Are Birds grooming Kendricks to replace Ryans?

Linebacker Mychal Kendricks has taken bigger responsibilities in workouts, sharing chores with DeMeco Ryans.
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks has taken bigger responsibilities in workouts, sharing chores with DeMeco Ryans. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: June 11, 2014

Linebacker Mychal Kendricks has been calling the plays, making checks, and setting the first-team defense this spring.

Wait, you may be saying, isn't that DeMeco Ryans' job?

Well, yes, it remains his responsibility, but the Eagles have put more on Kendricks' plate this offseason.

"We're both inside linebackers," Kendricks said. "He does do that, but I'm there for him just like he's there for me. And we both make calls, even though he has the last say in what the call will be. Sometimes, I'm in there making those calls, too."

It's difficult to say for certain why the Eagles decided to give Kendricks a more vocal role. Neither coach Chip Kelly nor defensive coordinator Bill Davis was available for comment Monday. Kendricks, who said he didn't assist in making calls last season, opined that it was part of the natural process that comes with his maturation.

Cliches and hyperbole are rites of spring in the NFL, when too much can be made of players practicing in shorts without contact. But when Kendricks starts sharing chores with Ryans - the de facto leader on defense - it suggests a few possibilities.

For one, it could mean the Eagles have begun preparations for when Ryans is no longer on the team. Or it could point to Ryans' playing less this season. Or the Eagles could be positioning Kendricks as the immediate backup to Ryans rather than Jake Knott or another reserve.

At the very least, Kendricks, who is entering his third season, is being asked to take on more this year.

"My role is to be a leader on this defense," Kendricks said. "To make calls, make checks, and get our defense set. So that's what I'm going to do."

If the Eagles are to improve on defense, Kendricks logically has to be one of the starters to step up. His ceiling is as high as anyone else's, except for perhaps defensive end Fletcher Cox. While Ryans, 29, is on the back end of his arc, Kendricks is ascending.

His rookie season was a bit of a wash when he played as a 4-3 outside linebacker in the last remnants of the wide-nine scheme. He struggled through most of the first half of last season but made impressive leaps later as he adjusted to the 3-4 inside linebacker spot alongside Ryans.

Kendricks still overran plays and missed tackles, but he offset the mistakes with explosive playmaking. All four of his sacks, two of his three interceptions, and his lone forced fumble came in the second half of the season.

"Not even having a year in a defense since I've been in the league, and then making that transition helped," Kendricks said about his second-half surge. "Just being a second-year player, and understanding schemes and concepts definitely helped. But I have much more to improve."

Kendricks' 21 missed tackles were tied for the most among inside linebackers in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. He allowed 55 catches for 605 yards, being targeted 67 times. But with his athleticism, there is an upside. He is only 23.

Kendricks played almost as many snaps as Ryans (95 to 96 percent) in the 14 games in which he was healthy. Kelly had said in March that he would look to decrease Ryans' playing time, possibly giving him breathers on passing downs, but he has stayed on the field with Kendricks in the Eagles' nickel defense this spring.

Still, even if Ryans opens the season playing all three downs, having Kendricks practice making the calls should prepare him in case there is a change. Only one player can wear the headset that connects to Davis, but the Eagles could have safety Malcolm Jenkins wear it and relay in the plays.

The Eagles may be reluctant to take the headset away from Ryans. He is the recognized leader on defense and often sets the tone by example. But he was a detriment to the scheme in pass coverage.

Ryans is signed through 2015, but at $6.8 million a pop this could be his last season with the Eagles. The team didn't draft an inside linebacker last month. While Knott, who will miss the first four games because he used a banned substance, and Najee Goode have shown promise, the pipeline is nearly empty.

For the Eagles and Kendricks, the future may be now.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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