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Howie Roseman defends roster-building strategy at linebacker

The Eagles collapsed on defense in 2023 but Howie Roseman defended his roster-building strategy as it pertains to linebackers.

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The Eagles are unapologetic about their roster-building strategy. They build through the trenches.

Sometimes at the expense of other positions — namely, linebacker.

“I feel like we've had a long history of success here building the team a certain way,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said on Wednesday. “And I think maybe there are some preconceived notions that at the linebacker position, that we don't care who we play at linebacker. Again, our two Super Bowl teams over the last six years, the linebacker play was good from those guys.”

Aside from the nice reminder that the Eagles have indeed been to two Super Bowls in recent years — slick move, Howie — Roseman isn’t wrong. The Eagles did have had good linebacker play in those Super Bowl years.

And it still hasn’t changed their roster-building philosophies. They still don’t put a ton of resources into that position.

In 2022, the Eagles got a big season from former undrafted free agent T.J. Edwards and a really solid year of play from free agent Kyzir White on a one-year deal. Then they let both of them walk after the Super Bowl — Edwards went to Chicago and White followed Jonathan Gannon to Arizona.

The Eagles clearly put all their eggs into the Nakobe Dean basket and that didn’t work out in 2023.

“I think if anything, it's my belief in the players that we have, the young players that we have. I have a lot of belief, and I know Coach does, as well, in Nakobe Dean,” Roseman said. “I believe in the player. I believe in the person.

“We lost two linebackers at that spot, two good players from our Super Bowl team, and we had Nakobe waiting in the wings. We drafted him for that role. Obviously, it didn't work out perfectly for him this year. That doesn't change the belief we have in the player.”

It’s understandable why the Eagles would have wanted two rely on Dean entering 2023. They used the No. 83 overall pick (a third-rounder) on Dean in 2022. And for the Eagles that is a very significant resource on the position.

But the Eagles and then-DC Jonathan Gannon made no effort to get Dean on the field as a rookie. Edwards and White were playing well so Dean sat on the bench. And then the Eagles just expected Dean to show up in 2023 and be their starting middle linebacker and green-dot wearer. 

But Dean got hurt in the season opener, went on IR, came back, got hurt again and finished his season on IR. Dean played in just five games and didn’t play well, although it’s fair to wonder if he was ever really healthy.

The problem with the plan in 2023 was that the Eagles didn’t have a Plan B. They expected Dean to be a starter and the only additions in the spring came when they signed Nicholas Morrow to a veteran minimum deal and when they signed Ben VanSumeren after the draft.

During training camp, when they clearly needed help, they signed Zach Cunningham and Myles Jack on Aug. 6. Cunningham ended up being the Eagles’ best linebacker by a long shot in 2023.

“Then we felt like we'd have the ability to get an off-ball linebacker, WILL linebacker, who can run and hit,” Roseman said. “And honestly when you watch the tape, Zach Cunningham had a good year. He really did. He had a mentality that we like for that position.”

Cunningham, 29, wasn’t great in 2023 but he was decent for a player who was available during training camp. And that might actually embolden Roseman to do it again. He thought the Eagles would be able to get a decent weak side ‘backer at any point and they kind of did with Cunningham.

While Cunningham exceeded expectations, the Eagles clearly got subpar linebacker play this past season. Watch the playoff the last couple of weeks and you’ll see big-name linebackers flying around and making plays. And then remember that Morrow and Cunningham were the Eagles’ answers in 2023.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Eagles are back in a similar situation going into 2024. Both Morrow and Cunningham are set to be free agents again. Dean will be coming off a foot surgery but he and VanSumeren are the only linebackers under contract from the previous season.

The thing that made the Eagles’ skimping at linebacker hurt even more is that they have poured all these resources into the defensive line and didn’t get the payout, especially down the stretch, that you would have expected. If that happens, then there’s probably less questioning the way the defense was built.

But that didn’t happen. And it left the Eagles very clearly exposed and then exploited in the middle of the field.

“I think in roster building, you're not going to be perfect,” Roseman said. “You're going to make mistakes. I think that you can look at the four teams playing right now, and I promise you we can go over a couple things they'd like to have back. That's part of it.

“The most important thing we've got to do is have a vision for how we want it to look. We've got to have a process that we want to have. Sometimes you can have a vision, have a process, and the result is not what you want. So you've got to make sure that you're not overreacting to a result that maybe just kind of was an aberration in the moment, and then you've got to look at maybe is the process right.”

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