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Priority Number One: Get a Linebacker or Two

Mar 6, 2012, 12:48 PM EDT

This offseason, either the Eagles won't go cheap on linebacker, or they won't wait until day three of the draft. In fact, it may very well be both. Fixing this unit is the team's latest top priority.
With DeSean Jackson under wraps, and the franchise tagging period closing to a flurry of activity — 21 players in all were hit with the tag, including several kickers and a punter — it’s finally time to look ahead. Free agency opens in one week, and while we don’t anticipate a spending frenzy to rival this past summer, we do expect the Eagles to be active.
Of course, the club still has some of their own players to worry about, Evan Mathis being chief among them, but there are several areas that will require management to step outside the organization’s umbrella.
None loom larger than the linebacker position. You often hear the Birds’ front office devalues linebackers, but that simply cannot be the case this year. The middle of the field was a black hole for much of the last season, manned primarily by a bunch of undersized, inexperienced fourth-through-seventh rounders, over-matched in a system that heaps pressure on the position.
This offseason, either the Eagles won’t go cheap on linebacker, or they won’t wait until day three of the draft. In fact, it may very well be both. Fixing this unit just became the team’s latest top priority.
EVALUATING WHAT THEY HAVE
Weakside
Popular thinking is the Eagles need a complete overhaul at linebacker. Admittedly, they need a ton of help, but it’s not as if there is no talent there at all.
Brian Rolle is the one guy who stood apart from this group last year. Listed at 5-10, Rolle will always be hampered by his short stature. There were moments during his rookie season when Rolle had perfect coverage, but the play wound up going over the top of him. However, those were few and far between. Rolle was often a blanket in coverage, and he showed glimpses of pass-rush ability as well.
rolle.chaney

Is Rolle an every-down linebacker in the NFL? Difficult to say for sure right now, though he has a few things going for him. He needs to work on becoming a sound tackler, but at least he knows where he’s supposed to be. After starting a fairly effective 13 games on the weakside in 2011, this sixth rounder should continue to have a role in the defense next season. Don’t sleep on the kid.

Middle
The other primary starter, on the other hand, is in rough shape. Jamar Chaney had offseason surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck, a result of the blow he delivered to a Redskins ball carrier in the final game of the season. He insists he’ll be ready to go, but even assuming Chaney is a picture of health once workouts begin, he looked like a replacement level player most of the time last year anyway.
For three games as a rookie, Chaney’s athleticism made him look like the second coming — especially in relief of a plodding Stewart Bradley — as Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley held offensive linemen at bay. Last season, with the defensive line in the wide nine, Chaney didn’t have nearly the same impact while trying to fight off guards exploding at him off the line of scrimmage. He wasn’t exactly an abject failure, but they could use somebody stronger at the point of attack — not to mention that by the end of the season, he wasn’t even in the game on passing downs.
Neck surgery further complicates matters. At the very least, the coaches can’t rely on Chaney to bounce back quickly.
Depth
There’s not a great deal of promise in the rest of the group. Casey Matthews improved by the end of the year, though he had nowhere to go but up, and still seemed to be a step behind the action. We haven’t seen much of Keenan Clayton after two seasons, Akeem Jordan is serviceable in limited playing time, and they’ve squeezed about all they can out of Moise Fokou.
It will be interesting to see who they bring back along with Rolle and Chaney, the latter probably remaining with the club as a backup. They really like Matthews, so he should get another chance, and Jordan contributes on special teams. Clayton could be a coin flip to make the roster, but Fokou’s maximum potential has to have been reached, and it’s nothing special, so watch for him to wind up a camp casualty.
EVALUATING WHO THEY CAN SIGN
tulloch.stats

1. MLB Stephen Tulloch
Who better to play middle linebacker behind the wide nine than a middle linebacker whose NFL experience comes exclusively from playing behind wide nine fronts?
The Eagles were believed to have targeted Tulloch when free agency opened last summer, but for whatever reason, he wound up in Detroit. The Lions would surely like to keep Tulloch after a solid year, but they are up against the cap, and may have trouble doing something long-term. If the Eagles can swoop in for the steal, it would go a long way toward fixing their problem.
lofton.stats

2. MLB Curtis Lofton
Like the Lions, the Falcons are having trouble keeping all their talented players in house, and Lofton is coming dangerously close to getting away. Some might see Lofton as the top available linebacker, a player who turns 26 in June, has not missed a game in his four-year NFL career, and recorded over 100 tackles each of the previous three seasons. He’s a strong run-defender, but not a star, even though they might need to pay him like one to get him under contract.
hawthorne.stats

3. MLB/OLB David Hawthorne
Flying under the radar out of Seattle, Hawthorne is an interesting candidate because he has NFL experience playing both inside and out. Signing Hawthorne would give the front office more flexibility, particularly during the draft. Another player might dictate which pool of linebackers the Eagles could select from, while they would have the ability shuffle Hawthorne around accordingly.
fletcher.stats

4. MLB London Fletcher
People really like Fletcher, and I confess, I do too — only not for the Eagles. The guy has been around for-e-ver, and been highly productive at every stop, but there are two questions that need to be asked. One, he’ll be 37 this year, so you have to wonder: how long can he keep up this pace? Two, at his size (5-10) and age, will he really be able to pick up where he he left off while playing behind the wide nine for the first time in his career? In other words, is Fletcher the right fit for Philly?
Which, to be fair, is the question we have to ask about any of these guys behind Tulloch. Can he handle the added pressure the Eagles’ scheme puts on its linebackers?
henderson.stats

5. OLB Erin Henderson
As usual, there aren’t a huge number of (any) great 4-3 outside linebackers available. Henderson, a fourth-year player, charted the best according to Pro Football Focus, who ha
d him fourth overall in 2011. However, Henderson — an undrafted rookie in ’08 — had no starting experience in the NFL prior to this season, so we’re going off of a small sample size and potential. He also plays weakside for Minnesota, the same spot as Rolle.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
This should be pretty straight forward. If the Eagles can sign Stephen Tulloch, that’s what they should do. There’s no question about whether he is a fit, and he is one of the better interior linebackers in the league to boot. This lessens the immediacy of the need at the position, giving them some freedom on draft day. Instead of automatically targeting LB with their first pick, maybe they could find a replacement at strongside in the second round.
Curtis Lofton, meanwhile, could be an expensive mistake. He probably has the ability to make the transition to playing behind the wide nine, but it could take time, and he may not be as good. Then again, he could also thrive, but I’m more comfortable with the known quantity. Same thing goes for London Fletcher, only while he doesn’t carry the same long-term consequences, the potential is there for a far bigger drop off. The best alternative seems to be David Hawthorne, because at least he provides some versatility, and can be moved into a role that better suits his skills if necessary.
It feels like they have to get one of either Tulloch, Lofton, or Hawthorne though, because while there are several good prospects in April’s upcoming draft, they don’t have nearly enough talent there right now that they should be comfortable inserting one player, a rookie at that. (Plus, it’s hard to find free agent help on the outside).
Nor does signing one of those free agents preclude them from adding another backer in the draft. With a large percentage of their starters set for 2012, the Eagles can really focus on rebuilding this unit. Teaming an experienced veteran with an early draft pick to go along with the collection of young, developing players already on their roster is a realistic possibility, and one that could conceivably turn linebacker into a position of strength in time for the season ahead.
Player screen caps courtesy of NFL.com player pages.