The Science of Finding Productive Linebackers
It’s no secret that the Philadelphia Eagles need help at linebacker. From social media arguments about whether Eagles mock drafts are legitimate if you take a linebacker in the 1st round, to Gio the Podcaster telling Howie at the combine he needs to get The Birds a LB, we know that linebacker is a position that can’t be ignored any longer.
But it’s important to know WHERE to get linebackers from if you’re going to make it happen. Is it free agency? The NFL draft? A combo of both? In order to find out the answer I decided to take a look at the First and Second Team All-Pro off ball linebackers over the past 10 years. I chose the All-Pro teams versus Pro Bowl because All-Pro is a better representation of the best players at each position, instead of who is most popular. As a part of the data deep dive I decided to break things up into more digestible pieces. First I looked at how many All-Pro’s were on the team that drafted them when they were named an All-Pro versus how many were free agent acquisitions. Next I broke down drafted players by how many were drafted Day 1 or Day 2 (rounds 1-3) versus how many were drafted Day 3 (rounds 4-7). Lastly, I compared how a team’s defense rated in defensive DVOA (according to Football Outsiders) the year that the player was named All-Pro. As a note, I counted undrafted free agents (UDFA’s) as free agents in this exercise since they can sign with any team they choose.
First things first, the numbers are pretty telling: of the linebackers I studied that were named First or Second Team All-Pro over the past decade, 81% of them were drafted by their team. 84% of them were drafted Day 1 or Day 2, and 46% of the linebackers drafted rounds 1-3 were taken in the 1st round. Of the players taken outside of those first three rounds, two were taken on Day 3, and three were undrafted free agents. In comparison, over the same 10 year span the Eagles have drafted only two players in the first three rounds that have racked up starter worthy snaps, Mychal Kendricks and Jordan Hicks. Philly spent a 3rd round pick in 2020 on Davion Taylor, but due to injuries and ineffectiveness he’s yet to get enough snaps to qualify as a “starter”. The rest of the Eagles starters over that time have been a 4th round pick (Casey Matthews), a 5th round pick (Nate Gerry), two free agents (DeMeco Ryans, Nigel Bradham) and two undrafted free agents (Alex Singleton, TJ Edwards).
You probably won’t be surprised to find out that over that 10 year span the Eagles have not had a single player named an All-Pro on either team (1st or 2nd), nor have they had a Pro Bowler over that time either. The last All-Pro (1st team) off ball linebacker was Jeremiah Trotter in 2000, and he was also the last Pro Bowler as well in 2005. So it goes with out saying that Philly needs to prioritize the position in order to bring more balance to their defense. What I do find surprising though is despite the lack of quality LB play, the Eagles defensive DVOA has been solid over the past decade. The Eagles defense was the 15th best over the past 10 years, whereas the average for All-Pro linebackers was only 22nd. Aside from a down 2021 season, Philly managed to maintain an above average defense with out fielding a consistently competitive linebacking corps.
I also decided to include PFF grades for the Eagles linebackers and the All-Pro linebackers that I studied to get a snap shot of the individual contributions of each player. The All-Pro linebackers averaged a 76.5 PFF grade, whereas Eagles linebackers only averaged a grade of 63. That’s a pretty wide margin in individual play, and it shows that the Eagles defenses were playing well many times in spite of their linebackers. Only two linebackers scored above a 76.5 over the 10-year time span, Mychal Kendricks twice (88.7-2014, 79.9-2017), and Jordan Hicks (88.4-2016). Many would argue that Kendricks and Hicks were the two best linebackers the Eagles have had over the past few years, and the Eagles LB play fell off a cliff when Hicks walked as a free agent after 2018.
That brings us to the current iteration of the Philadelphia Eagles, and where they stand as of now in regards to their linebackers. Last season Howie attempted to address the position by signing Eric Wilson as a free agent, but he was routinely outplayed by younger players on the roster, and was ultimately released. That left undrafted free agents Alex Singleton and TJ Edwards to hold things down for the rest of the season. TJ Edwards had a solid season, finishing with 130 combined tackles, a sack, an INT, and 5 PBU’s and a respectable 76.3 PFF grade. He did struggle in coverage however, giving up 41 receptions for 351 receiving yards and 2 TDs across 14 starts according to Pro Football Reference. Alex Singleton struggled mightily, finishing with a 52.3 from PFF and a litany of missed tackles and opportunities. Singleton also surrendered a ton of yards through the air, allowing 63 catches for 494 receiving yards and 5 TDs. Singleton is a feel good story for sure, but is best served as a reserve LB and special teamer.
