Plenty of free-agent options for Eagles at edge rusher

Packers outside linebacker Mike Neal (96) lines up during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. (Tony Gutierrez/AP file)
Packers outside linebacker Mike Neal (96) lines up during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. (Tony Gutierrez/AP file)
Posted: March 11, 2014

Even though they ranked second to last in the NFL in sacks per pass play last season, the Eagles aren't likely to hit the panic button and overspend for an edge rusher in free agency.

Do they need to upgrade at outside linebacker or at the least bolster a unit that accounted for only 16 of 37 sacks last season? Certainly. But there is more to a successful pass rush than sacks. The Eagles actually had an above-average defense in that regard, according to Football Outsiders' rankings.

Free agency isn't rife with impact edge rushers, but there are several second- or third-tier outside linebackers such as the Packers' Mike Neal, the Seahawks' O'Brien Schofield, and the Redskins' Rob Jackson who should interest the Eagles and satisfy their desire for versatile defenders.

The top-rated edge rushers are either off the free-agent market or they would cost the Eagles more than they have budgeted. The Redskins' Brian Orakpo and the Steelers' Jason Worilds signed one-year franchise and transition tags, respectively, and the Vikings' Everson Griffen signed a five-year deal to stay in Minnesota on Sunday.

The Seahawks' Michael Bennett and the Bengals' Michael Johnson, meanwhile, could land big deals if Griffen's $42.5 million contract with $20 million guaranteed is any indication of what prominent edge rushers will get.

The Eagles have about $15 million in salary-cap space allocated to their top three outside linebackers (Trent Cole, Connor Barwin, and Brandon Graham). Cole should stay. Barwin isn't going anywhere. And Graham could be available to trade.

The Eagles could make the argument that all three deserve to return. Cole recorded team highs in sacks (eight) and quarterback hits (14), even though his responsibility was sometimes to eat up blockers. Barwin had five sacks and batted down a team-high seven passes even though he dropped into coverage on 40 percent of pass-rush opportunities.

And Graham had the most pass-rush production (three sacks and 17 hurries in 167 pass-rush attempts) even though he played only 27 percent of snaps.

The Eagles' pass rush was the NFL's 12th best, according to Football Outsiders, which tracks every play and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. The Eagles' pass rush, for instance, was 11.3 percent better than the league average.

But there is always room for improvement. Cole, who will turn 32 in October, isn't getting any younger. That may suggest that an eventual replacement will come via the draft, but there are some options in free agency.

Here are some names to remember, with notes from two NFL evaluators - a senior NFC scout and an AFC pro scout:

Mike Neal (6-foot-3, 275 pounds), Packers (5-1 odds). If the Eagles are looking for an outside linebacker who drops back as much as Barwin, Neal - who dropped back on only 12 percent of pass-rush plays - is not their man. But the 27-year-old Neal, who generated a team-high 37 hurries last season, has versatility along the line and can play inside, too. "His size puts him in one box, but his athleticism allows him to play other positions," the NFC scout said. He "uses his power well on the edge and his athleticism rushing from inside," the AFC scout said.

O'Brien Schofield (6-3, 242), Seahawks (6-1 odds). A situational pass rusher in Seattle, Schofield played his first four seasons with the Cardinals, two under current Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis. He "battled through injuries in Arizona when forced into a bigger role," the NFC scout said. The 27-year-old played only 145 snaps for the Seahawks last season, but is "a solid rotational rusher," the NFC scout said.

Rob Jackson (6-4, 266), Redskins (10-1 odds). Jackson, 28, is more in the Barwin mold. He dropped back on 34 percent of pass plays in 2012, when he saw his playing time increase after Orakpo was injured. He recorded four interceptions, 41/2 sacks, and two forced fumbles in 2012. But he was suspended four games last season for using a banned substance and his production dipped. According to the AFC scout, Jackson is "not a natural fit as a man-coverage type, but does have good ball skills if the ball is thrown in his area."

Lamarr Houston (6-3, 305), Raiders (20-1 odds). Houston, 26, could get a big contract if he hits the market. He played defensive end in Oakland's 4-3 defense and could play some defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end at his size. But he's better suited to play 3-4 outside linebacker, according to the AFC scout.

Others: Anthony Spencer, Cowboys; Willie Young, Lions; Shaun Phillips, Broncos; Robert Ayers, Broncos.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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