Eagles' Fokou impresses at linebacker

Moise Fokou is the front-runner to start at strong-side LB for the Eagles. Two rookies and two veterans are also in the running.
Moise Fokou is the front-runner to start at strong-side LB for the Eagles. Two rookies and two veterans are also in the running.
Posted: July 24, 2010

When he arrived at training camp last year, Moise Fokou was a seventh-round draft pick, the last player the Eagles had selected, and battling to make his first NFL roster.

He enters training camp 2010 as the front-runner to start at strong-side linebacker, hoping to help stabilize a linebacking corps marked by upheaval in 2009.

In one of the many signs showing how much the Eagles are relying on youth this year, the players immediately behind him are two rookies: fourth-round draft pick Keenan Clayton and fifth-round selection Ricky Sapp, though veterans Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither are also potential competitors on the strong side.

They are all part of a crowded field at linebacker, including new faces - draft picks Clayton, Sapp and Jamar Chaney, trade acquisitions Ernie Sims and Alex Hall, and undrafted free agent Simoni Lawrence - and two players returning from injury: Stewart Bradley and Gaither. Add veteran Joe Mays, and the team has a glut of linebackers.

"It's open competition," coach Andy Reid said. "We can't keep 'em all."

With Sims and Bradley likely to start on the weak side and in the middle respectively, the biggest competition figures to play out at strong-side linebacker, where Fokou is aiming to hold on to a job he took over late last season.

In Fokou, Reid sees a physical battler who uses long arms to fend off blockers. What might seem like a simple skill, Reid said, is difficult for many defenders, who prefer to have the game played closer to their bodies.

"Keeping those arms out there and keeping people off your body is a big part of playing linebacker," Reid said. "[Fokou] does that very well. He's a physical player. Those are his primary strengths."

Rookies Clayton and Sapp played with the second- and third-team units during the Eagles' May and June practices. Jordan has primarily played weak-side linebacker and Gaither in the middle, but Reid has praised their versatility. If Fokou struggles, one of the veterans - more likely Jordan - could slide over.

"We'll always go off the premise we'll try to get our best players on the field," Reid said.

He later added, "As long as they can all play, it gives you some flexibility."

Jordan said the adjustment would not be difficult. He said all the linebackers would push each other in competition.

"I know the guy in front of me doesn't want to lose his spot," Jordan said. "And I want that spot."

Jordan heads into camp as the back-up to Sims. Gaither is behind Bradley in a linebacking unit remade after it was riddled with injuries last year.

Clayton and Sapp offer different ways of defending against the pass, a sore point for the linebackers last year. Clayton, who began his college career as a safety, is noted for his coverage skills. Sapp, a high school sprinter, is a speed-rusher who may line up as a linebacker, defensive end, or as the "joker," a hybrid position, to get at the quarterback.

"Clayton can cover a tight end probably as well as anybody," Reid said.

But after spending just two years as a linebacker at Oklahoma, the former safety has been working to add bulk to handle NFL contact.

"I need to have a little more meat on me so I can absorb some of the licks and go for 16 weeks," said Clayton, who is listed at 229 pounds.

Sapp, too, is on a learning curve. The Eagles played him at linebacker for some of the early spring practices and then moved him to defensive end, where he played in college at Clemson.

Reid called Sapp "a speed player."

The biggest challenge, Sapp said, has been learning pass coverages. He is accustomed to, and most enjoys, bearing down on quarterbacks.

"Right now, I look at myself as a utility person," Sapp said.

Fokou, meanwhile, went through a learning process of his own last season, and said he feels more comfortable in the Eagles' defense in Year 2. He played in all 16 games in 2009, starting four. He's not taking his starting this year for granted, he said.

"It's not given to me," he said. "I'm just there on paper for right now."


Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214 or jtamari@phillynews.com.

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