Positional Analysis: Linebackers
When the Eagles released veteran Jeremiah Trotter before the start of the 2007 season, it marked the dawning of a new era for Philadelphia's linebacking corps. Despite being a Pro Bowl caliber player in the past and a leader on the field and in the locker room, the growing opinion was that Trotter had lost a step and that the defense needed to get younger and faster to remain competitive. With a new group of starters in the middle of the defense, the Eagles finished the year ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing yards allowed while only letting up 10 touchdowns on the ground, and it seems that adding speed and youth to the middle of Jim Johnson's group paid dividends. After starting the final five games of 2006 at outside linebacker in his rookie year, Omar Gaither stepped into Trotter's spot at middle linebacker and made a smooth transition to a new position. While more of a finesse player at 235 pounds, the former fifth-round draft pick out of Tennessee showed good sideline-to-sideline speed and a nose for finding the ball carrier, and he led the Eagles in tackles with 102 this season. Gaither was also the team's best linebacker in pass coverage, recording an interception and knocking down eight passes. Johnson has described him as having, "a knack for the game," and Gaither should be an important part of Philadelphia's defense for years to come. Chris Gocong was another member of the Eagles youth movement on the defensive side of the ball, and the second year pro turned a few heads with his solid play at strong-side linebacker. As a defensive end in college, Gocong set an NCAA Division I-AA record with 23 ½ sacks in his senior year at Cal Poly, and after sitting out his rookie year, he was finally able to show his talent. Gocong did a good job of adjusting to a new position and at 263 pounds, he provided the D with some extra bulk. The coaching staff tried to utilize his pass rushing abilities by lining him up as a "joker", a position that required him to rush from the edge from a three-point stance, blitz up the middle, or even drop into coverage, and the former third- round pick did a good job of putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Gocong finished the 2007 season with 66 tackles and recorded the first sack of his career in week 12 against the AFC Champion Patriots. At weakside linebacker, two-time Pro Bowler Takeo Spikes came to Philadelphia as a free agent in the off-season, and the former Buffalo Bill and Cincinnati Bengal gave the defense another vocal leader and veteran presence. After tearing his Achilles tendon and missing most of the 2005 season, Spikes seemed to be fully recovered from the injury and was a force against the run. He finished the season ranked second on the team in tackles with 86 and helped the Eagles get tough in the red zone (they allowed 20 touchdowns in 55 possessions, the lowest percentage in the league) and on the goal-line (opponents scored only nine touchdowns in 16 first-and-goal situations at-or-inside their own 5-yard line, also the lowest percentage in the league). While he was an important component to the defense, Spikes' recent history of injuries became a cause for concern and he was released earlier this week. Besides the Achilles injury, he also suffered a strained hamstring in 2006 and tore his rotator cuff in the Eagles 10-6 win over Dallas in December. Rookie Stewart Bradley was taken by the Eagles in the third round of the 2007 draft, and the former Nebraska standout showed a great deal of potential in his first season in Philadelphia. In the preseason, Bradley saw reps at both middle and strong-side linebacker, but his future will be in the middle. Bradley was a solid special teams player early in the year, but he got his chance to really show what he could do later in the season. When Spikes went down with an injury in week 15, Bradley got the opportunity to start the following game against the Saints and he made his presence felt. He finished the game with six tackles, a diving interception, and a sack, and proved that he could be a player at the next level. Bradley's best assets are his size (6-foot-3, 254 pounds) and his range, and he will likely be the starting middle linebacker next season, moving Gaither back to the outside. Akeem Jordan was another rookie who got a chance to grab the coaching staff's attention this year, and he also seized the opportunity. After being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Division I-AA James Madison, Jordan spent the first half of the season on the practice squad until he was called up in week nine. He was productive in his role on special teams and, like Bradley, he got to see action on defense because of injuries late in the season. In the last two games of the year, Jordan had 14 total tackles and even got to start in the season finale against Buffalo. Jordan is an athletic outside linebacker with a high football IQ, and he should give the defense even more depth and confidence. Although the Eagles entered the 2007 season with numerous questions surrounding their linebacking corps, they have to be pleased with how well their late draft picks have worked out. While they were especially good against the run, the defense needs to make more plays and could use more production in pass coverage, as the linebackers combined for only three sacks and two interceptions all season. If the Eagles improve on their 2007 league-low 19 takeaways, the defense could take them a long way next season. Final Grade: B+ Andrew Pluta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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