Eagles Wake-Up Call: Linebacker Outlook

What will Jim Schwartz do with Jordan Hicks, Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks?
DeMeco Ryans and Jordan Hicks. (Jeff Fusco)

DeMeco Ryans and Jordan Hicks. (Jeff Fusco)

We’ll wrap up our position-by-position look at where the Eagles stand going into the offseason this week. In the first seven installments, we covered the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen and safeties. Now, it’s on to the linebackers.

STATE OF THE ROSTER

The Eagles’ linebacking corps was one the team’s most disappointing position groups in 2015. Despite Jordan Hick’s impressive — albeit short — rookie season, Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks both fell short of expectations.

If there’s one enduring image of Alonso last season, it’s his poor run fit on Doug Martin’s 84-yard touchdown run. Even in coverage, which Billy Davis described as the linebacker’s strength, Alonso was inconsistent at best. (That one-handed interception in Atlanta seems like it happened so long ago, doesn’t it?)

We didn’t see Alonso’s instincts that his teammates raved about take over, and Davis opined at one point during the season that Alonso hadn’t fully recovered from his knee injury yet. Kendricks, who occasionally impressed by exploding into the backfield and tackling ball-carriers behind the line of scrimmage, didn’t consistently live up to his $29 million contract extension, and DeMeco Ryans had his expected struggles in coverage.

Hicks, however, proved to be a great find in the third round as he was a Defensive Rookie of the Year contender before his season-ending pectoral injury. He played well against both the run and the pass, en route to becoming the fourth rookie linebacker in Eagles history to have two or more interceptions in a season.

WHAT I THINK WILL HAPPEN

With the Eagles’ transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3, the linebackers may be the most interesting unit to watch. It’s unclear who will play which position, partially because it’s unknown whether Ryans will be back. If the Eagles cut Ryans, they’ll save $3.5 million against the 2016 cap.

Seth Joyner suggested to Tim that Ryans should play in the middle, with Hicks on the strong side and Kendricks on the weak side. If I had to guess how the rotation will shake out, I’d put Hicks at MIKE, Kendricks at SAM and Alonso at WILL. Regardless, Joyner noted that they simply have to play better. (“At the end of the day, they’ve got to improve markedly,” he said.)

Kendricks has NFL experience on the strong side, while Jim Schwartz moved Alonso to the weak side in Buffalo before Alonso tore his ACL. Alonso’s agent, Steve Caric, said last month that the linebacker can play MIKE or WILL, and Bills General Manager Doug Whaley explained in 2014 why Alonso would be better suited on the outside.

“We think with his athletic ability and his speed and instincts, why limit him by having him take on those big guards?” Whaley said. “Let’s cover him up and let him run and hit.”

The Eagles re-signed backup Najee Goode a couple of weeks ago, and Bryan Braman — a special teams ace — is under contract for another season. Although some speculated that Connor Barwin may transition from a 3-4 linebacker to a 4-3 linebacker, Schwartz told the Eagles’ website recently that Barwin fits on the defensive line.

“I think he fits real well for what we’re going to do in the defensive end standpoint,” Schwartz said. “He’s done that in the past. He did that when he was first drafted in Houston and he had a lot of productivity there. I think most of the plays that he made were rushing the passer. I think that size-wise, effort-wise, skill set-wise, he fits well there.”

FREE AGENTS

Here are the top inside and outside linebacker free agents, according to FOX Sports’ WalterFootball.com, including their current team and age:

Inside

  1. Brandon Marshall (Broncos, 26)
  2. Derrick Johnson (Chiefs, 33)
  3. Danny Trevathan (Broncos, 26)
  4. Rolando McClain (Cowboys, 27)
  5. Jerrell Freeman (Colts, 30)

Outside

  1. Von Miller (Broncos, 27)
  2. Bruce Irvin (Seahawks, 28)
  3. Tahir Whitehead (Lions, 26)
  4. Aldon Smith (Raiders, 26)
  5. Mark Barron (Rams, 26)

I’d be surprised if the Eagles make a big linebacker signing in free agency

DRAFT OPTIONS

Here are the top inside and outside linebacker options in the draft, according to ESPN’s Scouting Inc., including their overall ranking:

Inside

  1. Reggie Ragland, Alabama (No. 10)
  2. Joshua Perry, Ohio State (No. 83)
  3. Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia (No. 86)
  4. Scooby Wright III, Arizona (No. 102)
  5. B.J. Goodson, Clemson (No. 116)

Outside

  1. Myles Jack, UCLA (No. 11)
  2. Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame (No. 14)
  3. Darron Lee, Ohio State (No. 25)
  4. Leonard Floyd, Georgia (No. 29)
  5. Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky (No. 32)

WHAT YOU MISSED

Adam continued his combine prep series with an emphasis on defensive backs.

“The player they should lock up next is [Walter] Thurmond.” Weekend reading.

“We’d like to have him back.” Howie Roseman on Sam Bradford.

Our latest mock draft roundup on who the Eagles will select at No. 13.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

The Eagles’ defense makes Sam Bradford worth tagging, argues Sam Donnellon.

YOU DON’T have to believe Sam Bradford is an elite quarterback to want the Eagles to slap the franchise tag on him.

You don’t even have to believe he is capable of carrying a team on his back.

As long as you believe that the Eagles’ future lies not in its offense but in that defense full of established and perhaps upcoming stars. As long as you believe that potentially overpaying the guy for one season is a far better risk than paying another one of the flawed free-agent arms out there, or grabbing someone like Paxton Lynch in the draft and throwing him immediately out there.

CSN Philly’s Andy Schwartz has the latest on the LeSean McCoy situation.

No charges have been filed, the case is still under investigation, and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams says he is not going to succumb to public pressure and unnecessarily proceed without having compiled and vetted all the facts.

“I want all Philadelphians to know that they elected me to ensure that we only charge the right people and that we only charge them with the right crimes — nothing more and nothing less,” Williams said Friday via NBC10. “The last thing anyone wants is a rush to judgment.

“Again, my job is to get it right and not get it fast. I know there are some people who are clamoring that I have it resolved one minute from now, and that wouldn’t be a prudent thing.”

COMING UP

We’ll continue to prepare you for the combine, which I’ll be in Indianapolis for. Fortunately, I won’t have to rent a car.