By Dylan MacKinnon
Is anyone else getting Deja vu? I could have sworn we have been here before. Fresh into the offseason, talking about how the Eagles could really use a true star linebacker. I think Eagles fans may be stuck in a Groundhog Day-like scenario. We are cursed to wake up every season in the same position as the year before. So desperately wanting the Eagles to get a top-end linebacker, but to never do so. The Eagles haven’t spent a 1st round pick on a linebacker since the ’70s. But maybe, just maybe, in a year they have 3 first-round picks, they may change that. I am not getting my hopes up, but a man can dream.
We joke, but it is a serious need for them. But just how serious? And what moves could they do to fill it? Let’s take a look.
A Position They Do Not Value
It is no secret the Eagles do not value the position the same way they do others on the defense. They have not come out and said it out loud, but their actions are loud and clear. I already mentioned they haven’t spent a first on one since 1979. But in that same time, there are only 13 linebackers they have taken in the first 3 rounds. Over 40 years, 13 linebackers with day 1 or 2 picks. And it’s not just the draft where they ignore the position.
This season, linebackers make up just 1.83% of their cap space. They barely make more as a unit than the kicker and punter combined. And that is not a new trend. Last year linebackers made just 2.08% of the cap. In 2019 it was 3.77%. 2018 saw a cap hit of 4.14%. It is consistently the position besides Special teams that makes up the smallest portion of the cap space.
They let Jordan Hicks walk because they did not want to pay him. They signed Nigel Bradham in free agency, but his cap hits were still fairly small never exceeding 5 million. Connor Barwin is the last time a LB carried a cap hit over 5 million for the Eagles, with a hit of $7.35 million in 2013. Since then they have gotten cheaper and cheaper. In the last two years, no one had a cap hit that exceeded 2 million.
Fundamental problem on Eagles defense:— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) October 24, 2021
Jonathan Gannon's (primarily) 2-deep safety system puts a lot on the shoulders of the linebackers.
Eagles routinely invest fewest amount of $ into the linebacker position.
But are the Eagles Right?
So we have established that the Eagles do not want to spend assets on linebackers. But are they right? It’s hard to quantify. But it’s worth mentioning in the last 10 seasons, 8 of the 40 teams that made a conference championship had either first-team or second-team All-Pro Linebacker. Only All-pro Cornerbacks showed up on more teams playing in one of the conference championships. Now I am not saying that stat is in any way definitive. But it does go to show that a lot of good, championship-caliber defenses, also have great linebackers.
Linebackers in recent Eagles defenses tend to have a lesser role than on other teams. Eagles blitz less than all but one other team, the Raiders. But is that because it is what Gannon thinks is best to do? Or is it because he does not have much to work with at linebacker, and doesn’t trust the linebackers who don’t blitz to hold up in single coverage? Perhaps if they had a great middle linebacker they may be more comfortable letting someone like Alex Singleton or TJ Edwards be an extra pass rusher, because they trust their middle linebacker to be able to cover the RB or TE.
Overall, they aren’t wrong to say it makes more sense to invest in CB, DT, and DE, but investing so little in LB has clearly hurt them. TEs have hurt this team all year. They have allowed 12 TDs to Tight Ends, second-most among all defenses. It’s a clear issue, and it can also clearly be connected to their lack of talent at LB. One very good LB could make a world of difference in that regard. Both in the passing game and the run game. So no, they are not right to value LBs as little as they do.
So What Can They Do?
Luckily, it’s a pretty good year to want a good linebacker in the draft. Nakobe Dean, Devin Lloyd, Brandon Smith are just 3 names who could instantly step in and be the best linebacker the Eagles have had since Jordan Hicks. If they want to break the trend, this would be the year to do it. Even if they do not want to spend a first, there is some depth to the LB class.
I think it’s less likely they spend money on an LB in Free Agency, but there are options if they want to. Dont’a Hightower, Christian Kirksey, Kenny Young are just a few of the names they could bring in. I doubt they do that, but it’s another option.
The more likely scenario is they pick someone. Eagles fans will likely be drooling over the tape of Dean and Lloyd approaching the draft. It is just a matter of if the Eagles are willing to make that move.
Linebackers is definitely a position they are weak in, definitely a position they undervalue, and definitely a position that is easy to address this off-season. There is no excuse for them not to. I get they don’t like spending on the position, but they have to realize that they cant get by with what they have long term, not if they want to be an elite defense.
Nakobe Dean or Devin Lloyd sure would look good in midnight green. Dean might not fall to them, but there is a decent chance Lloyd would be there for one of their three first-round picks.