Friday, February 7, 2014
Eagles still in transition at OLB
By Phil Sheridan
PHILADELPHIA -- In assessing the Eagles' biggest areas of need, the outside linebacker position is especially tricky.
It is obvious the Eagles need to generate more pressure on quarterbacks from their edge rushers. In their two biggest games of the season -- the NFC East clinching win in Dallas and the playoff loss to New Orleans -- the Eagles did not put nearly enough pressure on Kyle Orton and Drew Brees.
And since that's our final impression of the team, it resonates. But when you look at the individual players involved, things begin to get murkier.
Trent Cole was rightly praised for making the difficult transition from defensive end, where he was a Pro Bowl-level player for his entire previous career, to outside linebacker. Cole had zero sacks in the Eagles' first eight games, then had eight in the second half of the season.
Does that mean he grew more comfortable in his new role? Partly. But it also appears that defensive coordinator Bill Davis simply used Cole more often in familiar situations. He did drop into coverage at times, and Cole was always an eager and aggressive run defender, but Cole rushed the passer much more than his counterpart on the outside, Connor Barwin.
As the season progressed and Davis came to understand his players better, he used Barwin to do the less glamorous tasks. He rushed the passer less and dropped into coverage more. Barwin even lined up at cornerback against big receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, jamming them at the line and then sliding into shallow zone coverage.
In a perfect world, Davis would surely like a group of versatile linebackers equally capable of covering backs and tight ends or rushing the quarterback. That would give him more options when devising alignments and calling plays. As it is, he is camouflaging one player's limitations by limiting another player.
There's nothing unusual about that, especially when a team is caught in a transition such as the 2013 Eagles were. Cole and Brandon Graham, two 4-3 defensive ends, tried to adjust their games (and their bodies) to fit as 3-4 outside linebackers. They did better than expected, but they remained most effective within their comfort zone – rushing the passer.
The Eagles can hold on to Cole and Graham throughout free agency and the draft, then make decisions on them depending on what happens.
It's hard to imagine the Eagles throwing big money at Washington's Brian Orakpo, arguably the best outside linebacker on the market. But if Pittsburgh doesn't commit to Jason Worilds, who started ahead of first-round pick Jarvis Jones in 2013, he could be an interesting name to watch. After all, Davis made it clear that his model is the Steelers 3-4 defense. Worilds is already ahead of the learning curve.
The draft could provide help, as well. Stanford's Trent Murphy and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier could be around when the Eagles are on the board with the 22nd pick of the first round.
It isn't a bad spot to be in. If Graham and, especially, Cole are back next season, the Eagles can still pick up where they left off in the second half of 2013. If they can get younger and more versatile at the outside linebacker position, Barwin will be freed up to have even more of an impact. That would make the long-term prognosis for this defense even brighter.