Wake-Up Call: Decisions Coming At OLB

Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Photo by Jeff Fusco.

It will be interesting to see how the outside linebacker position shakes out this summer, particularly when it comes to Brandon Graham.

Last year, as the Eagles whittled their roster from 90 down to 53, four outside linebackers ultimately made the squad —Connor Barwin, Trent Cole, Graham and Casey Matthews — and four spots were given to inside ‘backers. There’s some wiggle room in how you configure the corps, but not much. With several spots already accounted for at outside linebacker, Chip Kelly will have some pretty significant decisions to make as he rounds out the position.

Barwin and Cole return as the projected  starters this season. The Eagles selected Marcus Smith in the first round this past May. Those three are the locks. From there things get a little less certain.

Former Texans linebacker Bryan Braman was brought in via free ageny this offseason to help bolster special teams. If he makes the squad — and I think he does — that’s four spots already occupied.

Then there is Travis Long. The former Washington State standout spent his rookie season on the Eagles’ practice squad as he worked his way back from an ACL injury he suffered late in his senior year. Both Kelly and Billy Davis have mentioned that Long is having a good offseason.

“He’s really improved,” said Kelly. “I think obviously when we got him, he was coming off of an injury.  Spent a year on the practice squad and didn’t miss any time, but you could tell he was still recovering from the injury, but has really made some great strides and is a guy that’s really pushing hard to make this football team.

“I think he’ll be able to contribute from a special teams standpoint, obviously adding some depth at the outside linebacker spot.  So he’s definitely a guy you have to keep an eye on right now.”

Where does Graham fit in?

The former first-round pick played 27 percent of the snaps last year and finished with three sacks, five hurries and two tackles for a loss. He is a quality pass-rusher on a team in need of pass-rushers. That’s his value. Coaches we’ve spoken with sound pleased with the kind of shape he is in and say he looks more comfortable in Year 2 of his transition to outside linebacker.

Still, questions remain as to whether Graham is a scheme fit. His contract expires at the end of the year, and it’s difficult to picture him being in the team’s long-term plans.

This is a pivotal season for the 26-year-old. How he does in 2014 will impact how he gets paid in ’15 and beyond. Some within his camp are eager to get him in a system that they feel better suits him.  There could very well be a final push on their end to get him onto a different team (one that runs a 4-3) before the start of the season.  The Eagles aren’t in the business of giving pass rushers away, but if the right deal came along between now and September — a mid-round pick, say — the bet here is that the team would strongly consider pulling the trigger. This is their last chance to get something in return for a player they invested heavily in. Given his contract status, getting a team to cough up anything of value for Graham could prove difficult. But you never know, especially as injuries arise across the league.

Some key questions to consider: Is Smith ready to take over Graham’s snaps? Are they comfortable enough with Smith, Braman and/or Long moving up the depth chart if one of the starters goes down? Can Braman handle a handful of snaps per game?

Kelly’s answers to those questions will go a long way in deciding how the final pieces of the outside linebacker puzzle are put together.

WHAT YOU MISSED

The Eagles released next month’s training camp schedule, which includes three open practices.

“You gotta go get yourself some small forwards just to be able to contend.” Why size matters to the Eagles at corner: 

Kelly on Najee Goode: “He’s got kind of an extra gear that I think some of our backers don’t have. Explosive, can really run.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Jordan Matthews wrote about his time at the Rookie Symposium for the NFL Player Engagement blog.

The Eagles have done a great job providing us with rookie training, and the Symposium is another way to remind us of the lessons that we are learning at our clubs. At the same time, I’ve gotten some really great lessons from the speakers here. Listening to Chris Herren talk about substance abuse and how it changed his life, I think everybody took note of that. And then hearing from guys like Eddie George and Ricky Williams, players that we grew up watching, sit up there and talk as past NFL players…it shows that the lifespan of an NFL player does go by very quickly so you need to make the most of it.

Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com hosted an Eagles chat in which he discussed how much he thinks Marcus Smith will play, Josh Huff‘s role as a rookie and more:

Huff looked quick. I think his value is his ability to break tackles and get yards after the catch, which he can’t do in OTAs and minicamp. Nothing is a wasted pick in June. I think he’ll find a role in the Eagles offense as a rookie and contribute.

COMING UP

Less than a month until training camp now. We’ll get you there.

Josh Paunil contributed to this post. 

 

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