Eagles sizing up help at inside linebacker

Posted: August 01, 2014

The Eagles did not add a single inside linebacker this offseason, a curious decision for a position in which the starters were already overworked and the quality of the reserves remained an unknown.

DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks are entrenched as the two starters. Najee Goode was the only other inside linebacker who took significant snaps last season. The next month will be important for the coaching staff and front office to learn what they have at the only nonspecialist spot without a new face.

"We do like our depth, but some of it is unproven," coach Chip Kelly said. "That is the one big question. . . . So really trying to find out who that fourth linebacker is, [that's] what this whole camp process is about."

The Eagles return four players who are competing for the fourth spot: Jason Phillips, Emmanuel Acho, Casey Matthews, and Jake Knott. Phillips spent last season on injured reserve after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during training camp. Matthews and Knott were on the roster all season, although Knott has been suspended for the first four games of this season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

The Eagles planned to add competition at linebacker. They were interested in Alabama's C.J. Mosley in the first round of the draft, but he was already off the board at No. 22. In the middle rounds, they drafted players rated higher than the inside linebackers who were available. The free-agent market was unappealing.

"We're not going to do things that don't make sense," general manager Howie Roseman said. "Free agency from a financial perspective, and in the draft, as much as we'd like to get a certain position, we're not going to force it."

The way the top decision makers have spun it is that they have some intriguing pieces that are taking major steps in development. Goode, whom the organization is especially high on, was not acquired until after the 2013 preseason and now has the benefit of a full offseason and training camp in the Eagles' system.

Roseman views him almost as a new addition. A similar sentiment was shared about Phillips, whose time with the Eagles last season ended before the first preseason game.

"You get a chance to slow things down in the offseason," Goode said. "You can look at things piece by piece, as far as what you have to do and how other things affect you. Coming in at the start of the season, it was like, boom, boom, boom, getting thrown into the fire."

Phillips was signed on the first day of free agency in 2013 and was expected to boost special teams. The injury complicated his standing on the team, but Phillips does not think his ticket to the roster is compromised. The Eagles have emphasized special teams, and their offseason acquisitions were evidence of that. If Phillips proves he is healthy, he could help.

"That's kind of been my role on a lot of teams I've been on, and I'm pretty good at that role," Phillips said. "Once I get comfortable in the defense, I'll be ready to go at linebacker if they need me. But I'm going to try to make a big impact on special teams."

Special teams will be critical for Acho, who was impressive in the preseason last year on defense but failed to make the roster. He was later added to the practice squad and roster, but Acho's inclusion on the 53-man roster will require improvement in the third phase of the game.

"They're 100 percent confident in me making the [defensive] calls," Acho said. "So basically for me, it's special teams."

Acho, Phillips, and Knott have all taken snaps with the second-team defense during camp. Knott will not count against the roster for the first four games of the season. Matthews, who is entering his fourth season with the Eagles, has experience on the inside and outside.

Ryans' 1,183 snaps last season were the most of any defensive player in the NFL. Kendricks played 991 snaps even though he missed almost two full games. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis stated the desire to reduce those snaps, and using the depth at inside linebacker is one way to do it. The Eagles have no new faces, so they're relying on the improvement of unheralded reserves.

"I think we have very capable guys," Ryans said. "From a backup standpoint, I'm not worried at all from the inside linebacker position."


ONE UP

Safety Malcolm Jenkins had two interceptions on Wednesday. He picked off Mark Sanchez and Nick Foles and likely would have scored six points had his second interception occurred in a game. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Brandon Boykin also had interceptions.

ONE DOWN

Safety Ed Reynolds is having growing pains - as most rookies do during camp. During a punt-blocking drill, he couldn't contain Brad Smith, and when sides were switched, he couldn't get past the veteran receiver.

UP NEXT

The Eagles practice again at the NovaCare Complex on Thursday starting at 11:35 a.m. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will meet with reporters before practice. Thursday is the one-year anniversary of when the infamous video of Riley Cooper using a racial slur surfaced.

- Jeff McLane


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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