Cole feeling more comfortable at linebacker

Posted: December 21, 2013

Raise your hand if you were certain before or even during this season that Trent Cole wouldn't be back with the Eagles in 2014.

Count Cole among the many. In fact, the defensive-end-turned-outside linebacker wasn't sure he would make it to 2013 after the Eagles hired Chip Kelly and he was told the defense was moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

"There's a lot of things you think about when a new coaching staff comes in," Cole said Thursday. "They'll bring their own players in, and they do their own thing. I'm not the true outside linebacker because I've been playing defensive end all of my life.

"You have to factor that in. They didn't know what I was going to be doing."

But Cole hung around, mostly because he can still perform at 31, and partly - although the Eagles wouldn't admit it - because they owed him more than $5 million in guaranteed salary.

There was, however, the move to outside linebacker. While he had moments when it seemed as if he wouldn't make the transition, Cole has done well enough to suggest that a return next season isn't out of the question.

"I think some of the things we didn't know about him, his ability to drop . . . I think he's done a really nice job with that," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "I'm really happy with how he's played and what he's done since we got here."

Cole still hardly drops into coverage. He has dropped 110 times out of 831 snaps (13.2 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. But when he has had to cover receivers it hasn't been the disaster many predicted when the career defensive end was first seen practicing at linebacker in the spring.

"In the beginning, that's when it was really hard, just trying to take it in. Like, 'Oh, where's my career going now?' " Cole said. "I was on the right track, got my career rolling, and then wham! OK, now you got to play outside linebacker, and all this weight comes on you."

Cole doesn't exclusively play standup outside linebacker. The Eagles will often have him stick his hand in the ground at an end or 4-3 tackle spot because he remains one of the defense's best run-stoppers.

Cole is second in the NFL among 3-4 outside linebackers in run-stop percentage, having been credited with 29 stops on 281 run snaps (10.3 percent) by Pro Football Focus. The Ravens' Terrell Suggs is first with 35 stops on 289 snaps (12.1 percent).

He hasn't been as productive as a pass rusher, but the opportunities have been fewer. And too much weight has been attached to sacks. Cole has only five sacks in 396 pass rushes, but he also has 26 hurries and 13 hits and has forced two quarterback fumbles.

"I just tell people, 'Watch the footage. The film don't lie,' " Cole said. "To me, I think I've had a good year. I'm not satisfied, but I'm happy."

And the motor, as it's been since the Eagles drafted him in the fifth round of the 2005 draft, remains constant.

"The one thing that stands out is he's such a great effort player and causes a lot of problems," Kelly said. "Just never seems like he stops."

There's still the feeling that Cole won't fit into next year's plans, especially if he refuses to take a pay cut. His salary jumps to $6.6 million. Kelly likes long and lean defensive players, and having two versatile outside linebackers should only help the scheme.

But keeping Cole around while a rookie develops could make sense. He said he wants to return, wants to win that elusive Super Bowl in Philly, and wants to play at least three more seasons.

"If they don't want me and they get someone else, hey, it's no problem at all," Cole said. "I understand. But I know that if it don't work out for me here next year, I will definitely be playing somewhere else, and that's the truth. I will be playing hard, and I will be giving all effort, and I will be great."

BRYCE DOWN

Bryce Brown is averaging just 2.9 yards a carry after a robust 4.9-yard average last season.

On Sunday against the Vikings, after playing more than or as many snaps as Chris Polk all season, he played fewer and didn't log a carry for the first time.

Brown's second year hasn't panned out the way that many thought it would after he rushed for more than 160 yards in back-to-back games in place of LeSean McCoy last year.

He admitted Wednesday that it's not the way he envisioned it either.

"No, not for me, I wouldn't say. Can't say it has," Brown said. "But the main thing is just winning football games, and that's what our main focus is. I didn't come into this season with any personal goals."

Brown said that he will have a goal next season: to be a No. 1 running back.

"That's obviously a goal of mine going into next year. I think I can," Brown said. "That's what I'm going to be working toward, whether I'm here or I'm somewhere else."

Brown, 22, said that he still believes he can thrive in Chip Kelly's offense, although this season's numbers suggest otherwise. He has rushed 64 times for 188 yards and caught eight passes for 84 yards, but doesn't have a touchdown.

