Yesterday I made the comment that while I preferred Luke Kuechly as a MLB out of the draft, I would trust the Eagles if they preferred Donta Hightower and took him over Kuechly. A few people wondered how I could trust the Eagles after some past blunders. After all, they just got MLB wrong in 2011.
Here’s the thing…the Eagles tried to fill the spot with a mid-round player. We can dispute the merits of that thought process, but the key at this point is acknowledging that the plan failed. To me (and most fans), the failure to have good MLB play in 2011 means that the team must have more of a “sure thing” approach. I think they need to add a proven veteran in free agency or trade or that the team needs to spend a Top 50 pick on a MLB. I have preferences within those groups, but I won’t be furious with the team if they choose someone else as long as the player fits the “sure thing” description.
Clearly there is no such thing as a true sure thing. I use that phrase to mean a player who has the size, experience, talent, and/or athletic ability to get the job done. Casey Matthews was more of a project.
Casey played for Oregon, a team with an explosive offense. As a Senior, the Ducks were only held under 37 points twice all year. In 7 games they had 48 or more points. That meant Casey played in a lot of shootouts and usually with the lead. Heck, they didn’t play a truly close game until November. Casey was allowed to blitz a lot. He had good coverage skills. Dealing with inside runs just wasn’t something he had to do a ton of.
Now the situation calls for someone who is more of a plug ‘n play solution. That’s why I love Luke Kuechly so much. He played at BC. They run a pro style offense and defense. That means games where he was in situations that he’ll face in the NFL. Luke can blitz, but it wasn’t something he did with regularity. His job at BC was to roam the middle and make tackles. He is a pure LB. He’s not an athlete playing LB. He’s not an overgrown Safety or undersized DE that got shifted there. He’s a LB.
Casey wasn’t a tackling machine at Oregon. He finished his career with 123 solo stops. Kuechly had 102 solo tackles in 2011. That should illustrate just how different these players are. The two players are very similar in most other categories. The big difference is that Kuechly is a guy that gets to the ball over and over and over. He has good vision and great instincts.
Hightower isn’t a tackling machine. He finished his career with just 101 solo stops. However, that number must be put into proper context. First, Bama had a great defense and that meant fewer chances for tackles. If the opponent goes 3 and out you just aren’t going to pile up big numbers. Also, Donta played 3-4 ILB. That means sharing tackles with the other ILB. MLBs are going to have more tackles. Finally, Donta played DE in a lot of Nickel and Dime sets. That took away more chances for tackles (and INTs).
Hightower is special in some ways. I think he’s the best hitter in the whole draft. He can just devastate guys with big hits. Hightower has the burst and skills to be an effective pass rusher. Hightower is also a huge ILB. He lists at 6’4, 260. Might actually be heavier than that.
There are some questions about him, but he’s not a project in the sense that Casey Matthews was. Let’s compare the numbers from the two of them in their final college season:
Matthews – 79 total tackles, 9 TFLs, 3 sacks, 3 INTs, 3 PBUs, 1 FF, 3 QB hurries
Hightower – 85 total tackles, 11 TFLs, 4 sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBUs, 1 FF, 8 QB hurries, 1 blocked kick
The numbers are very similar, but Casey got his while protecting some huge leads. Donta got his while being the key figure on a defense that finished 1st in the nation vs the run, pass, overall, and in points allowed. I think Brent Musburger said the other night that Bama gave up just 9 TDs all year long. That’s not good defense. It is dominant, stifling defense.
While there are similarities between the two players, Hightower is much more NFL ready. He’s got the size and strength for the NFL right now. Hightower is much more of a physical LB than Matthews was. Hightower’s used to playing in a complex defensive scheme. He’s used to having multiple roles. Hightower would have some definite adjustments to make if the Eagles took him, but the transition would be less than what it was for Matthews.
If the Eagles spend the proper resources on MLB and don’t make some ridiculous reach, I’ll be fine with who they choose. If the team tries to go for another mid-round guy and pass him off as the answer, that will be a different story. I’ll be irate. And I acknowledge that is possible. When it comes to LBs, the Eagles have a bad track record. I really feel like things are different this year, but that doesn’t mean squat until we see them address the problem the way they need to. I don’t blame anyone out there who doubts the Eagles when it comes to LBs.
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There have been several recent questions about Stewart Bradley and whether he could return to the Eagles. I’m open to bringing him back, but we can’t count on him for anything. Disco Stew was very good in 2008. He tore up his knee in the summer of 2009 and missed the whole season. He came back in 2010, but was a shell of his former self. I thought his knee looked okay. He didn’t trust it and avoided contact to keep guys from hitting it. The Eagles had some interest in bringing him back on a tryout type deal, but Arizona ponied up big bucks for Stew. Didn’t work for either side. He had just one start and 21 solo tackles on the year. Now the Cards may cut him.
I’m fine with bringing him back to compete with a rookie for the MLB job. I’m open to having Stew compete for the SAM job. The last time he played well was 2008 so you simply can’t count on him for anything. I was a big fan of his and would love to see him turn his career around, whether as an Eagle or elsewhere.
2012 will be a make or break year for his career. He must show he trusts the knee and can be a physical LB. 260-pound guys aren’t allowed to be finesse LBs. No word yet on if the Cards will cut him. It is possible, but they may keep him til after the draft to see what happens or even through training camp as insurance. There could be some dates in his contract where he’s due bonuses and that could expedite the situation. We’ll see what happens with him.