First up, let’s talk about LBs and roles. The Eagles began the 2011 season with this lineup:
Base – SAM Jamar Chaney … MLB Casey Matthews … WLB Moise Fokou
Nickel – Chaney , Matthews
Dime – Chaney
By the end of the season a lot of changes had taken place. The LBs corps had initially been built around Jamar Chaney and the SAM position. The struggles of some players and emergence of others led to a completely different use of players. We think of the Nickel LBs at the end of the year as Casey Matthews and Keenan Clayton, but that isn’t totally true.
The NFL game has changed so much that the Nickel defense isn’t what it used to be. Even the Nickel had 2 versions: Nickel-run and Nickel-pass.
Teams now love to spread the field and run the ball. They hope you go with undersized players. On 2nd/4, you can have a team in a 3-WR set, but their goal is to run, not pass. To counter this, the Eagles used Casey Matthews and Brian Rolle as the Nickel-run LBs. Rolle played MLB in college and is a solid run defender.
The Nickel-pass LBs were Matthews and Keenan Clayton. If the offense runs on 3rd/10, the hope is that Clayton will be good enough to keep them short of the chains. You can live with a 6 or 7-yard run if that still results in a punt.
Clayton still isn’t a functional run defender. He lacks the size and strength to hold his ground vs blockers. He must be able to play in space and stay on the move. Clayton does have good cover skills and he is the guy you want on the field in a lot of passing situations.
DeMeco Ryans is a 3-down LB. You want him on the field in almost all sets. There may be some dime packages where you pull him out and go with a player like Clayton. Basically you want Ryans on the field most of the time, though. You need him in the middle as a run defender so that if the offense tries to run on 3rd/4 or 3rd/9 he can be there to stuff it. Ryans has okay coverage skills. He isn’t a great athlete, but knows how to cover and has a great understanding of positional defense. If a LB gets in the right spots, he can cover. Sometimes that means keeping things in front of you so you can go make the tackle. Other times that means staying between the QB and target so there is no open throwing lane.
If the Eagles add Kuechly at SAM, he and Ryans would be the Nickel-run defenders. I think you would still want Clayton on the field in the Nickel-pass situations. The problem is in today’s game the offense can go spread and get LBs put out in space. I would rather have Clayton on Jimmy Graham than Kuechly if the Saints go spread and Graham is way out wide. Kuechly would be an upgrade over Rolle in the Nickel-run unit. Luke is a better run defender and is a highly instinctive pass defender.
I do think a strong offseason from Clayton is important to determining his future. Can he ever be good enough vs the run to seriously challenge for a starting role? Can he ever become a really good Nickel/Dime LB? Clayton has shown flashes of ability, but has yet to do anything consistently well. An offseason of LB coaching from Mike Caldwell and strength coaching from Barry Rubin will be critical for Clayton.
Teams can use TEs and matchup players like that creatively from base sets. At that point specialty players like Clayton are out of the mix and you need your base personnel to be able to handle them as well as possible. There is no way to hide pure run-stuffing LBs in the NFL anymore. Guys must have basic cover skills no matter what. Playing LB isn’t what it used to be.
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Word broke yesterday that the Eagles are bringing DT Michael Brockers in for a visit.
Every year the Eagles bring in players to Philly that they have no intention of drafting. The Eagles do this as a way of spreading mis-information and confusing the other 31 teams. I happen to believe Brockers visit is one of those moves.
Brockers is a really talented young player. Heck, it isn’t a sure thing that he will even be on the board at 15. Most people have him pegged as a Top 10 guy. Maybe the Eagles are interested. I tend to think this is a smokescreen.
Brockers isn’t a pass rusher. He is a big, 2-gap run stuffer. LSU pulled him off the field on passing situations. Brockers had a grand total of 2 sacks in his brief LSU career. Jim Washburn loves pass rushers. He teaches his guys to play the run on the way to the QB. I can’t think of a more awkward combination than Washburn and Brockers.
For those who wonder about Albert Haynesworth…he was a gifted athlete at Tennessee. Big Al was 6-6, 320 back then. Brockers is 6-5, 322. Al ran a 4.82 at his Pro Day. Brockers ran 5.36 in Indy. Gil Brandt says Big Al had a 39-inch VJ at his Pro Day. That is mind blowing. Brockers did 26.5 at the Combine. Both are big guys, but Al was a substantially better athlete.
It is possible that Washburn sees a lot of raw potential in Brockers and does want him. Brockers was a key player for LSU’s dominant defense this year and he is very talented. I just think the fit is very weird and I’m not buying it.
The Eagles could do this for a couple of reasons. They could be trying to hide which DTs they really do have strong interest in. If they are linked to a bunch of DTs, then people won’t know which guy is the real target. The other possibility is that the Eagles want to trade up into the Top 10. In order to confuse people about who they want, the team is going to be linked with several Top 10 prospects.
The team has a few other visits scheduled. I’ll talk about those players later on.