Middle Linebacker: Will DeMeco Deteriorate?
The Philadelphia Eagles have two players on the team whose workload was greater than their counterparts on other teams, and historically high. The first workhorse in 2013 was LeSean McCoy, whose 314 carries in the 2013 regular season was more than any other running back in the NFL.
The other player who deserves an iron-man award from 2013 is DeMeco Ryans, who played 96% of the defensive snaps in 2013, or 1,156 plays. That’s an average of 72 snaps per game. That’s a heavy load for a young man who has endured no injuries. But DeMeco turns 30 on July 28 (happy birthday DeMeco) and he has had to recover from a torn Achilles tendon in 2010. The fact that the man is a starting middle linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles confirms that he is healthy and capable. The fact that the Eagles allowed him to play 1,156 plays in one season confirms that they have no plan B for the guy.
Perhaps that one year won’t be detrimental. Perhaps DeMeco enters 2014 refreshed as new and can give this season another 1,156 plays (plus playoffs if the Eagles do well). But why? The Birds will need a fresh Ryans all season long. And while other players will take as many or nearly as many downs, no one player has more universal responsibility as the middle linebacker in a 3-4 defense. A middle linebacker, just by his location on the field, has responsibility for virtually the entire field of play. Covering that much ground is taxing, especially when they are the targets of big offensive linemen on every play. With so many big bodies doing an NFL version of bumper cars, its no surprise when players are injured, even if just minor “nagging” ways.
Chip Kelly makes valid arguments for what he does and why he does it. Billy Davis has been quoted about reducing snaps. In a June 16 Reuben Frank, he said as much about getting snaps off DeMeco Ryans:
“We have to take reps off him. He’s a warrior and he had way more reps than he should have. We want DeMeco for the long haul this season, and so many times when you overwork a veteran — and he takes great care of his body — but it’s a lot of games.”
Ryans is a true leader. As any true leader, he knows he has to lead from the field. No surprise then, he wants to be out there.
“I guess that’s the question everybody wants to ask, but I’m still out here playing and giving the team what I have to go out and compete. I’m a competitor,” Ryans explained, “It doesn’t matter to me. I’m here to play. When it’s time to compete, it’s time to compete, but I think we’ll all help ourselves a lot defensively not by not playing more reps but by playing better, playing smarter.”
So the question then becomes who will the Eagles use in DeMeco’s place? Now that’s the question that has not truly been answered… In a number of articles leading up to the draft, I pointed out that the Eagles needed to consider a middle linebacker in the draft, simply as a player who could rotate in occasionally to help keep Ryans fresh late into the fourth quarter. The Eagles did not address the position in free agency. So that role falls to a committee of Jake Knott, who is suspended in the first four games, Jason Phillips who is coming off an ACL injury, Najee Goode who showed some savvy at the position, Casey Matthews, and Emmanuel Acho, who saw a mere 88 snaps in 2013. It’s safe to say that the Eagles will toss the 2013 depth chart out the window for this year.
So we have a disconnect. The words say “limit Ryans”, but the actions suggest “steady as she goes”. We know that the game of football has a number of characteristics of poker, including sitting on a hot hand while acting as though you are ready to fold. First of all, Ryans is a true leader. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t get overly excited. He simply goes out, remains focused and gets it done at such a high level that it’s nearly impossible to take him off the field. It’s that no complain, high leadership presence which makes a huge difference in any number of games the team played in 2013. When DeMeco comes off the field, that presence goes with him.
A major point must be made here as well. The Eagles defense saw more snaps than any other defense. Part of the solution this year will simply be getting the defense off the field. That is certainly a legitimate goal this year. A component of the eventual solution is simply to elevate the play of this defense and stop opposing offenses. That makes sense. That leaves the Birds with a guy who loves to play middle linebacker, plays at a high level with leadership qualities, and we have a defense which will be getting off the field.
The ace in the hole is whether the Eagles are sitting some diamond caliber bench players. Can Najee Goode or Emmanuel Acho elevate their game to take some snaps? Initial reports from training camp indicate yes. With the arrival of Malcolm Jenkins at safety, the eagles can now consider rotating Ryans out on some passing downs – clearing the way for a player like Goode or Acho to come in. While Acho was the favorite of fans who enjoyed his play in 2013 preseason, Goode may have the inside track. He was claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay, is an asset in pass coverage over the middle (where the Eagles need help), and his late arrival in 2013 means he will be experiencing Chip’s training camp for the first time this year.
The team is in a delicate position. If they feel they need Ryans to get them to the playoffs, then they play him in as many downs as they can and hope he has something left in the tank. But if the Eagles can groom a player like Goode or Acho along the way, Ryans will likely have more in the tank when the Eagles get to the playoffs. And the true need for leadership will begin then. For now, the plan is still on the drawing board. Ryans has become a key to our defense, but we cannot ask so much of the guy that we have exhausted him when we need him most.
It’s a tough call…. what would you do?