This week, we’ll continue to offer offseason outlooks for the Eagles, position-by-position. Each day, we’ll answer a pressing question and rank the position on the priority scale. First up was quarterback. We covered running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line and defensive line. Now let’s talk outside linebackers.
PRESSING QUESTION: Will there be a new starter on the outside in 2014?
McManus: I will say no, at least to start the year.
Connor Barwin may not be an elite pass-rusher but there is great value in his versatility. I think his starting job is secure. Trent Cole‘s spot really is the one to focus on. Cole is extremely well-respected within the organization and was regularly lauded by Chip Kelly and Billy Davis during the season, both noting that the numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to Cole’s impact on the game. And the numbers weren’t bad. Despite playing OLB for the first time in his nine-year career, he finished with eight sacks, 15 hurries and 10 tackles for a loss.
Still, Cole is 31, his pass-rushing production wasn’t consistent and the Eagles absolutely need to bolster this position. Brandon Graham contributed three sacks this season, but it’s still questionable whether he’s a fit for this team.
The ideal scenario may be to bring in bona fide OLB to start opposite Barwin and have Cole as a down lineman in specialty packages. There’s no question the Eagles will bring in competition but I’ll say Cole wins out and starts the year at OLB. Not sure he finishes there, though.
Kapadia: This is a tough question for a couple reasons. On one hand, I absolutely believe the Eagles would like to bring in a young stud pass-rusher to play ROLB opposite Barwin. On the other hand, finding one of those this offseason may prove difficult.
Take a look at the free agency list. You want someone who has upside, presents value, is young and matches Kelly’s measurables. I’m not sure if a guy like that is available. Don’t get me wrong. I think they’ll add competition. I’m just not sure if those players will be better than Cole.
Then you move on to the draft, but there are so many variables. If the Eagles stick to their board – and based on the last couple years, they will – a great pass-rusher might not be in the cards in the first couple rounds.
Cole is not the perfect answer, but he finished with eight sacks and eight hurries in the final seven games (playoffs included). Plus, his contract suggests that he’ll be on the roster. The Eagles will look for a younger solution, but I’m not sure they find one. I’ll say Cole starts in Week 1 as well.
PRIORITY SCALE: FROM 1 TO 5
* 1 indicates there is no need at all to address the position in free agency or the draft. 5 means it’s of the highest priority that the Eagles focus on the position in the coming months.
McManus: Put me down for a four. The Eagles were very fortunate that they didn’t suffer any significant injuries at outside linebacker this past season. They essentially had one true OLB on the roster (Barwin), and two defensive ends in Cole and Graham that were learning on the fly. That was pretty well it. (They signed former Oregon LB Josh Kaddu to a futures contract after the season.)
I’m sure they would love to get their hands on at least one outside linebacker in the draft but you never know how it’s going to play out, so look for them to address the position in free agency as a safeguard. Brian Orakpo is considered by some to be the top free-agent outside linebacker, though it’s a safe bet that he returns to Washington. Pittsburghs’s Jason Worilds (25), Denver’s Shaun Phillips (32) and Green Bay’s Mike Neal (26) are the next best options according to Rotoworld‘s rankings.
I think everything — draft, free agency, trade — is on the table.
Kapadia: I’ve got it at a four as well. I think searching far and wide for a big-time pass rusher at outside linebacker is a big priority. Think about it: Upgrade at OLB and safety, and all of a sudden this defense has a chance to make a nice leap.
Many readers often bring up Graham when we talk about potential OLB solutions. He’s certainly had some nice moments as a pass-rusher. I’ve just seen/heard nothing from this coaching staff that indicates it views Graham as anything more than a rotational player in this current scheme.
Barwin played well last year, but this is the spot that is supposed to generate the pass-rush in a 3-4. Howie Roseman and company need to make moves to upgrade the talent.