Philadelphia Eagles: Ryan Shazier

Combine prep: Edge rushers

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
PHILADELPHIA -- Mike Mayock, the Philadelphia-area native and NFL Network analyst, made some waves this week by touting Auburn defensive end Dee Ford as a possible first-round pick for the Eagles this year.

Ford had a terrific Senior Bowl, and the Eagles do have a history of drafting players who show up in Mobile. But the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Ford is often compared to Trent Cole, a very good pass-rushing defensive end who was forced into the uncomfortable role of 3-4 outside linebacker last season. Do the Eagles, who also have 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham playing out of position, really want another 6-2 defensive end learning how to drop into coverage?

The answer will depend on just how effective GM Howie Roseman and his staff believe Ford will be at getting to NFL quarterbacks. It remains a valued skill, which is why an edge player -- whether it’s an outside linebacker or defensive end -- has to be near the top of the Eagles’ list of offseason needs.

With that, here are some players the Eagles could be looking at during this week’s combine in Indianapolis:

[+] EnlargeBarr
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesAnthony Barr is rated as the second-best outside linebacker in the draft by Scouts Inc.
Anthony Barr, UCLA linebacker. A lot of early evaluations had Barr in the top 10 of draft-eligible players. He seems to be dropping, which could say something about the utility of early evaluations or something about the find-the-flaw nature of film study.

If the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Barr drifts into the teens, could the Eagles find a way to trade up and take him? It depends on how much they like him, of course, and they will get a much better feel for that this week.

Kony Ealy, Missouri defensive end. Everybody is talking about his teammate, Michael Sam, but Ealy is the Mizzou player most likely to go in the first round. At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, Ealy is closer to Chip Kelly’s physical specs.

Mayock has Ealy as his second highest-rated defensive end, behind only Jadeveon Clowney. But NFL Network’s Nolan Nawrocki says Ealy “could also draw looks as a 3-4 rush linebacker.” The combine will give Roseman, Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis a firsthand look at him.

Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame defensive end. At 6-foot-6, 303 pounds, Tuitt is not going to be a linebacker. But he is described by ESPN’s scouts as “Ideal fit as a 5-technique for a base 3-4 scheme.” The Eagles have Fletcher Cox at one end. They like Cedric Thornton at the other. But a strong, deep defensive line can only make the rest of the defense better. A long shot, but interesting.

Trent Murphy, Stanford. Murphy lined up as an outside linebacker in college. He was used as a defensive end in the Senior Bowl, and Mayock has him as his fifth-best end.

If the Eagles have interest in the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Murphy -- who had 14 sacks last season -- it would be as a linebacker. He could be a second-round option.

Dee Ford, Auburn. His big-game production is compelling. Ford had two sacks in the national championship game and two of Johnny Manziel when Auburn beat Texas A&M.

Ryan Shazier, Ohio State linebacker. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Shazier looks more like a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, but his coverage ability is hard to overlook in today’s game.

Kyle Van Noy, BYU linebacker. Another second-round name to watch. Van Noy is 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds -- a little light but a versatile player who could potentially add a little upper-body weight and strength.
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.