Ryans doesn't fill all of Eagles' linebacker needs

Nebraska's Lavonte David , doesn't have the ideal size, but he's instinctive, fast, and productive. MICHAEL CONROY / AP
Nebraska's Lavonte David , doesn't have the ideal size, but he's instinctive, fast, and productive. MICHAEL CONROY / AP
Posted: April 22, 2012

When the Eagles traded for DeMeco Ryans, the feeling of relief and excitement among fans was palpable.

The team had picked up a name linebacker. Finally.

But the big move doesn't necessarily mean the Eagles solved the linebacker problems that were so plain and painful to see last season.

Ryans is a two-time Pro Bowler and renowned leader, but after an Achilles tear in 2010 he wasn't the same player in 2011. The Eagles are optimistic about his health and returning him to the 4-3 system in which he excelled, but even if he returns to form, the team might need insurance and definitely needs an upgrade at outside linebacker.

The group that played last year was at best serviceable, and at worst a liability. And while young linebackers Brian Rolle and Jamar Chaney had their moments, neither appears destined to be a big-time playmaker.

By the end of the season the Eagles had used four starting-linebacker alignments and were rotating in their 'backers in the nickel package. There was no one defensive coordinator Juan Castillo trusted to play all three downs, to cover passes and stop the run and rush the quarterback.

On a peewee team it's nice when everyone gets to participate. In the NFL, the Eagles would like someone who can grab the job by the throat.

"Linebackers, we're looking for three-down guys," said Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. "That doesn't mean there's not a role for a third-down guy, but you don't want a guy who can be exposed on first and second down. It's such a passing league that people aren't just throwing the ball on third down and people aren't just running the ball on first down. If you have a package where you have a guy that can't run as well, or doesn't have a feel for pass coverage, that's going to put you at risk."

Translation: Our offense lives by the pass, and our defense has to stop the pass.

Playing the run is a difficult, critical job for linebackers behind the Eagles' pass-rush-first front four, but the team wants 'backers capable of turning and running with tight ends.

Recent drafts reflect that desire. Rolle, taken in the sixth round in 2011, had the third-fastest 40-yard dash among linebackers that year. Chaney had the best time in 2010, and draft classmate Keenan Clayton tied for sixth.

Boston College's Luke Kuechly is considered the top linebacker in the 2012 draft - by far (and was third-fastest at the scouting combine). The Eagles might have to trade up if they want him. While he's projected as a middle linebacker, the same position as Ryans, the team could start Kuechly on the outside, giving him time to learn before taking over play-calling responsibility in the middle.

Most of the top-rated outside linebackers are 3-4 pass rushers who would play defensive end in the Eagles system. But speedy prospects such as North Carolina's Zach Brown, Nebraska's Lavonte David, and California's Mychal Kendricks could be options at weakside linebacker, where teams look for players who can run and tackle.

The Eagles haven't drafted an impact linebacker since Jeremiah Trotter in 1998. If they can break that streak, fans might well have even more reason to rejoice.


Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari.

 

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