As I mentioned in a previous post, linebacker Casey Matthews had a bizarre rookie season, beginning the season as a starter, getting benched and then eventually finding a role in the nickel package.
In the final four games, he played about 61 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. And according to linebackers coach Mike Caldwell, that’s when Matthews got his confidence back.
“The thing about Casey was he never sulked about it,” Caldwell said. “He understood, he continued to work hard and that hard work paid off. He played well on special teams, then he ended up getting his role in the third-down package, and he did a good job in that package, so now that confidence is back and he can build on that coming in this year.”
While all of that might be true, the difficult part is figuring out how Matthews fits in this season. There’s always the chance of a linebacker shuffle at Lehigh, but for now, DeMeco Ryans will start in the middle and stay on the field in nickel packages.
“He looked good in the OTAs, and just knowing DeMeco, the professional he is, he’s gone back this offseason, gotten himself in great shape, so that when he comes out here, he’ll be moving great. I see no problem with him [staying on the field in passing situations],” Caldwell said.
Then there’s rookie Mychal Kendricks, the second-round pick who spent the spring as the first-team SAM linebacker and also stayed on the field in nickel packages. Since the Eagles drafted Kendricks, it’s been impossible to read anything about him that doesn’t mention his height (5-11). But Caldwell doesn’t seem worried about that.
“If you’re close enough to a receiver, the quarterback shouldn’t throw the ball there,” Caldwell said.
Of course, that’s not always the case. The best quarterbacks in the league can get the ball to receivers even when they don’t appear to be open.
“He’s been that size all his life so he’s made the plays to get him here,” Caldwell said. “That shouldn’t change. Now we just have to hone in and teach him a couple techniques to handle a ball up high.”
The truth is we won’t know if Kendricks’ height is an issue until he starts having to cover tight ends in real games. He’s looked good so far and has excellent speed and athleticism. But it’s only July 24.
As for the rest of the linebacking crew, don’t be surprised if the Eagles have special packages for different players. We always talk about the nickel package, but the truth is there is more than one nickel package, based on down and distance. Depending on how things shake out, you could see four or five different linebackers shuffling in and out throughout the course of a game.
At this point, I’d be surprised if Ryans, Kendricks, Brian Rolle, Matthews or Jamar Chaney were not on the 53-man roster when camp breaks. But it’ll be up to Caldwell and Juan Castillo to figure out how much shuffling they want to do once the regular season starts.
Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at email@example.com.