NFL DRAFT OPTIONS:
So where do we go from here? The obvious answer is that Eagles GM Howie Roseman needs to invest in the position via the 2022 NFL Draft. Specifically, he needs to address the position with a Day 1 or Day 2 pick to ensure the Eagles defense doesn’t repeat their poor 2021 season. Thankfully there are quite a few players that Howie will be able to choose from, starting with the two LBs at the top of everyones board, Devin Lloyd from Utah and Nakobe Dean from Georgia. The question still remains if Howie will use one of the Eagles’s three first round picks on a linebacker (which is HIGHLY questionable), but if he does, either Lloyd or Dean would be a fine selection. They’re different backers though, so it depends on what you’re looking for. Lloyd is a versatile and big (6’3 237 lbs) linebacker that can stop the run, rush the passer, and drop in coverage. Dean is a bit undersized (5’11 229 lbs) and can get manhandled at times by bigger blockers, but he’s as fast sideline to sideline as you’ll find in this draft, and can cover with the best of them.
Even if Howie skips out on a linebacker in round one, there’s still plenty of talent that will fall to rounds two and three. The hierarchy of off ball linebackers gets a bit murky though as there’s no clear consensus on who is next off the board. Quay Walker from Georgia, Damone Clark from LSU, and Christian Harris from Alabama all have their pluses, but also have some negatives as well. Overall, they’re all capable of playing the run and pass, and have the qualities of NFL starters. All three have a chance to be gone by the end of round two, with some speculating that Quay Walker may sneak into the back end of the first round. Georgia linebacker Channing Tindall ran well at the NFL Combine and has been picking up steam as a Day 2 pick, and Malcolm Rodriguez from Oklahoma State (5’11 232 lbs) though undersized like Dean, showed that he has the skillset to be a starter in today’s NFL. Any of these choices would make sense for Philadelphia outside of the first round, and could yield positive results for the team.
FREE AGENT OPTIONS:
If we’re being realistic though, there’s a strong chance that Howie picks up a linebacker in free agency before the NFL Draft at the end of April. Thankfully there has been an influx of possibilities to choose from, though none of them are without their issues. It makes the most sense to start with perennial All-Pro and Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner, who made First or Second Team All-Pro a whopping eight times in his 10-year career. Even at 31 Wagner had a solid year, but he did give up a ton of receiving yards and receptions (71-593) in 2021. De’Vondre Campbell is coming off a career year for Green Bay and made his first All-Pro team, but he turns 29 in July and has only had one really good year, which was 2021. Is he capable of sustaining his play for a third team in three years or was 2021 the ceiling?
Foyesade Oluokun (tackling machine), Leighton Vander Esch (still young), A.J. Johnson (30 y/o late bloomer), and Kyzir White (ascending player) could all make sense as well if Philadelphia decides they want to go cheaper at the LB position in free agency and take a flier on a player that may have some good football ahead of them. Kyzir White is an especially interesting player who is only 26, and has played some pretty solid coverage over the past several years (plus he’s from PA!). Lastly Cory Littleton, who was recently released by the Las Vegas Raiders, could also be a possibility. He played poorly for Las Vegas over the past two seasons, but he was a four down menace in his last season with the Los Angeles Rams posting a 79 PFF grade in 2019.
The days are over where Howie Roseman and Philadelphia’s Front Office can afford to ignore the linebacker position. Jonathan Gannon’s defensive scheme may not demand a huge investment in the LB position, but he clearly will need someone who can partner with TJ Edwards to man their Nickel defense this upcoming season. As we gleaned from the data, there’s a much higher success rate when drafting a linebacker, especially in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. If Howie chooses to ignore that route (which is a distinct possibility) he can clearly go the free agency route, which has a much lower hit rate. Either way, I’m looking forward to see what the Eagles do to address a position that has gone far too long with out a significant upgrade.