Staff writer Steve Fini breaks down the Eagles’ options at middle linebacker.
The Eagles need for a linebacker this offseason is evident–nothing groundbreaking there. Philly fans will be watching the NFL Combine this week in hopes they can spot the next (or what may seem like the first) great middle linebacker to play in this city. For most fans the solution is clear: take a linebacker with the 15th pick in the draft. But is that the best solution for a team that wants to win now? But is that really the best move for a team that
has to win now.
Drafting a linebacker is a risk. While experts are calling Boston College’s Luke Kuechly the safest pick in the draft, many of those experts said the same thing when Seattle took Aaron Curry–that didn’t quite work out. Since Kuechly, however, is the popular pick at the moment for the Eagles, let’s start with him. A quick look at his playing style shows a 6-2, 237-pound tackling machine. He can shed blocks, has a nose for the football, and can rack up tackles in bunches. He’s not the most athletic guy on the planet, but seems to be in on nearly every stop. That sounds like someone the Eagles could desperately use in middle of their defense.
Another guy fans are pandering about, and will be more so after he works out at the combine, is Vontaze Burfict. The opinion on Burfict has soured in recent weeks, but he can change that with an impressive showing at the combine. He was a monster in the middle of Arizona State’s defense for the past three years. He’s 6-4, 250lbs and a ferocious hitter. He has it all in terms of athleticism. But Burfict takes plays off, lacks discipline, and has been known to draw outrageous penalties–think Ernie Sims with more talent. Additionally, Burfict struggles to get off blocks. That’s lethal in a defense that often allows offensive linemen to reach the second lvel. So the decision between Burfict and Kuechly comes down to this question: do you take a less athletic but fundamentally sound linebacker and hope he turns into Zach Thomas? Or do you take the athlete and hope he turns into Ray Lewis?
There may be another option, albeit one much less talked about. It’s a great year to need a middle linebacker judging by the players scheduled to hit free agency next month. Stephen Tulloch, Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and London Fletcher are each going to be on the market. Each players, aside from Fletcher is under age 30. These players are solid contributors who get over shadowed by other big name linebackers, but each can play.
Especially Tulloch, who will undoubtedly the Eagles best option in 2012. Tulloch has played in the “Wide 9” his entire career and has flourished. He does everything very well but nothing outstanding. He was my second rated free agent for the Eagles to sign last year behind Nnamdi Asomugha and I think the Eagles should be even more inclined to sign him this year. He’s a leader, a sound tackler who can cover and knows the system better than any of the guys I’ve listed. Tulloch is the type of player that could be the Eagles middle linebacker for the next five years.
Meanwhile, Lofton and Hawthorne are young players on the verge of stardom. But Lofton, in particular, is a liability in coverage–one of the reasons Atlanta isn’t so intent on bringing him back. Fletcher has been playing at a Pro Bowl level his entire career, but would only be a short-term solution.
The Eagles want to win now. The fans want the Eagles to win now. And everyone feels as though middle linebacker is the main reason they didn’t last year. So if the Eagles want to roll the dice, they’ll take Kuechly or Burfict and pray that they can contribute immediately as they mature into stars. But they’d be much better suited to chase after Tulloch.
Then again, maybe they’ll just stick with what they’ve got. They couldn’t do that, could they?