I opened Saturday’s post with these comments…”The Eagles are looking long and hard at ILB prospects. It would seem that DeMeco Ryans is in his final year as an Eagle. Ryans is still solid, but age is starting to catch up to him. We could see signs of his decline last season. He’s never been a blazer, but the speed he had earlier in his career is gone.”
A few of you had questions about that. Why even talk about getting rid of DeMeco right now? Is he a problem on the field? And what about his value in running the defense and being a great leader?
These are legitimate questions so let me try to explain the situation.
DeMeco is a declining player. No matter how you describe his performance (good vs solid vs average vs whatever), there is no disputing that he’s in decline. Age and wear and tear are taking their toll. This happens to most players, and certainly to all inside linebackers. You can’t play such a physical position without it wearing you down. It happens to some players quickly. Others last longer. Jeremiah Trotter played lights out in 2004 and 2005. He got old in 2006 and was a backup in Tampa in 2007. Trotter only started 124 games in the NFL, or just under 8 full seasons. His body broke down quicker than others. Brian Urlacher started 180 games. Ray Lewis…227.
DeMeco Ryans has 118 starts under his belt. He’s at the point where age should really kick in. And let’s understand the word “decline”. That doesn’t mean “bad”. It certainly has a negative connotation, but it needs context. Ryans is declining from being a good ILB. That doesn’t mean he’s no longer an effective starter. You can win with Ryans. He can still make plays. What you don’t know is when he’ll make a big decline and become somewhat of a liability. This could be 2014, 2015 or even down the road in 2017 or 2018.
London Fletcher is a guy that I thought would get old, but it took forever to happen. I kept waiting for the guy to show his age. He was a freak. You can’t compare Ryans to him. Fletcher never missed a game in his career. Ryans already suffered one significant injury. And I don’t think enough people understand just how good Fletcher was. He is a borderline HOF’er. Ryans was a Pro Bowl player at his peak, but isn’t in the same class as Fletcher (or Lewis or Urlacher). An example of Fletcher being a freak…in 2008, at age 33, he had a game against the Eagles where he blew up C Jamaal Jackson, who was trying to block him on a run play, and then covered Brian Westbrook step for step on a pass route downfield. You know you’ve got a special player when he can take on a 330-pound blocker in the trenches and then cover a gifted RB down the field. Doing this at 33? Freakish.
DeMeco didn’t get any help from the Eagles style of play last year. According to this chart, he played more snaps than any other defender in the NFL in 2013. That can take its toll on a 29-year old ILB.
Ryans issues are more about speed than anything else. He is still a good tackler. He can still take on blockers and shed them. Ryans is a smart, instinctive LB. He just can’t cover as much ground as he used to. Ryans can make up for that a bit by reading plays well and anticipating plays, but there are other times when he’s in trouble. Dez Bryant caught a crossing pass against the Eagles in the season finale and Ryans looked like he was caught in quicksand. You don’t expect your ILB to run with a WR, but you hope he can stay in the same zip code.
There were some coverage breakdowns late in the year where Ryans looked to be at fault. We don’t know anything for sure (without knowing the exact defensive call), but it sure appeared he was not where he needed to be. PFF had Ryans rated low after last year, but I don’t always agree with what they have to say.
The Eagles are smart to be looking for Ryans replacement now. If Ryans has a great year in 2014, he keeps his job. The young ILB would sit for another year. I don’t anticipate that happening. I expect Ryans to slide a bit more and need replacing for 2015. This is a projection, not a fact. The old saying in football is that it is better to get rid of a player a year too early rather than keeping him a year too long. You are essentially erring on the side of caution.
What about the value of his leadership? This is the hardest thing to quantify. Leadership has a value, but at the same time, it has never made a tackle. Leadership has never picked off a pass or sacked a QB. You have to factor leadership and intangibles into whether or not you keep a player, but performance is the key.
London Fletcher was a terrific leader for the Skins, but he was a borderline liability on the field last year. Age finally caught up to him. The Skins kept him a year too long. The Eagles will hopefully develop some other players who are leaders. Connor Barwin is one already. Bennie Logan could be a leader. Mychal Kendricks could be one. Certainly Malcolm Jenkins will be a leader. It isn’t like a group of 11 rookies would be on the field without Ryans.
The Eagles need more speed in the middle of the field. They will add an ILB somewhere in this draft. I hope that player is worked into the lineup so that Ryans isn’t on the field for 1100 snaps. His performance would likely be better by playing less. We’ll deal with the future down the road, but enjoy Ryans while you can. The smart money says that this will be his final season in Philly.