Eagles Training Camp Preview: The Linebackers

A Minnesota connection of Jonathan Gannon, Nick Rallis and Eric Wilson hopes to give the Eagles' long-suffering LB corps a boost
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The Eagles’ often self-inflicted issues at the linebacker position figure to continue in 2021.

It’s a group without much pedigree piloted by the youngest full-time position coach in football, ex-University of Minnesota linebacker Nick Rallis, who is basically the same age as Philadelphia’s top incumbent Alex Singleton.

Rallis, who was the assistant LB coach in Minnesota under one of the most well-regarded defensive minds in the NFL, Mike Zimmer, and Adam Zimmer, the head coach’s son who has the dual-role of co-defensive coordinator and LB coach with the Vikings.

Both speak highly of Rallis, who is regarded as an up-and-comer in the coaching profession.

On the field, the top option at the position for the Eagles figures to be a free agent on a one-year, cost-effective deal who is following Rallis from Minny in Eric Wilson.

The other player on the inside track to significant playing time is Singleton, a great story who was a tackling machine last season after proving himself as a capable player, albeit one the old coaching staff never really wanted to go to, never mind rely on.

From there it’s a host of unproven talents like second-year players Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley plus rookie hybrids JaCoby Stevens and Patrick Johnson, the former a Big Nickel type and the latter a potential stand-up rusher.

Schematically, both defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and Rallis are Zimmer disciples, which likely means more sugaring of the A-gaps in an attempt to confuse opposing quarterbacks, something Gannon himself intimated in the offseason

"Everyone talks about you want to pressure the quarterback, pressure the quarterback. Well, in my opinion, one of those ways is pre-snap, not post-snap," Gannon said. "So what you do is you want to make sure that quarterback - offensive coordinators and quarterbacks right now are really, I feel like, ahead of where they were when I first got into the business as far as knowing where to go with the ball immediately or reading coverages or getting to each progression where they need to get to with the ball.

"You just want to put a little bit of seed of doubt in that quarterback's mind, do I have that guy, or do I not?"

DEPTH CHART:

WILL - Eric Wilson

SAM- Alex Singleton

MIKE - TJ Edwards

LB4 Davion Taylor; LB5 Shaun Bradley; LB6 JaCoby Stevens; LB7 Patrick Johnson; LB8 Rashad Smith

WHAT’S CHANGED: Wilson arrives from Minnesota coming off a career year after filling in for the injured Anthony Barr. The other new faces are the rookies who are different types of hybrids making the transition to LB: Stevens a king-sized safety in college at LSU, and Johnson, an edge rusher at Tulane.

Eagles LB Eric Wilson

Eric Wilson

Gone are non-descript players like Nate Gerry, who signed with San Francisco but was already cut, Duke Riley, a solid special-teamer who signed with Miami, and Joe Bachie, who was waived and claimed by Cincinnati.

HIGHLIGHT REEL: Wilson brings playmaking ability to a defense that lacked it last season.

An undersized former undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati, the skinny on Wilson is that he’s good in coverage and poor in run support. He piled up 122 tackles to go along with three sacks, three interceptions, and two fumble recoveries for the Vikings last season but too many of the tackles were downfield.

Per ProFootballFocus.com, Wilson was graded as the 18th-best coverage LB in the NFL but he was a dismal 81 out of 93 when it came to stopping the ground game.

That said, Minnesota had poor defensive tackle play last season and the Eagles’ Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave should do a better job keeping opposing offensive linemen off the second level.

"I'm great against the run," a confident Wilson said this sprong. "Great against the pass, I can blitz. And, You know I think that's one of my great skills that I have is my versatility and my ability to make plays all around the field."

Wilson is far from a star but he’s the best Philadelphia has right now and perhaps he can also help with integrating the younger players into the new defensive scheme.

“I do a lot of work on truly understanding the game, improving my football IQ and understanding my role within my defense, and what needs to be done in communicating that properly with my teammates and my coaches,” Wilson said.

CAMP BATTLES

Judging by Gannon’s previous two stops with Minnesota and then Indianapolis, the Eagles want more athleticism at linebacker. The Vikings have Barr and Eric Kendricks and the Colts have Darius Leonard.

From a traits standpoint that bodes well for Taylor, Bradley, and Stevens and perhaps less so for Singleton and Edwards, the latter of which figures to be limited to a two-down run-stuffer role.

Davion Taylor

Davion Taylor

Taylor arrived greener than the grass he ran on in 2020 but is by far the Eagles’ most athletic LB. It will be interesting to see how much the new Philadelphia coaching staff wants to look at Taylor and how much it wants to use more unconventional looks with a player like Stevens, who is about as intriguing a sixth-round pick as you are going to find.

ROCKY: THE LONGSHOT

Singleton was a CFL star brought in to play special teams and then the attrition starting piling up forcing him onto the field. He played so well the Eagles couldn’t get him off the field and while entrenched is too strong a word to describe Singleton, especially with a new coaching staff, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating him out, at least early.

“Having a new staff, new everything, the competition level is even," Singleton said. "Everyone is in the same spot. It’s not the same coaches we had last year that put you in and liked you as a player. It’s a whole new staff. Just gotta keep that same hunger and grind."

WHO STAYS ON THE 53?

The starting trio in the 4-3 should be Wilson, Singleton, and Edwards and the Eagles will try to keep the rookies, Stevens and Johnson, meaning Taylor and more likely Bradley will be on the bubble.

WHO GOES?

Rashad Smith is the low man on the totem pole to start but this is a positional group in where an actual meritocracy should win out. The most pedigreed player Philadelphia has at LB is Taylor as a third-round pick. Everyone else is a late-round selection or broke in undrafted. 

So why not Rashad Smith if he outplays everyone?

That said Smith is still likely out and you could certainly get a seventh-round pick like Johnson through waivers and onto the practice squad. Bradley should also be concerned and this is a position in which the Eagles could be busy on the waiver wire at the final cutdown.

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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 jmcmullen44@gmail.com 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 and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.