Eagles analysis

Eagles mailbag: What are the Eagles going to do at linebacker?

In his latest Eagles mailbag, Dave Zangaro answers questions about linebacker, possible extensions and Nolan Smith's playing time.

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The Eagles are back at practice on Thursday after a long bye week layoff. The second half of the season is about to begin.

But before that, let’s finish off the mailbag.

Part 1.

Part 2.

And here’s Part 3:

Even when he has been on the field this season, Nakobe Dean has been a bit of a disappointment. And now he’s hurt again. The Eagles used a third-round pick on Dean a couple years ago and, from their perspective, that’s a relatively big investment in a linebacker. We know they’re not going to spend high draft picks or big money on the position. It’s worth pointing out that both Zach Cunningham and Nicholas Morrow are set to be free agents after this season but it’s possible one or both could be back for another inexpensive contract.

As far as drafting a linebacker in a middle or late round? Yeah, that’s definitely in play. We know that Dean will be back next season but he hasn’t really shown enough to make the Eagles think he’s definitely the answer at the MIKE spot. The Eagles (under Howie Roseman) are never going to use a ton of resources on linebacker but they’ll probably need to add some this coming offseason, at least by way of Day 3 draft picks and low-risk, high-reward contracts.

I got a few questions just like this one and I understand why. The Eagles just lost Dean again and you desperately want to see Nolan Smith on the field. I get all that. But this isn’t really a solution. Could you get Smith on the field for a few snaps at off-ball linebacker? Sure. We saw him do some of that in training camp but doing it a lot it wouldn’t be doing him any favors. That’s clearly not his strength. And Cunningham and Morrow are actually playing fairly well right now so I’m not sure the Eagles are desperate to get them off the field just to play a rookie out of position.

But, in general, I’m with you on wanting to see Smith more. When the Eagles made Derek Barnett inactive for the Cowboys game, I thought we’d see more of Smith and it didn’t happen. The Eagles just let Haason Reddick and Josh Sweat empty their tanks before the bye week. Through nine games, Smith has played just 56 defensive snaps and hasn’t played more than nine in any single game. That’s disappointing to me. But maybe the fact that Barnett was finally inactive in Week 9 is a sign that things are heading in the right direction.

Well, first we have to see if he’s even going to be able to return this season. I’ve been bullish on Dean for a while but I can’t argue against you. He has been their third-best linebacker this season behind Cunningham and Morrow. Now, would things be different had he not gotten hurt in Week 1? Maybe, but we’ll unfortunately never know. It’s hard to say what the Eagles would do if Dean is able to return this season because we don’t know how Cunningham and Morrow are going to play in Dean’s extended absence. But if they continue to play at the level we’ve seen through half the season, then they will have earned the right to be starters. If Dean returns under those circumstances, he would have to fill either a backup or a lesser rotational role, along with being a special teamer.

I thought it was really strange that Sirianni really didn’t get much of a look for Coach of the Year in 2022, when he took what was basically a .500 team from a year before and helped turn them into a juggernaut. Sirianni is a really good coach and in general I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. Maybe that’s because so many folks credit Howie Roseman for putting together a great roster. Maybe it’s because Sirianni isn’t the offensive play-caller. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t make sense to me. This guy has built a strong culture and all the Eagles do is win.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. But if Reich does get fired in Carolina, I’m sure the Eagles and Sirianni would be interested, even if it isn’t in an official role. Sirianni considers Reich one of his main mentors, so it would be a natural fit. When Marcus Brady was fired by the Colts, it didn’t take long for Sirianni to bring him in as a consultant last year. And this year, Brady was promoted to senior offensive assistant. We’ve seen plenty of big-name coaches and executives fill similar roles in the organization in recent seasons. So if Reich ends up without a job, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him helping the Eagles.

Two of the guys you mentioned are not yet eligible for contract extensions. Both DeVonta Smith and Landon Dickerson were members of the 2021 draft class and aren’t eligible for extensions until the conclusion of the final regular season game of their third season. That’s coming up in January, but it would be a little strange for the Eagles to hand out extensions during the playoff run, so it’s more likely the Eagles will work on those extensions this offseason.

Reddick is an interesting one. There’s no doubt that he’s underpaid on his three-year, $45 million contract but with one year left on that deal, there’s no rush do to it during the season. If he keeps playing like this, I’m sure the Eagles will be happy to revisit that contract in the offseason.

Typically, in-season deals are going to go to players on expiring contracts and the Eagles don’t have a ton of candidates. Had D’Andre Swift kept up his torrid pace from earlier in the season, he would have been a candidate. Or if Justin Evans had stayed healthy and solidified his starting spot. Or if Olamide Zacchueas had really taken ownership of that WR3 job. But none of those things happened. The one intriguing name on the list might be Zach Cunningham. Of the Eagles’ two starting linebackers, I think Cunningham has been the best and the most consistent. Cunningham will turn 29 in December and was on the street in August, so a modest extension to keep him around for another year might make sense for both sides.

Normally, when I don’t have an answer for a question, I simply don’t include it. This time, I am including it because special teams coordinator Michael Clay deserves a ton of credit. People wanted this guy fired but he’s doing a great job this season and his units have been very good. I’m not exactly sure what has changed but I do have one theory. All the key specialists the Eagles have now are Clay’s guys. He’s gotten to coach up all of their core special teameres like Christian Elliss, Kelee Ringo, Josh Jobe, Patrick Johnson, Nolan Smith, Jack Stoll, Eli Ricks, Sydney Brown. Plenty of those key contributors are new guys who have bought in and are giving high-level play.

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