Linebacker Ryans is Eagles' iron man

Posted: June 04, 2014

THE EAGLES' most irreplaceable defensive player was shaking his head yesterday, smiling but puzzled. Reporters kept asking if offseason personnel additions might allow DeMeco Ryans to play fewer than the league-high 1,157 snaps he logged in 2013.

"You tryin' to get me off the field?" Ryans asked a reporter who wondered if there were any packages that didn't include the middle linebacker this year. Like, oh, say, a dime setup, with six defensive backs and one linebacker, which the Eagles didn't feature in their first season under Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis? Ryans indicated there were no such plans, as the Eagles continued organized team activities at NovaCare.

"I guess that's the question this year. OK. I guess that's the question everybody wants to ask. I'm still out here playing my hardest, giving the team what I have to go out and compete," Ryans said. "I'm surprised at the question, but hey, that's what it is."

Ryans, who turns 30 right around the time training camp starts next month, said he never realized he was playing more snaps last season than any other NFL defensive player. He credited Kelly's sports-science emphasis, especially with regard to helping players recover from games and practices.

"When the coaches understand how to take care of the players from that standpoint, it helps us as older guys be able to come out here day after day and really play hard, practice hard, because we know that we're taking care of ourselves with the recovery aspect," Ryans said.

There are a couple of potential problems here. One is that business about being an "older guy." Ryans developed into the unquestioned leader of the Eagles' defense last season, its backbone. This season he's going to be 30, and the team did not draft an inside linebacker last month. One of the guys the Eagles might want to lean on, should anything happen to Ryans, is 2013 rookie Jake Knott, who will miss the first four games of the 2014 season after what Knott said was inadvertent use of a banned stimulant that was in a fitness drink. Special-teamers Najee Goode, Jason Phillips and Emmanuel Acho are the other possible replacements, Phillips coming off a season lost to an ACL tear.

Fatigue isn't the only danger a middle linebacker faces. It's pretty extraordinary that Ryans endured 1,157 snaps last year without getting hurt, and yes, it's a credit to the Eagles' approach to sports medicine, but the fact is, every NFL snap is a serious injury waiting to happen, especially at middle linebacker.

And, though Davis said late in the year that Ryans was having "a great season, a Pro Bowl season," Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowl selection for Houston, did not make it back to Hawaii despite setting career highs for tackles (177 according to the Eagles, 127 according to the league), sacks (four) and interceptions (two). Pro Football Focus rated him the next-to-worst starting inside linebacker in the league, ahead of only Washington's ancient London Fletcher, just behind former Eagles sub Moise Fokou, who played for Tennessee. (PFF is useful tallying up things like how many times a receiver was targeted, less useful at more sophisticated parsings; they basically have fans volunteer to watch games at home and deliver verdicts on whether this guy should have been covering that guy, and so on, without talking to any coaches or necessarily understanding the nuances of individual schemes. It's notable that PFF actually graded Ryans far worse against the run than the pass, which is the opposite of what most people watching the Eagles perceived.)

Objectively, it's hard to know what to make of where Ryans stands in the NFL, but it seems clear that as valuable a leader as Ryans has become, he isn't going to be the bulwark of the defense a couple of years from now, and it seems likely both he and the team would benefit from letting Ryans shoulder at least a slightly lighter load in 2014. This will be one of the main topics when reporters finally are allowed to talk to Davis again in a couple of weeks.

"I think probably everybody would agree he's the most important guy on the defense. He's the captain out there. He makes all the calls. The coaches put a lot of faith and trust in him, along with all the players," Knott said yesterday. "He's kind of a player-coach out there for us, too. That, in itself, is kind of indispensable."

Ryans talked yesterday about leadership. (Haven't seen any PFF metrics on that yet.)

"First, it's your work ethic," he said. "Guys see you in the weight room, how you work - it's all about creating that 'I come to work every day.' The guys know what to expect from leaders. They don't get wishy-washy guys, [they connect with leaders] who come in and bust their butts every day. It starts there. And then, playing good, it always helps . . . At this point, it's not about the rah-rah. Guys get paid to do their jobs, so they're expected to do their jobs."

From a leadership standpoint, the Eagles have helped distribute the workload a little, signing cerebral safety Malcolm Jenkins in free agency. Jenkins will call the backfield signals and definitely has taken control of the secondary.

"He's going to be the leader in the back end. He gets the guys in the right position, rangy guy, makes the plays you want [him to] make, vocal guy," Ryans said of Jenkins. "He was a great addition to our secondary."

Ryans said he expects to be better in his second year with Davis.

"The relationship has grown a lot. I kind of know what he's thinking, know what he's going to call in certain situations," Ryans said. "Overall, the whole defense has just grown, because we're more comfortable with what we're doing."

On Twitter: @LesBowen


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