Eagles Better or Worse 2015: Interior Linebacker


The 700 Level’s annual Philadelphia Eagles training camp preview returns. We’re taking an in-depth look at Birds position by position and asking whether the club got better or worse. Check out the introduction for more details on the series.



Kiko Alonso

There are probably quite a few folks still skeptical of the trade that sent All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for Alonso, who’s played one season in the NFL and is coming off of his second torn ACL. But provided he’s healthy, Alonso instantly becomes the Eagles’ best interior linebacker.

This kid is a football magnet.

Alonso was chosen as the Pro Football Writers of America Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, which one look at his line is enough to see why. He finished third in the NFL with 159 tackles to go along with 2.0 sacks, four pass breakups, four interceptions and a forced fumble. He posted double-digit tackles in eight games that season, including a whopping 22 against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 6.

Dig deeper and it only gets more impressive. Alonso was a beast versus the run, making 115 plays in the ground attack according to the Football Outsiders Almanac—no other player had 100. He was also in on the highest percentage of his team’s run defense at 26.4 percent, over a full point above the next closest player.

Those interceptions were no fluke, either. Heading over to the tape, Alonso also showed tremendous instinct in coverage. Here he is simply reading the quarterback’s eyes as the signal-caller goes through his progressions, which upon first glance is not overly impressive.

Look closely at that last shot, though. The quarterback is only just beginning to set up to throw the football, and Alonso is already breaking on the route. This tremendous recognition allows the linebacker to catch the pass as if it were intended for him the entire time.

This time, Alonso is sitting in zone, and as he’s effectively covering the slot receiver in the seam, he’s watching the tight end’s route develop simultaneously. Realizing he’s not on the hook downfield, Alonso begins gravitating toward the tight end as he makes his break.

Alonso gives a quick glance back at the quarterback, and not only is the ball already in the air, the linebacker is already headed right into its path. Another easy pick.

The lone concern is Alonso’s health, but it’s an ACL, which most guys come back from in this day and age, even multiple ACLs. And when you’re trading a 27-year-old running back with plenty of mileage for a 25-year-old, 6’3”, 238-pound linebacker who has star potential, it’s a risk worth taking. Alonso makes Philly’s defense better, period.



DeMeco Ryans

Ryans is about to turn 31. He’s coming off of an Achilles injury, his second in four years. He was always a bit of a questionable fit in a 3-4 defense. There’s very little way of looking at Ryans’ situation without reaching the conclusion he’s in decline.

2013 was a career year statistically for the two-time Pro Bowler, notching personal bests with 4.0 sacks, seven pass breakups and two interceptions. Unfortunately, the numbers were something of an aberration. Ryans played more snaps than any defender in the NFL that season, which meant more opportunities to fill up the stat sheet. He had a few free paths to the quarterback, and put himself in the right place at the right time to make plays on some balls in the air, but rushing the passer and dropping into coverage are not Ryans’ forte.

Thanks to Philadelphia’s new-and-improved depth at interior linebacker, Ryans doesn’t have to be shoehorned into an every-down role anymore. He could play almost exclusively on running downs, where he’s still relatively effective.

Yet even in a situational role, Ryans’ best days are almost certainly behind him, especially after another major injury. That doesn’t mean he can’t help the Eagles. He’ll come up big in a few spots because that’s what crafty veterans do, while his knowledge and leadership are invaluable. That being said, Ryans has clearly entered the twilight of his career.



Mychal Kendricks

Kendricks has very quietly become one of the best playmakers in football. He’s one of only three NFL players with at least 8.0 sacks, three interceptions and five forced fumbles over the past two seasons. Honestly, it’s going to be a shame if his snaps are reduced as a result of the logjam at interior linebacker.

Yes, Kendricks’ size (6’0”) is a concern. Physical tight ends can give him trouble in coverage, and missed tackles were an issue—although the latter is an area he cleaned up, going from 23 in 2013 to just nine last season, according to Pro Football Focus. One also has to wonder if Kendricks’ stature isn’t connected to the dings that have caused him to miss games in all three of his NFL seasons.

Regardless, there isn’t a thing Kendricks doesn’t do well. His sub-4.5 speed allows him to chase down quarterbacks and cover all sorts of ground in coverage, based on the numbers. Size doesn’t prevent Kendricks from taking on blocks and filling holes against the ground attack, either, as we can see from the film. Watch him spy the handoff, fight off a double-team and beat the back to the hole.

There are times when Kendricks looks like a Pro Bowl player, and he’s only going to be 25, so he could still be getting better. At the very least, he’s the same player who can alter the momentum and course of an entire game with one sudden turnover or negative play in the backfield.



The Rotation

The only question is how do the Eagles make it work? Generally speaking, a maximum of two interior linebackers are on the field at the same time. Philadelphia has three good ones.

There’s some talk that Alonso or Kendricks could line up outside from time to time as a way to get all three out there, but I don’t see the sense to that. That means taking Connor Barwin or Brandon Graham off the field, for one, which is something you would want to do as little as possible. I’m not sure how 240-pound interior players are going to hold up coming off the edge against 300-plus-pound offensive tackles, either.

The way this may end up working out is Alonso is in the lineup fairly regularly, with Ryans playing on running downs and Kendricks entering in obvious passing situations—but that’s just a guess. The ideal combination for me would be Alonso and Kendricks, but the Eagles didn’t extend Ryans’ contract for nothing. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.



The Eagles are so obviously improved at interior linebacker, we haven’t even touched on the third-round draft pick used on Jordan Hicks out of Texas, the free-agent addition of Brad Jones or Najee Goode coming off of injured reserve. When your biggest problem is trying to divvy up the playing time between Alonso, Ryans and Kendricks, you’re in tremendous shape.



Previously:  Outside Linebacker, Cornerback, Safety

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