I can’t remember if it was William Shakespeare, James Joyce or Danielle Steele who famously wrote the words “I feel the need for speed”, but I’m sure Bill Davis will be saying them when the Eagles head into the offseason.
The 3-4 defense needs great LB play for the scheme to thrive. Those guys are required to be playmakers. The Eagles have some pieces, but aren’t good enough.
The most obvious spot is ROLB. Trent Cole has been an effective player this season. Making the switch from RDE to OLB wasn’t easy, but Coles has done an admirable job. He has been terrific as a run defender. Trent sets the edge very well. He pursues plays. He is active and will get in on a good amount of tackles. I don’t think anyone has issues with him as a run defender.
Pass rushing is another story. Cole has 3 sacks. Bill Davis and the coaches chart his pressures each week. Davis says the staff is happy with the pressure that Cole gets. I think there is a bit of PR going on with those comments. Davis might be satisfied, but I doubt he’s happy. If you go to the team’s own stats, they have Cole with 7 QB hurries. Fletcher Cox has 19. Connor Barwin has 8. Vinny Curry has 7. Ouch.
Cole still has a great motor. He is powerful, despite dropping to 260 pounds. Cole uses his hands well and knows how to do the little things to beat blocks. The problem is that Cole just doesn’t have the speed to consistently beat blockers. The 3-4 puts LBs on the edge and is built to give them favorable matchups when rushing the passer.
The Eagles need a ROLB who has the speed to be a disruptive force. I think you could get by with Cole if you had a great LB on the other side, but that’s not the case. Connor Barwin is more of a complete OLB than a dynamic pass rusher. Barwin is good at what he does so I think having a guy like him at LOLB is fine. He can cover, rush and play the run. Plus, he’s 27 years old and in his prime. This is a guy you want on your defense. The Texans had a younger, cheaper option and went with Whitney Mercilus.
Let’s look behind the starters. What is Brandon Graham’s future with the Eagles? This is a tricky question. Graham has made a slow adjustment to the 3-4. He doesn’t look natural at LB. He’s not playing nearly as much as he wants to. For the year, Graham has 10 tackles, 1 sack and 1 TFL. I’m sure PFF will list him as a productive pass rusher based on pressure percentages, but the coaches aren’t happy with what they’re seeing from an overall standpoint. Graham is up and down as a run defender. He’s made some progress on his pass drops, but that is still a major weakness. Remember, you’re not looking for him to turn into William Thomas, but he does need to be functional on those plays when he’s needed to drop back.
Graham’s return in 2014 is up in the air. If the coaches like his work ethic and attitude, they may decide it is smart to bring him back and see if the light goes on. If they don’t see him panning out, then trade him to a 4-3 team and don’t waste your time. Better to get a true LB in there and work on developing him.
The Eagles have Phillip Hunt on IR. Clearly you don’t count on anything from him. Travis Long is a UDFA on the practice squad. He is more of a Barwin type. I think Long can challenge for a backup role next year, but I don’t see him pushing for a starting role in 2014.
I think the Eagles are going to need to find a LB in free agency or the draft. Brian Orakpo is the big name in free agency. I would not pay huge money for a guy who will be 28 next summer and has one double-digit sack season in his career. If the price was right, I’d absolutely be interested. However, the price is rarely right in free agency.
The draft has some interesting players. UCLA’s Anthony Barr is the top OLB prospect and a darn good player. He’s likely gone in the Top 10. I don’t think he’s the type of guy you use a bunch of picks to move up for. After Barr, things get a bit less obvious.
The big question here becomes what kind of player Bill Davis, Chip Kelly and Howie Roseman are looking for. Khalil Mack has been a terrific player for the University of Buffalo. He lists at 6-3, 248. Is that big enough for them? Kelly loves big players. He wanted Dion Jordan as an OLB. Jordan is 6-6, 260. What if Mack measures in at 6-2 1/2 and 242 pounds? Jeremiah Attachou is a 6-3, 242 LB/DE for Georgia Tech. I could go on and on with talented prospects that are in the 6-2, 240 range. Is that big enough?
Beyond that, how good of an overall athlete are the guys looking for? Barwin is the LB that will cover TEs and spend more time in coverage. The ROLB should be mostly a pass rusher. Michael Sam of Missouri might remind you of Trent Cole. Sam lists at 6-2, 255 and is a DE, not a LB. Is he a guy that the coaches would love enough as a pass rusher to convert to LB? There are plenty of other guys who fit into this same category.
I don’t know Kelly or Davis well enough to have answers to these questions right now. We’re all getting used to the new ideas on players and adjusting to the 3-4.
I don’t think the Eagles have to spend their 1st round pick on a LB, but that is where most of your dynamic rushers come from. I would lean in that direction if the right player is available. Obviously you don’t want to force anything. Best Player Available is generally the wisest draft strategy.
I’m not in love with any pass rusher right now. Mack fascinates me because he is such a good overall player. He’s got 28.5 career sacks. He’s also got 3 INTs this year. Mack isn’t just a pass rusher. Attachou has some violence and power to his game. I really enjoy watching him quite a bit. Attachou plays through contact. So many edge rushers are finesse guys that want to run around blocks. He’s not afraid to take on TEs, OTs or OGs.
We’ll talk a lot more about the draft in the coming months. It took some time to figure what the Eagles needs were, but it is clear that OLB is a big one.
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The overall defense needs speed. As good as DeMeco Ryans is, the one thing he lacks is top speed. Brandon Boykin is the only DB you could describe as fast and he’s nothing special in that area. Kelly and Davis prefer size to speed, but I think even they know the back end needs some faster guys. This doesn’t have to happen overnight.
You’d like to replace Cary Williams with a faster CB. You’d like to pair Earl Wolff with a Safety who runs well and had good range. Mychal Kendricks can make a big difference if he’ll start to play at a higher level. He’s got the speed and range to be a key player vs the pass. He’s just an erratic young player. Moving from SAM to WLB to ILB in the span of 26 games will do that to you.
The Eagles could use speed with the backups as well. OLB might need some help. None of the backup Safeties are special in terms of size or speed. CB could be better as well.