “bad year.” He’s played eight seasons as a 4-3 defensive end and is now being asked to play rush linebacker for the first time at the age of 30. According to EaglesCap.com, the Eagles would actually take more of a salary cap hit if they cut Cole than if they kept him.
And the word from the team is that they want Cole to be a part of the future. The only question is fit. If Cole returns to being the guy who averaged more than 11 sacks per season from 2009 to 2011, they can probably find a way to limit the number of times he’s asked to drop back.
The other option would be to find a defensive line role that fits his skill set. Cole has always played bigger than his size, and aside from last year, has been excellent against the run. It’s also worth noting that even if the Eagles have a 3-4 base look, the outside linebackers could be true defensive ends in four-man front sub packages.
I don’t think Cole’s going anywhere. But the coaching staff will have to spend the next few months figuring out a way to best utilize his skill set.
Fighting for spots: Hunt, Brown, McCoy.
A couple things are apparent here. Number one, the Eagles do not have a lot of depth at outside linebacker, especially considering that two of the players expected to contribute have never played the position before.
And secondly, their outside linebackers don’t have much experience dropping back into coverage. Even Barwin, who played OLB in the Texans’ 3-4, dropped back only about 13.6 percent of the time on passing plays last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Eagles recently worked out Trevor Scott, and it would not surprise me if they added an outside linebacker at some point in the next few months.
As for the players here, Hunt did not play a lot last year and was not really productive, despite a strong preseason. He faces an uphill battle in making the team.
Brown, meanwhile, was out of the league last year and has only played in three games since the end of the 2010 season. Expecting anything out of him would be a mistake, even though he’s only 25.
McCoy was originally a seventh-round pick in 2010, spent two seasons in the CFL and is coming off of a knee injury. In other words, if he surprises, great. But it’s unreasonable to expect anything out of him.
Overall, quite a few question marks with this group. It’s difficult to project starters when the scheme is likely far from finalized. But there should be a way to get Barwin, Graham and Cole plenty of snaps, regardless of who starts (more here on a potential rotation).
The next step for the coaches will be to properly evaluate what the current players are capable of. That process continues at the NovaCare Complex during next week’s OTAs.