Eagles Wake-Up Call: LB Training Camp Preview

Each day this week, we’ll take a look at a different position group as we count down to training camp.

What’s changed?

Chip Kelly dropped a not-so-subtle hint about his preferred defensive scheme when he named both an outside linebackers coach and an inside linebackers coach back in February.

DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks return from last year’s squad, now playing as inside linebackers in a 3-4 instead of behind the Wide-9.

“I’m definitely sideline to sideline, going to be able to run a little bit more, be a little more freed up,” Kendricks said.

“We had a lot of people in our face last year, so I mean if tackling was an issue, it shouldn’t be this year.”

Outside linebacker is where the most significant changes have taken place. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are trying to make the switch from 4-3 defensive ends. The Eagles also signed Connor Barwin from the Texans.

The pressing question: How do Cole and Graham fit?

Cole had probably the worst year of his career in 2012, dealing with an injury and finishing with just three sacks in 16 games. He’s been in the league eight years, but at 30-years-old, should still have a few good years left. Cole spent most of the spring at right outside linebacker with the first team, but the Eagles tried him out in a variety of roles. Cole lined up at DE in four-man fronts (sub packages) and even played with his hand down in some three-man fronts.

Graham, meanwhile, was the Eagles’ most productive pass-rusher a year ago. But he spent most of the spring backing up Barwin at left outside linebacker.

Barwin appears to be the most versatile option in this group (All-22 here), so look for him to start.

There doesn’t appear to be an easy way to get Barwin, Graham and Cole all on the field at the same time. But one of Billy Davis’ goals this summer will be to figure out defined roles for Graham and Cole in the new scheme.

Don’t be surprised if…

Kendricks makes the leap. He missed too many tackles last year, but was always around the ball. As he mentioned above, the new scheme should help free him up.

Kendricks has the versatility Kelly covets. He can cover, plays bigger than his size and even showed pass-rushing chops in college. With the right coaching, he should emerge as one of the better players on this defense.

Roster battles to watch

Barring something unforeseen, I feel comfortable saying Ryans, Kendricks, Barwin, Cole and Graham will make the roster.

But the Eagles are not deep at linebacker. On the inside, Jason Phillips, Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews, Emmanuel Acho and Jake Knott (undrafted free agent) are competing for a couple spots. Phillips signed here as a free agent and is a special-teams standout, so he has a good chance of sticking. Chaney and Matthews could be on their last legs here, and Knott is an under-the-radar player to watch.

If the Eagles keep four outside linebackers, the fourth spot is up for grabs. Phillip Hunt, Everette Brown and Chris McCoy are options, but it’s possible the Eagles make a roster move or two here in the next couple months.

WHAT YOU MISSED

We started our camp preview series with a look at the defensive line.

Kelly says the veterans have set the tone and made his transition to the NFL an easy one.

According to Forbes, the Eagles are the 15th-most valuable franchise in the world at $1.26 billion.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

In his study for Bleeding Green Nation, Jimmy Kempski found that the Eagles have the eighth-oldest offensive line in the league:

If Chip Kelly does indeed like athletic offensive lines, he’s got one. Injury concerns remain a major factor, but if this group is healthy, it might be the most athletic offensive line… ever.

Then again, the Eagles are one of two teams (the Giants being the other) who have 3 starters over the age of 30.

Jason from OverTheCap.com says the best contract on the Eagles’ books is Brent Celek’s:

By signing Celek early the Eagles were able to use some extra cap space in 2009 that was just going to go to waste and place some money into the uncapped 2010 season. All told the Eagles were able to get away “cap free” with $5.1 million of new money in Celek’s contract. The extension years of Celeks contract max out at $5 million in cap charges, which is due in 2016. The prorated money and dead money in the contract end in 2013, just three years into the extension. That allows the Eagles to fetch a good price with no worries about cap concerns if they were to trade the talented player in 2014.

COMING UP

More from Kelly and three numbers that matter.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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