The names are legends of the game, with a heavy twist of Philadelphia: Chuck Bednarik, Bill Bergey, Byron Evans, Jeremiah Trotter. They are the men who define what Eagles football is known to be – tough, gritty, nasty, excellent. As the time narrows down to Eagles training camp, 2019, the middle linebacker position is as undefined as it’s been for this team in a long, long time.
Who’s in the middle for Jim Schwartz in his attack-everything, play-downhill defense? That’s the raging question for the Eagles this summer. A spring of no-tackle, no-pads practices did not yield any answers, and if anything, the hole in the doughnut that is the Eagles defense is 100 percent up in the air.
“We’re waiting to see how it shakes out,” linebackers coach Ken Flajole said. “We’ve still got some time to work this out, but without question it’s something that needs to be decided as soon as possible.”
Jordan Hicks, the erstwhile middle linebacker the previous four seasons, despite missing 21 games due to injury in those four years, signed a free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals in March. The Eagles added a linebacker, L.J. Fort, in the March free-agency period, and then signed veteran Zach Brown in the post-draft timeframe. Neither is a prototype middle linebacker.
The fact is, the Eagles don’t have a “prototype” on the roster, and if you’ve seen Bergey lately, you know he’s a few pounds and a couple of years past his prime. There aren’t any Pro Bowl-level middle linebackers hanging out waiting to be signed, either.
“We’re going to have to see how the pieces fit when we get the pads on,” Flajole said. “You know how it is. Everything changes when the pads go on.”
The most likely candidate to man the middle is Nigel Bradham, who is the perfect fit in this defense as the strong-side linebacker who lines up over the tight end, who sets the edge against the running game and who plays in the backfield when Schwartz lets him loose. Bradham slid over to the middle in the 2017 Super Bowl season when Hicks was injured and he did a fine job, but that was in a short-stint performance. Could Bradham be a 16-game starter at middle linebacker?
“Nigel knows the defense and he has played the position, but he’s not what you call a ‘natural’ middle linebacker,” Flajole said. “I know he’s the kind of player, though, who is willing to do everything we ask him to do, and that would include lining up the defense and playing in the middle.”
Paul Worrilow is a veteran with starting experience at middle linebacker, but he also missed all of last season with a knee injury and has some work to do to get all the way back to 100 percent. Kamu Grugier-Hill saw his first real experience on the weak side of the defense last year and has taken some reps in the middle during the spring. He knows his way around the defense.
But the fact of the matter is this: Linebacker ain’t like it used to be. We think of the Eagles middle linebacker as the thumper, the tone setter, a star in the defense. In this scheme, the Eagles play with only two linebackers on the field about 70 percent of the time, so it’s all different now, anyway.
No doubt, this is the burning question for the Eagles this summer. They need to fill the doughnut hole, and they need to fill it the right way. To take a step forward, the defense needs an answer at middle linebacker. ••