In an offseason dedicated to transforming the Philadelphia Eagles roster, the outside linebacker corp remained remarkably unchanged. Despite shedding the veteran Trent Cole — who was really only a starter in name in 2014 — OLB returns a unit very much poised to make its mark on a reformed Eagles’ defense. Although the group’s outlook is undoubtedly optimistic, the talented Eagles’ pass rushers don’t offer much in way of depth, and will have to be durable if it’s to recapture its 2014 success.
A large part of that success in 2014 was thanks to the Connor Barwin, who experienced a bit of a renaissance in pass-rush productivity. Barwin, who only managed 5 sacks in his first year under Billy Davis, ramped up his production in a big way, notching 14.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 5 pass deflections en route to a Pro Bowl berth.
While Barwin’s sharp progression in productivity is undoubtedly impressive, it’s more likely that his 2014 season becomes more of an outlier than the norm. Still, Barwin is a very talented and cerebral football player who has made a world of difference in the Eagles’ transition from a 1 gap 4-3 to a 2 gap 3-4. When Chip Kelly tasked Billy Davis with installing the 3-4 defense, procuring a natural and proficient 3-4 OLB became an absolute must; luckily for the Eagles, Barwin has been a bright spot in what ultimately proved to be a lackluster free agent crop.
Some might contend that Barwin’s productivity was fueled by an incredibly dominant Fletcher Cox, and, to a degree, they would be correct. There’s no doubting that a pass rusher benefits from playing behind Cox, who was, for a lack of a better expression, a destroyer of worlds in his third season (though the raw numbers might not suggest it). Barwin reaped the benefits of the mayhem that Cox created up front, and took advantage of opportunities to clean up.
Again, although Barwin may not be the elite pass-rush specialist that his numbers suggest, he is far from a slouch, and as a rare complete OLB has proven invaluable to the Eagles’ front seven. With Barwin firmly in his prime, expect another productive year setting the edge, rushing the passer, and in coverage. Heading into training camp, Barwin is the unquestioned starter.
Opposite of Barwin is the once maligned pass rush specialist, Brandon Graham. Amusingly enough, Graham will replace Trent Cole at the predator position, just as the organization intended when they traded up for Graham in the 2010 NFL Draft. Though Graham’s journey has been a long and arduous one, he is poised to give the Eagles’ front a pass-rush boost coming off the weak side.
When the Eagles released Trent Cole, the fan base was understandably torn watching a fan favorite move on from the organization. The good news is Graham is much better than Cole at this point in their careers, and allocating more snaps to Graham should be a boon to the Eagles defense.
While Graham isn’t as proficient in coverage as his counterpart, he holds his own as a run stuffer, and will do a solid job setting the edge. Graham isn’t quite the specimen Kelly had in mind when constructing position profiles, yet the trade off will likely be more beneficial than endlessly pursuing a Barwin clone in hopes of mirroring. Graham will fill up the stat sheet in 2015, and is a candidate to rack up double digit sacks.
For all the talk about Graham’s pass-rush productivity, what’s gotten lost is the amount of times Graham just missed finishing a hand full of plays. This isn’t necessarily an indictment of Graham, but a means of pointing out the potential output that he could have achieved in a limited role.
Should Graham clean up a few of the little things, he has the ability to be hyper productive in a 2-gap 3-4. Given the state of the OLB core, Graham’s abilities and sizeable contract, there will be little competition at the predator position during Eagles’ camp.
Part of the reason there will be so little competition — and a part of why Graham was brought back in the first place — is the slow growth of 2014 first round pick, Marcus Smith.
There’s little doubt that Smith had a disappointing rookie season, however, he’s a player that is very raw and still early in his development. Having played several different positions throughout his high school and college careers, Smith is still fairly new to his position, let alone the NFL. That being said, he will have to prove he can be at least semi-productive in 2015 to carve out a future with the team.
Personally, I’m a bit higher on Smith than others: he’s very fluid and athletic, can be incredibly impressive in coverage, and although he isn’t much of a natural bender, has the burst of an NFL pass rusher. If the reports of Smith adding size during the offseason are accurate, and his functional strength increases his game should start to improve and he’ll have a shot at finding a role. Smith will compete with Travis Long and Bryan Braman in camp for the right to the role of primary backup. Should Smith succeed, he’ll have taken the first step in getting his NFL career on track.
The aforementioned Long and Braman are the other players in the mix at OLB. I would expect both players to be competitive in TC and earn spots with the team, albeit likely in limited roles.
Braman is a standout special teamer, and much like his safety counterpart, Chris Maragos, will primarily play specials, only seeing sparse snaps on defense. Long, meanwhile, is a player who the staff seemed high on prior to his injury. Kelly was very a matter-of-factly in his admission that Long would have made the 2014 roster had he stayed healthy. Nevertheless, Long will have to earn his roster spot, though his path in doing so shouldn’t be overly precipitous, as Brandon Hepburn and Jordan Dewalt-Andijo’s roster odds are low.
The Eagles have a solid stable of players at outside linebacker, however, an injury to either Barwin or Graham would leave them frighteningly thin. For the defense to be successful in 2015, the health of the pass rushers will be integral.
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