Eagles looking for linebacker

Detroit's Stephen Tulloch, a wide-nine player.
Detroit's Stephen Tulloch, a wide-nine player. (DUANE BURLESON / Associated Press)
Posted: February 26, 2012

The staging of the NFL's annual scouting combine is like the Eagles sending DeSean Jackson deep as a decoy.

While the league draws attention to an unending array of prearranged interviews with coaches, general managers, and prospects at Lucas Oil Stadium - and the generally useless three-cone drill - the real news is being made in the hotels, the eateries, and the back rooms of Indianapolis.

The combine, despite its growing popularity, is merely an excuse for team officials and agents to gather and lay the groundwork for free agency, which just so happens to precede the draft by six weeks.

First and foremost for the Eagles: deciding what they will do with their 12 free agents. Jackson, of course, takes precedence, but decisions on guard Evan Mathis, defensive tackle Derek Landri, and at what level to tender restricted defensive tackle Antonio Dixon will be made before the league year begins on March 13.

Which free agents the Eagles intend to pursue from other teams is still being decided. Despite an estimated $28 million in salary-cap space, the Eagles aren't expected to cannonball into free agency as they did last year. General manager Howie Roseman recently said as much.

The lockout and the restrictions the new cap placed on other teams allowed the Eagles to cherry-pick free agents in last summer's spending spree. While some choices panned out, others didn't. The exercise backfired in spite of the Eagles' having what looked like a powerful roster on paper.

It left those in the front office wondering what went wrong. The general feeling was that they deviated too much from their general philosophy, which is to build through the draft and to target a few specific needs through free agency or trades.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, their failures in drafting on defense have led to the patching of holes by other means. And once again, the most pressing needs are on defense, specifically at linebacker.

Cue a skipping record.

The overall devaluing of the position - with low draft picks and nary a free-agent acquisition of late - has left the Eagles with a pile of linebackers who could all be released and replaced this offseason without the missing of a beat.

But that isn't going to happen. The Eagles are likely to zero in on one linebacker - probably in free agency - to fill what even they cannot deny is the team's most obvious weakness.

They could draft a linebacker in the first round, but other than the fact that Andy Reid has never done so, why expend first-round money on a non-premium position? The Eagles need a ready-made linebacker, and there are several unrestricted free agents who should be available in less than three weeks.

To get a topflight linebacker, the Eagles will have to ink one to a long-term deal with a decent amount of guaranteed cash. While Reid hasn't signed a free-agent linebacker in six years, and hasn't signed one to a multiyear contract in eight, he has spent - Dhani Jones, Mark Simoneau, Carlos Emmons - although not always wisely.

Here are the most attractive inside linebackers expected to be on the market, with analysis provided by an NFL scout who requested anonymity because his evaluations are exclusive to his team:

Curtis Lofton, Falcons: Atlanta has said that it wants to keep the 25-year-old, but reportedly only as a two-down linebacker. Lofton, meanwhile, is said to be after a contract similar to the one the Jets' David Harris (four years, $36 million) signed last year. "A tackler, plays downhill, but is only a so-so cover guy," the NFC scout said. "Would be a major upgrade for the Eagles."

Stephen Tulloch, Lions: Schematically he would fit, having played behind a wide-nine defensive alignment with Tennessee and Detroit. Lions coach Jim Schwartz didn't exactly sound optimistic about Tulloch's returning when he was asked about the possibility during the combine. "How [the Eagles] didn't get this guy last year is beyond me," the scout said. "They may have to pay this time."

D'Qwell Jackson, Browns: He missed 26 games in 2009-10 because of pectoral muscle injuries, but was stellar last season. Jackson has said he wants to stay in Cleveland and could be franchised. "He's very smart and would adjust to a 4-3," the scout said. "Best run-stopper I saw last year."

David Hawthorne, Seattle: Slowed by a nagging knee injury, he wasn't as productive as he was in 2010. But he's only 26 and may still have room to grow. "You might be able to get him at a fair price," the scout said. "Not especially fast, but he can plug gaps."

London Fletcher, Redskins: Fletcher, at 36, would be only a short-term solution. Reports out of Washington are that both sides want to work something out, but he may want to play for a contender. "Gets better with age, but you have to wonder how much is left in the tank," the scout said.


The Market for Free-Agent Linebackers

The Eagles, in need of linebacker help, are entering a market that is deep at the position, especially at inside linebacker. Here are the likely free-agent options, both unrestricted and restricted:

UNRESTRICTED

Player, team    Height    Weight    Age    The skinny

Curtis Lofton, Falcons    6-0    238    25    Gobbles up ballcarriers.

Stephen Tulloch, Lions    5-11    240    27    Knows wide nine.

D'Qwell Jackson, Browns    6-0    240    28    Injury-prone but consistent.

David Hawthorne, Seattle    6-0    246    26    Regressed but still has upside.

London Fletcher, Redskins    5-10    245    36    Aging but plays five years younger.

Dan Connor, Panthers    6-2    231    26    May just need opportunity.

Erin Henderson, Vikings    6-3    244    25    A solid weak-side linebacker.

Rocky McIntosh, Redskins    6-2    232    29    Could be better-suited to 4-3.

Jameel McClain, Ravens    6-1    250    27    Philly native more a run-down LB.

Jonathan Goff, N.Y. Giants    6-2    241    26    Missed all of 2011 with ACL injury.

RESTRICTED

Player, team   Height    Weight    Age    The skinny

Jovan Belcher, Chiefs    6-2    228    24    Impressive against the run.

Larry Grant, 49ers    6-1    251    27    Filled in for Patrick Willis.

DeAndre Levy, Lions    6-1    238    24    Struggled last year at weak side.

- Jeff McLane


Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.

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