PHILADELPHIA - It’s now been over 40 years since the Eagles selected a true off-ball linebacker in the first round of the NFL Draft with the last being Jerry Robinson out of UCLA back in 1979, not coincidently in the Dick Vermeil era, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach who happened to be an ex-Bruins mentor and started in the league when the game itself was far different.
We give you that context to be fair and to say eschewing LBs at the top of the draft in Philadelphia is a practice that reaches far back than Howie Roseman and even the quarter-plus century Jeffrey Lurie has owned the franchise.
Jonathan Gannon is the latest defensive coordinator to step into that vortex and he’s had trouble navigating the lack of talent afforded him at the position so much so that Gannon has developed a rotational system at what is traditionally a non-rotational position.
Before he arrived in Philadelphia Gannon was a defensive assistant in Indianapolis which had a star at the position in Darius Leonard. Go back even further and Gannon was in Minnesota with the Vikings’ two star LBs: Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.
To date Gannon has thrown everything at the wall in Philadelphia, most recently settling on T.J. Edwards and Davion Taylor in his run-support packages with Alex Singleton and Eric Wilson handling nickel duties.
SAM ‘backer Genard Avery also rotates in when Gannon wants to go to a varied front while Singleton seems to be the one left standing when it comes to toggling between packages.
Gannon discussed the mixing and matching on Tuesday.
“‘What are our guys' skill sets? What are we asking them to do? Who does that well? Let's get them on the field,” Gannon said. “We'll see who's playing at a high level.’ When we talked about, I think last week it was, certain guys you can't afford to take off the field, we're not going to take them off the field.
“But that's an ever-evolving process of who we have, how we're playing, who we're playing, where are we at, year one, year two, year three, whatever. Is this guy a rookie? Is this guy a fifth-year guy? All that, that's all taken into account when we decide, ‘Hey, here's the 11 that are going out in this package. Here's what they need to get done to play winning football.’”
If you want to signal out the main culprits for not playing winning football in the Eagles’ cover-2 heavy scheme, however, it’s the second level.
Of the 86 LBs in the NFL who’ve played enough to be ranked by ProFootballFocus.com, the Eagles’ best has been Edwards at No. 57. From there it’s Singleton at 70 and Wilson at 81. Taylor got a late start due to a nagging calf injury so he’s not played enough to be ranked but would be No. 83.
Dig deeper and you will find the two LBs who have played the most as significant liabilities in certain phases. Wilson is graded as the worst run-support LB in the entire league (No. 82 of 82) and Singleton as one of the worst coverage LBs (No. 71 of 77).
Despite that, Gannon claimed he has everything he needs from a personnel standpoint to succeed.
“Our linebackers, from a standpoint of when we play shell defense, are pattern match. So, they have to process and figure out who to get on and drop in zones first and then match people,” Gannon said on Tuesday. “... So that's why I say, guys, like the schematic thing of do we have the right people in the building? Yeah. We have to coach better, I know that. You know what I mean? 2-5, that says that immediately. Who does that fall on? Us.
“But with saying that, we have proven, our guys have proven, and we can be more consistent with it to be able to play winning football and do everything that I just talked about.”
Falling on one’s sword to protect others is an admirable trait but Gannon didn’t inherit the horses to succeed and that’s showing up on most game days so the grading has to be on the curve.
Taylor, a raw second-year player, is the one who has the athleticism to stand out if the mental side clicks.
For now, Gannon seems content to reach for some extra credit by protecting his worst students.
“Everybody that we need to play winning football is in that building right there,” Gannon. “I'm 100 percent confident in that.”
-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.