Examining the NFC East: The Linebackers

Eric Wilson needs to be a playmaker for the Eagles, who lag behind their NFC East opponents at the position
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PHILADELPHIA - Our annual series examining the NFC East from a positional perspective with the help of league personnel sources continues at linebacker.

The theme to date on the back end of the Eagles defense remains pessimistic in that Jonathan Gannon will be up against it with Eric Wilson, on a one-year prove-it deal as a free agent from Minnesota, expected to be the lynchpin at a position being tutored by the youngest position coach in the league, Nick Rallis.

Rallis, like Wilson, comes from the Vikings where he spent three years as a defensive quality control/assistant linebackers coach for Mike Zimmer.

"I don’t think about too much as far as where do I lack in my lack of experience, I just try to focus on accumulating as much knowledge as possible," explained Rallis.

Wilson, 26, is learning the MIKE and WILL positions in advance of being the only three-down LB.

Alex Singleton, Philadelphia's leading tackler last season, will be the SAM LB and presumably getting plenty of playing time as well, likely only leaving the field if Gannon is employing a dime package. 

Alex Singleton has been a tackling machine sine becoming a starter at LB for the Eagles

Eagles LB Alex Singleton

The third part of the equation is T.J. Edwards, who will be penciled in as the MIKE in 4-3 looks, a sub-package these days.

Wilson, meanwhile, will wear the green dot on his helmet as the conduit for the coaching staff, something he did in Minnesota last season after Anthony Barr was lost to a torn pectoral muscle.

"I like both [the MIKE and WILL] positions," said Wilson. "I like being on the field and being a positive impact for my team in whatever position that I play. I'm gonna do my best and contribute. I think it's great for me.

"I've had experience playing both, starting games at MIKE and WILL and I think that helps my football IQ and just my awareness of where I am on the field."

At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Wilson is known more for his speed and coverage abilities more than his run-stopping proclivities, producing three sacks, three interceptions, and two fumble recoveries last season.

There are a number of wild cards in all of this as well in both scheme and personnel.

Gannon seems to be preparing to use a stand-up rusher at times that would somewhat mimic a 3-4 edge rusher married with Zimmer's trademarked A-gap looks in which the LBs blanket both sides of the center.

Players being looked at for that role are hybrid defensive ends Ryan Kerrigan, Genard Avery, and Joe Osman as well as rookie seventh-round pick Patrick Johnson, who was an edge rusher at Tulane.

Ryan Kerrigan by the numbers

Ryan Kerrigan

Second-year players Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley, who are both very athletic with the former, a third-round pick in 2020, remaining very raw, could push the traditional LBs and rookie sixth-rounder JaCoby Stevens is the hybrid safety/LB who could factor in bid nickel packages.

Here's how the division stacks up:

No. 4 - Philadelphia Eagles: "Like a 20-point scorer on a bad NBA team," is how one former AFC personnel executive described Wilson's production on a bad Minnesota defense that was devastated by injury, opt-out and free agency in 2020.

Yet, Wilson is the Eagles' best LB on paper in 2021 and it certainly seems like the organization continues to devalue the position.

If the hybrids prove to be more than lip service maybe that's not a big deal. Until talk turns into action, however, it's tough to project any innovation.

No. 3 - Washington Football Team: There is significant potential here with rookie first-round pick Jamin Davis joining the underrated Cole Holcomb as the foundational pieces at the position.

It usually takes a bit for rookie LBs to make the transition, however, so the start-up costs on Davis have to be navigated. As far as the two-down run-stuffer, Jon Bostic has been pedestrian and could face some competition from David Mayo.

"I think Holcomb is one of the more underrated linebackers in the league," an AFC scout said. "Just a really smart and instinctive player who's solid in all three phases."

No. 2 - New York Giants: The Giants are the only team in the division using a 3-4 front and ILB Blake Martinez was the best LB in the division in 2020 and among the best in the entire league after coming over as a free agent from Green Bay.

Veteran run-stuffer Reggie Ragland was signed to slot next to Martinez inside and is a one-dimensional player who can be exposed in coverage. Tae Crowder flashed a bit as a rookie but the rest of the depth doesn't inspire much confidence.

The outside LBs with the Giants will be included with the edge rushers in this preview series.

"It's a bunch of darts outside of Martinez," a former AFC Personnel executive said. "I don't know how many people realize it, but Blake was a top-10 player [at the position] last season."

No. 1 - Dallas Cowboys: Once at the top of the division due to the talent of Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee, the Cowboys fell on tough times with Vander Esch's health issues becoming a major concern, Lee heading into retirement and Smith's play simply declining after a great comeback from a career-threatening leg injury during his final game at Notre Dame.

The talent remains, however, with No. 12 overall pick Micah Parsons coming in, along with free agent Keanu Neal, who reunites with Dan Quinn from Atlanta and will be asked to play a hybrid safety/LB role.

Those additions along with potential bounce backs from Smith and/or Vander Esch are enough to keep Dallas at the top of the division.

"I'm not sure what Parson is yet [three-down LB or OLB] but he's talented," an AFC scout noted. "He's an interesting piece that you probably need to scheme up a little bit to find his ceiling."

READ MORE: Examining the NFC East: Cornerbacks - Sports Illustrated ...

READ MORE: Examining the NFC East: The Safeties - Sports Illustrated

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.