Nakobe Dean used to watch film of Zach Cunningham.
Now he shares the field with him.
And as the season opener creeps closer, it’s looking more and more like these two are going to be the Eagles’ starting linebackers in 2023.
“It’s been good playing with Zach, a vet like that who’s been in the league, who’s made big-time plays,” Dean said. “It’s always great to be able to play with a guy like that who has a lot of experience.”
The Eagles drafted Dean in the third round last year out of Georgia and after what basically became a redshirt season behind T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White in 2022, the Eagles are ready to start him in 2023. He’s their middle linebacker.
But when Dean was still at Georgia, linebackers coach and co-DC Glenn Schumann wanted Dean to watch Cunningham, who by that time was already quality starter with the Texans after entering the league as a second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2017.
“I know coach Schumann used to love the way he fit the run, how downhill he played,” Dean said. “[Schumann] always showed us film of [Cunningham] so I 100 percent knew of him before he came here.”
For the last week or so, including the preseason game against the Browns, the Eagles’ most common linebacker combination with the first team has been Dean and Cunningham.
And after trying out several different options at linebacker all summer, the one that seems to be sticking is Dean-Cunningham. The Eagles signed Cunningham, along with the recently retired Myles Jack, on Aug. 6. And since that signing, Cunningham seems to have surpassed both Christian Elliss and Nicholas Morrow on the depth chart.
“Starting to feel a lot more comfortable,” Cunningham said after the preseason game last Thursday. “That kind of showed out there today, I feel like. I started with Nakobe out there so that definitely added to how comfortable I felt out there.”
While the Eagles haven’t set any sort of deadline to decide who will win the battles at linebacker or safety, the quicker they decide, the more reps that player will have with the starting unit. That’s important for the cohesiveness of the defense.
Dean this week explained what he needs to know about Cunningham or whoever starts next to him.
“Basically know how he’s going to fit things, know how he sees things,” Dean said. “A lot of times in coverage, we have to play off each other and know certain things: Do we want to lock? Do we want to push it? Basically, just to be able know that about each other.”
This also expands for Dean. He wants to know how the defensive backs are playing behind him and the defensive linemen are playing in front of him.
Cunningham, 28, has played in 82 NFL games and has 76 starts under his belt. Dean, 22, has played a total of 34 defensive snaps in the league.
There’s an obvious gap in experience between the two so it makes sense to start a veteran next to a young second-year player. But Dean doesn’t act line an inexperienced player. He’s the defensive signal caller for a reason.
And over the last few days, Dean thinks the defense has had some of its best practices. The defensive players are getting used to playing together.
They don’t need to think as much anymore.
“Exactly,” Dean said. “Now we’re not thinking about it. Now it’s just happening.”
When Dean found out in early August that the Eagles were signing Cunningham and Jack, he told the rest of the linebacker room about how he used to watch Cunningham tape while he was still at Georgia. He doesn’t think he’s mentioned it to Cunningham yet.
Plenty of opportunity for that. It seems like these two will be spending a lot of time together.