He admitted last month that he has struggled with limited snaps.

A senior NFL scout said that Brown "has all of the tools to be an every-down back."

McCoy has "had a great year, and I just think when you're hot like that, you go to the back that's hot," Brown said.

But now Polk appears to have moved ahead of him, even if offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said that Sunday's snap count - Polk was on the field for nine plays to Brown's three - didn't reflect a shift.

If there's been a positive this season it's that Brown has apparently corrected his ball-security issues. He lost three of four fumbles last season but doesn't have one turnover this year.

"My awareness in traffic to protect it is a lot better," Brown said.

A cynic might suggest that his decreased rushing statistics reflect his being too cognizant of losing the football.

INSIDE THE GAME

Much has been made of the overall good health of the Eagles this season. Chip Kelly's conditioning and sports science programs have received much of the credit for the lower number of soft-tissue injuries.

Luck has certainly played a part, as it has with the low number of concussions the Eagles have had. They have had only four players listed on the injury report with concussions ( Bradley Fletcher, Nick Foles, Jeff Maehl, and Brandon Boykin) and only Fletcher and Foles have missed a game.

Maehl missed only one practice after he suffered a concussion in the Cardinals game. Boykin missed two this week after leaving the Vikings game early and was back to work Thursday.

Last season, the Eagles had five players miss a total of 12 games because of concussions.

The Eagles' two lost games, though, are only slightly below the league average of 2.3 players per team that have missed games this season because of concussions.

DeSean Jackson has already run more routes out of the slot (122 of 486 pass snaps) than he has in any of his previous five seasons in the NFL.

The wide receiver has 25 catches for 354 yards and two touchdowns out of the slot. The Eagles have also increasingly lined him up the backfield and run him out on wheel and crossing routes to great success.

"It affects the defense, because they have to decide how they want to cover him if they're in man and where they put that man player," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "If they're playing zone, him running out of the backfield, then he could get a matchup with a linebacker."

The Eagles' safety play reached a low in Minnesota and was compounded by injuries to reserves Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson.

Patrick Chung has been "slumping," according to defensive coordinator Bill Davis, and the Eagles seem to be getting Earl Wolff, who has missed the last four games with a knee sprain, back just in time.

But is it too much to label the rookie, who was improving before the injury but still raw, a savior for a unit that will be facing one of the best passing offenses in the Bears?

"I think if you look at it that way, yeah," Wolff said. "I think about it as a guy getting another opportunity to go out there and perform. I just can't wait to get back out there Sunday."

INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM

It can happen overnight. A rookie comes into the NFL wide-eyed and deferential, but as soon as he figures out that he belongs and in some cases excels, his confidence skyrockets. Tight end Zach Ertz fits the mold. With each week, the rookie has become more self-assured on the field and in the locker room. In the Cardinals game earlier this month, Ertz caught five passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns. He was demonstrative after one diving catch and delivered a spike of the football after his second score. "In college I would always just hand the ball to the ref," Ertz said. "Against the Cardinals, I don't even know what got into me. I was in the moment, having a ton of fun out there making plays."

Last week, Eagles players were polled to pick three teammates they would vote into the Pro Bowl. Here's the final 53-man tally (players weren't permitted to vote for themselves): LeSean McCoy 47 votes, DeMeco Ryans 39, DeSean Jackson 28, Nick Foles 16, Jason Peters 11, Evan Mathis 7, Jason Kelce 6, Donnie Jones 5, Fletcher Cox 3, Brandon Boykin 3, Riley Cooper 2, Connor Barwin 1, Colt Anderson 1.

BY THE NUMBERS

108

Number of missed tackles by the Eagles defense on 1,023 plays through 14 games. Last season, the unit missed 111 tackles on 994 plays.

4.87

Average yards per play with Nick Foles at quarterback with the Eagles' most-used skill position lineup of LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, Jason Avant, and Brent Celek. With Michael Vick at the quarterback with the same lineup the Eagles average 7.47 yards.

6.72

Eagles average yards per first-down play, tops in the NFL. The league average is 5.42 yards, and the Broncos are second at 6.15 yards.

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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