Eagles Better or Worse 2015: Outside 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.



Predator / Brandon Graham

Even at 32 years of age, Trent Cole can help a team. He’s solid against the run and can still get to the quarterback from time to time. However, it’s probably fair to say Cole’s days as an impact player are over. From 2006 to 2011, Cole averaged 10.5 sacks per season. Over the past three years, his production has been cut nearly in half, averaging just below 6.0.

To put those numbers in perspective, Cole registered 17.0 sacks since 2012 while lining up for a total of 2,549 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. During the same timeframe, Graham recorded 14.0 sacks while lining up in 1,312 snaps—almost the same number of sacks in roughly 50 percent of the playing time.

Clearly, it’s Graham’s turn now, and the Eagles will be better off for it. He’s excellent against the run as well, so the defense isn’t losing anything there, while PFF has been grading the former 13th-overall draft pick as one of the NFL’s most dangerous pass-rushers for some time. In terms of pass-rush productivity—a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to pass-rush attempts—Graham has been ranked first, seventh and first at his respective position in each of the past three years (4-3 DE in 2012, 3-4 OLB in ’13 and ’14).

There are some minor quibbles with promoting Graham to starter. First, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll be as effective on a per snap basis with twice as much playing time. Second, one aspect of lining up at outside linebacker where Graham struggles a bit is dropping into coverage, an area where he may never show a great deal of improvement.

Regardless, Graham at 27 is simply going to be more productive overall than Cole, who turns 33 in October.




Then again, there was something to be said for having both Cole and Graham on the same roster. Now that Graham is no longer coming off the bench, suddenly the cupboard looks a little bare behind the starters.

After he failed to record so much as a single tackle his rookie season, there’s some concern as to whether 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith will even make the team. Yet seeing as the only other outside linebacker of note on the roster is Travis Long, who’s coming off of a torn ACL and has never even suited up for a regular-season game, it would seem Smith’s spot likely is safe. That about covers the depth at outside linebacker—two guys that have literally done nothing in the NFL.

On the plus side, the Eagles have a bunch of players who can fill in at outside linebacker situationally. Reporters took notice of Vinny Curry getting some work at linebacker this spring, and the defensive end revealed he actually saw some action there last season. Some of the interior linebackers can swing outside as well, in particular free-agent addition Brad Jones.

Still, the Eagles are not in an enviable situation here, particularly if Barwin or Graham is unavailable for any reason. You can’t expect 240-pound interior players to hold up against 300-plus-pound offensive tackles in an every-down role, while a permanent move for Curry doesn’t appear to be in order.

Can the Eagles get by with Smith, Long and a rotation of spare parts? Probably, but there’s definitely been a drop-off in established talent.



Jack / Connor Barwin

It’s probably unfair to expect Barwin to match his career high sack total from a season ago. All 14.5 came during an 11-game span in which the second-team All-Pro had more multi-sack performances (4) than contests he was held without (3).

Regardless, the things Barwin does for Philadelphia’s defense aren’t always reflected on the stat sheet. For instance, he only managed 5.0 sacks in 2013, but that was partly due to the fact he was dropping into coverage about half the time opponents would attempt to pass. It’s not uncommon to see Barwin—6’4”, 264 pounds—matched up against a premier tight end or even wide receiver at the line of scrimmage.

Of course, Barwin is also tremendous at setting the edge when offenses attempt to run the football to his side of the field. The man is truly a jack of all trades.

In addition to being named All-Pro, Barwin earned the respect of his peers last season, coming in at No. 58 on the NFL’s Top 100 Players list. He’s probably starting to peak here at 28 years of age, but should still have some high-end seasons left before decline begins to rear its ugly head. Look for Barwin to continue to be heavily involved in all three phases.



Marcus Smith

I was tempted to classify Smith as “better” based on the notion that, assuming he’s on the 53-man roster, it will be nearly impossible not to record at least a single tackle in 2015, even if by accident. Instead, a serious discussion about the second-year player’s future is probably warranted here.

There always seems to be this mad rush to label any struggling draft pick as a bust, especially when it’s a pick people didn’t agree with in the first place. Granted, Smith was a curious choice at 26th overall given many prospect rankings showed him as a second- or third-round talent. That doesn’t mean it has to shape our opinions.

The reality is Smith was always going to see limited playing time in 2014 given the stacked nature of the depth chart at the time. The truth is outside linebackers seldom make huge impacts in their first year anyway—only nine active OLBs recorded more than 4.0 sacks their rookie season. Smith’s debut was worse than most, as he was essentially a non-entity yet it isn’t the first time an NFL player was redshirted, either. (He was also moved inside for awhile due to the injuries there.) Keep in mind this is a converted quarterback who was a known project.

Let’s look at the positives. Smith came out of Louisville at 251 pounds. Barwin informed CSN Philly that Smith gained 15 this offseason, a lot of it muscle. That’s great, because the kid’s athleticism isn’t in question. With sub-4.7 speed and 34-inch arms, he has the potential to be a real nuisance anywhere on the field once he’s functionally stronger.

There were some positive signs on tape, too. Against Washington in Week 3—his most extensive playing time of the season—he was actually putting some decent pressure on the quarterback from his makeshift home on the interior.

Surely, everybody remembers the play against the San Francisco 49ers where Smith blew his assignment in coverage, and running back Frank Gore wound up taking a throwback pass 55 yards for a touchdown. Well, the positive aspect of that is he was covering tight end Vernon Davis 20 yards down the field, which is not something just any linebacker can do.

Is Smith going turn these near-misses and mistakes into stops? Maybe, maybe not, but he has the tools, and it looks like the opportunity is there. I wouldn't write him off just yet.



Barwin and Graham have the potential to form one of the top outside linebacker duos in the NFL, so there’s that. Then the depth chart behind them gets murky, to say the least. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that any production out of Smith would be better than none, and that some combination of players can help make up for the loss of Cole. If Barwin or Graham were out for any length of time, this potentially becomes a disaster—otherwise, the Eagles are better off overall.



Previously: Cornerback, Safety

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