Is Jordan Hicks for real?
Jordan Hicks was well on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors last season before rupturing his pectoral muscle in Week 9. Up to that point, he had been coming up with big plays on a weekly basis, racking up 50 tackles, 1.0 sack, a forced fumble, three fumble recoveries, three pass breakups, two interceptions and a touchdown. That was all in essentially six-and-a-half games, give or take.
It was enough time for Hicks to become a fan favorite and media darling. But was it enough to prove he can be the heart and soul of the Eagles defense? Enough to prove he's a game-changer?
Hicks went from having no expectations as a third-round draft pick who was buried on the depth chart to being anointed middle linebacker and team leader in a new defense. That's a lot for a second-year player with five starts under his belt. And as exciting as his run in the lineup was last season, sometimes big plays come in bunches. Is it entirely fair to think Hicks will continue his star-caliber performance based on only a handful of games, and after being dropped into a new defense?
It depends on how high expectations are. The good news is Hicks' was making those plays last season because he was in the right place at the right time — it wasn't merely good fortune smiled upon him. And at 23 years old, he showed the ability to learn a new scheme and get the defense lined up last season, so it should only a matter of whether he's a fit in Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's system. It might be a bit premature to run out and buy Hicks jerseys, but based on what we've seen so far, the kid should be alright.
Will Mychal Kendricks rebound?
At one point, Mychal Kendricks appeared to be on the verge of making a Pro Bowl. He was one of only three linebackers in the NFL to record at least 8.0 sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions over the two-year span of 2013-14. He was arguably the Eagles' biggest playmaker on defense.
Then last season happened. 2015 was a disaster for Kendricks. He missed tackles in bunches. He was torched in coverage repeatedly. He was frequently out of position. It often appeared as if the fifth-year veteran was confused or simply didn't know what he was doing out there. Somehow Kendricks managed 86 tackles, 3.0 sacks, a forced fumble and three pass breakups in 13 games, but it wasn't very impactful and any production paled in comparison to the negatives.
If there is a silver lining here, it seems Kendricks' struggles in 2015 were mental or scheme-related. If he didn't know exactly where he was supposed to be on the field or what he was supposed to be doing, he wasn't alone. After all, the defense surrendered at least 28 points in six of the last seven games. The scheme was ripping apart at the schemes, and it looked like there were maybe too many responsibilities being placed on the interior linebackers in the end.
None of which is to say Kendricks' poor play wasn't a problem in itself, but coaching was certainly an issue. There's still some question as to whether at 6'0" Kendricks is an ideal fit for Schwartz's defense, although he's a guy known for getting the most out of his players, and his scheme definitely works. Not sure that Pro Bowl is coming any time soon, but Kendricks should be a lot more effective in 2016.
Is Nigel Bradham a solution?
The Nigel Bradham acquisition might've quietly been one of the best moves of the Eagles' offseason, or at least the most underrated. The signing was met with little fanfare at the time, and even now Bradham is probably the least talked about of any of the new starters on the roster.
There's little not to like about the move. It only took a two-year commitment from the Eagles to land Bradham, a 26-year-old with 38 starts in the NFL. He's got great size at 6'2", 241 pounds with tremendous athleticism, clocking 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Best of all, Bradham's best season as a pro came under Schwartz in Buffalo in 2014, when he produced 104 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, six pass breakups and an interception in 14 games.
There are concerns, such as the injuries Bradham has battled the past two seasons. There's also the question of whether the former fourth-round pick was just a one-year wonder, as his previous stints as a starter were far less impressive. Last season, he managed just 59 tackles, 1.0 sack and three pass breakups in 11 games.
That being said, it seems reuniting Schwartz and Bradham has the best chance at breeding success. Some players simply excel in certain schemes, and we've seen it firsthand at linebacker with the great Jeremiah Trotter. If Bradham can replicate his '14 numbers under Schwartz in an Eagles uniform, you can bet he's going to stick around a lot longer than two years.
Can these guys stay healthy?
In case you hadn't noticed a theme here, Hicks, Kendricks and Bradham are all what many would describe as "injury prone."Fair or unfair, none of the three has shown the ability to stay on the field for 16 games. Bradham did it twice, before he became a full-time starter. That's as close as anybody has come.
The injury prone label can be a tad unfair at times. In Kendricks' case, where he always seems to have some kind of lower-body muscle issue, it becomes something you almost tend to expect. In Hicks' case, where he's have everything from a ruptured pec to a hip flexor injury to a torn Achilles, you have to wonder how much these are freak injuries and a matter of bad luck.
It's all bad luck, of course, but the Eagles linebackers seem to have experienced it more than others — at least more regularly than others. Can all three starters get through 16 games this season? That would be unlikely regardless of the trio. But can any one of them make it through 16 games?
Somebody better, or the Eagles might be in real trouble.
Do the Eagles have enough depth at linebacker?
It's scary to think what the Eagles' starting lineup will look like with one or two injuries at linebacker. Najee Goode has looked like a competent veteran backup in the past, so the defense could probably get by if he had to play a few games. Beyond that, they might be in serious trouble.
The Eagles will likely carry six linebackers, and the competition for the other two spots is as follows: second-year player Deontae Skinner, who spent 2015 on the practice squad and appeared in seven games for the Patriots; seventh-round pick Joe Walker out of Oregon; and undrafted rookies Quentin Gause and Myke Tavarres. There's unknown, and then there's "Who are these guys?"
In a word, no, the Eagles do not have enough depth at linebacker, but this is who's going to training camp. If one of the group competing for roster spots doesn't look like a viable reserve, don't be surprised if the club is still scanning the waiver wire for help come September.
Note there is an "if" in that sentence. We're not writing anybody off here. Skinner has (minimal) NFL experience, the Eagles thought enough of Walker to use a draft pick, and both Gause and Tavarres are intriguing prospects in their own right. Maybe somebody will separate themself from the pack. It's just a little worrisome right now, especially given the histories of the starters.