When the Philadelphia Eagles faltered late last season, many assumed that the front office would make strides to improve the defense over the offseason. However, while the fans and media were heavily focused on a much needed overhaul in the secondary, few were privy to the impending changes at Inside Linebacker. The additions of Kiko Alonso, Jordan Hicks, and Brad Jones, to an already formidable unit has created a surplus of talent in the middle of the Eagles’ defense. The log jam that is the ILB corp has garnered much discussion in recent months, and is a topic that I discussed at length several weeks ago. Although there haven’t been many recent developments, there’s enough evidence to begin to hypothesize how the position might take shape, and where each player stands heading into training camp:
In regard to the article from last month, there are a few key takeaways that are worth revisiting.
1) Demeco Ryans presently remains a key component in the ILB corp:
When Ryans went down with an ugly Achilles injury last November, many questioned if he had played his final down as a Philadelphia Eagle. Those questions were answered in March, however, when the team made its extension of Ryans public, announcing a deal that would keep the Linebacker in midnight green through the 2016 season. Though it remains to be seen how effective Ryans will be following his latest Achilles injury, it’s clear that Chip Kelly — who didn’t hesitate to jettison aging vets this offseason — is optimistic that Ryans can return to form.
2) Despite his projected role, Ryans’ health is far from a guarantee:
Ryans will be 31 years old later this month, and given his recent injury history and already limited physical skill set, it’s doubtful that he returns to form in time to start the season, let alone compete in TC. Here’s what I wrote regarding Ryans’ status from a health/playing standpoint:
"When Ryans tore his Achilles in October 2010 he was able to return to the line-up in week one, however, it took him the majority of the season to truly return to form. Despite the teams advances in reconditioning, I find it hard to believe that a now much older Ryans will be 100% when the Eagles travel to Atlanta on September 14th. The best course of action may be to ease Ryans back into the line-up in a limited capacity, allowing him to assume the role of player-coach. It’s clear that Chip values Ryans from a cultural/leadership perspective, so giving him a role that best aligns with his intangible strengths would maximize his potential despite his being on the mend."
I understand why Kelly prioritized extending Ryans’ contract from a leadership perspective. Demeco is one of the most highly respected leaders in the Eagles locker room, and unlike other players who exhibit leadership qualities, he can be very vocal. As a prime motivator and cultural messiah, Ryans undoubtedly has value to the team, however, projecting him as a meaningful contributor for week one is merely wishful thinking at this point. Regardless, it appears the team is intent on giving Ryans a significant role in 2015. Barring re-injury or a complete inability to compete, I would expect Demeco to push for substantial PT.
3) In contrast to Ryans, Kiko Alonso should be 100% for training camp:
"Another player who is recovering from a significant Injury, Kiko Alonso, also seems to have the inside track to a starting role. In contrast to Ryans, however, it stands to reason that Alonso will be ready to assume that role much more quickly. According to multiple reports from Eagles OTAs, Alonso looks fluid and explosive following the reconditioning process.It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Alonso is further along in the recovery process than Ryans, given that he is nearly a year removed from his July ACL tear. Not only that, Alonso is much more youthful at just 24, and likely a bit more resilient than his counterpart at this juncture."
The team has a lot invested in Kiko Alonso, and being a full year removed from his latest injury, he should be full go and ready to compete in training camp. I’d be pretty surprised if Alonso doesn’t have a starting gig tied down part way through TC, as the staff is very high on his abilities, and he’s firmly in the Eagles’ future plans.
4) Mychal Kendricks is not a Chip Kelly favorite:
"Now, what about Mychal Kendricks you ask? Well, for one thing, when asked about Kendricks at the owners’ meetings Kelly’s response wasn’t exactly glowing. Then, in April, Kendricks’ name was involved in a myriad of trade rumors, and CBS Sports Jason La Canfora thinks that although Kendricks stayed put through the draft that he very well still may be moved.As to why Kendricks has drawn the ire of Chip Kelly is a mystery. It could be a result of his nagging injuries, physical profile, or perhaps even cultural aspects, however, it’s clear that Kendricks is not a favorite of Chip’s, and so far being on Chip’s bad side does not bode well for a player’s long term outlook with the team. Im not so sure that Kendricks is traded, but I’d be shocked if the team opted to renew his contract at season’s end. In the mean time, it’s going to be difficult to keep Kendricks off the field. He’s a dynamic 3 down-linebacker that can attack the offense in a variety of ways, adding more dimension to Billy Davis‘ defense. As previously mentioned, Ryans could still be a ways away from contributing meaningfully, so starting Kendricks and Alonso in the opener at Atlanta would be the responsible measure, regardless of the way the team might feel about Kendricks."
Chip Kelly’s apparent unwillingness to commit to Mychal Kendricks is frustrating to say the least, as a duo of Kendricks and Alonso would provide a young, dynamic, tandem in the middle of the Eagles defense. Given the smoke signals that Chip has been sending this offseason, barring injury, I’d expect Kendricks to take a backseat to Alonso and Ryans, although Kendricks will likely retain — in one way or another — a somewhat significant role with the team in 2015.
5) While the team is clearly high on Jordan Hicks, it’s doubtful he sees significant playing time as a rookie:
"Hicks is a heady, maximum effort type player with impressive movement skills, so projecting him to special teams early on makes a lot of sense. I’d expect Hicks to quickly make his mark on the team’s coverage unit, and eventually earn a more significant role beyond 2015 when Mychal Kendricks walks. Chip Kelly clearly likes Hicks’ skill set quite a bit, and given Ryans’ age and injury history I’d assume Hicks was drafted with the intent to be the eventual heir to the captain’s role."
Given the logjam of capable vets, the team will take a carefully measured approach with Hicks’ development. There is no logical reason to rush him, and Kelly will likely push Hicks towards a significant special teams role in the immediate future. Expect Hicks to have a relatively quiet training camp, however, he is cemented in the team’s future plans.
Due to the dearth of talent at the position, don’t be surprised if Chip Kelly opts to keep 5, or perhaps even 6, ILBs on the final 53-man roster.
When projecting the final depth chart, former Green Bay Packer, Brad Jones, stands out as the player who has the best odds of capturing that 5th slot. As a versatile ILB-OLB hybrid and special teams player, Jones already has a leg up on his competition. Jones should be able to wrap up a roster spot with a solid training camp performance (which should be well within reach).
The other two players in the mix are Najee Goode and Emmanuel Acho, who seem to be a bit behind the 8-ball given all the recent additions, but are still in the mix for a roster spot. Goode likely would have been the primary backup to Ryans and Kendricks in 2014 had he not sustained a torn pectoral early in the season. Meanwhile, Acho came on to platoon with Casey Matthews following Ryans’ Achilles tear. Acho seems to be a player the Eagles keep around as somewhat of an emergency option, as he has been released and re-signed by the team several times as a result of injuries. At this point, I would consider both Goode and Acho to be on the outside looking in, however, a good TC could land one of them on the final 53.
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