Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles just landed their 2012 starting middle linebacker in DeMeco Ryans. And yes, the man’s a stud player assuming he’s all the way back from his Achilles injury.
However, I’m a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Philly is where linebackers have been in a witness protection program since the Clinton Administration. I feel like I’ve been an unwilling member of L.A. (Linebackers Anonymous) for the past 10 years.
Now that we have DeMeco Ryans, I feel like the starving man who was just given a Ritz cracker…and I want another one!
I can’t help myself, I’ve been deprived of linebackers far too long. Maybe such deprivation has warped my judgement and taking a linebacker in round one of the NFL draft would be overkill.
But, would it really be overkill?
The Eagles have perpetually fielded terrible groupings of linebackers, and last year was no exception. Does one good linebacker fix the problem? There is no law stating the Eagles can’t have more than one!
I have some optimism for Brian Rolle and think he’ll get first shot at starting on the weak side. However, he wasn’t so good that he doesn’t need competition. With that said, it’s on the strong side where there is still need for vast improvement.
Luke Kuechly has been widely considered to be a middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense or an inside linebacker in a 3-4. However, is it possible that he can play on the outside in a 4-3? Particularly the Eagles’ version of the 4-3?
Though it’s not the conventional thinking, and by no means am I an expert at evaluating college talent, I think it’s worth considering Kuechly to play either the strong side or weak side in the Eagles’ defense. More than likely, it would ultimately be the strong side though.
Kuechly did play his college freshman year on the outside and recorded 158 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, one INT (returned for a TD), one sack and five passes defensed. He also played safety in high school so he does have some history and experience in coverage.
With his performance at the combine, it pretty much eased any concerns about his athleticism. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, he was rather impressive and can now be viewed as athletic enough to play on the outside.
Though he is still seen as predominantly an inside player, I decided to dig a little more to find out if there are scouts who think he can play on the outside as well. After reading several different opinions on him by scouts and draftniks, I came away convinced that Kuechly is more than capable of playing on the outside.
Consider this review by draftnik Justin Higdon of AFC2NFC.com:
Luke Kuechly of Boston College was the top rated inside linebacker going into the combine, and he looked the part of a top 15 draft prospect. He was bigger than expected, at 6’3 242 ponds; and faster too, with a 4.58 40 time.
Once thought to be strictly an inside player, his athletic ability may convince some teams to try him at outside linebacker. No matter where he plays, Kuechly is a tackling machine. He tallied 158 as a freshman, 183 as a sophomore, and 191 this past season. Of those tackles, 35.5 went for a loss.
Kuechly also picked off three passes in each of the last two seasons. Some team will be getting a strong starter for the next ten seasons.
Here’s what NFLDraftBible has to say about Kuechly:
Not surprisingly he possesses exceptional closing speed and tremendous quickness, allowing him to make tackles from sideline-to-sideline. He gets great pursuit and plays with all-out effort. Because he reads what’s happening in front of him well and really flies to the football, when his linemen allow Kuechly to run free he will get to the ball carrier every time.
In pass coverage the Ohio native possesses the ability to cover backs one-on-one. Kuechly appears to have the versatility to play either inside or outside in a 4-3 defense.
Furthermore, here is the opinion of someone I truly respect as an evaluator of college talent, especially as it relates to how players fit with the Eagles. From Tommy Lawlor at IgglesBlitz.com:
The Eagles could look at taking Kuechly at 15 to play SAM for a few years before sliding into the middle to replace Ryans. I’m sure DeMeco will retire after the first couple of Super Bowls. No reason to be greedy.
I do think he can play SAM in our system. Remember, we don’t put the LB up on the LOS like we used to. The SAM now is back off the ball and plays like an ILB to a certain extent. Luke has the size to handle TEs on short routes. He has the quickness to hang with them.
He’s also very smart. You don’t want him on Jimmy Graham 25 yards downfield, but how many LBs do you want in that position? Luke is big and strong enough to handle run plays that come at him. He uses his hands to take on blockers, something Juan Castillo prefers (to shoulders).
Drafting Luke at 15 would also give you an insurance policy in case DeMeco Ryans got hurt. If Big Red is making a Super Bowl push in 2012, you have to think about injuries and how we’d overcome them. Luke would be ideal in that sense.
I happen to agree 100% with what Lawlor stated, it makes perfect sense for the Eagles. Kuechly would be a significant upgrade on the strong side and would provide insurance at MLB if Ryans got hurt.
Not to mention that he, just like Ryans, would likely remain on the field when the team switches to nickel defense. Imagine having two starting linebackers who could be on the field for all three downs — less confusion and more continuity.
The addition of Ryans does give the Eagles more flexibility in the draft. There won’t be as much pressure to take Kuechly, or any linebacker for that matter.
However, what position do you see the Eagles addressing with their first pick now? Defensive tackle is a strong possibility, but other than that, what do they need to address that is worthy of their No. 1 pick besides linebacker?
With DeSean Jackson re-signed and Jeremy Maclin as the No. 2, we won’t be taking a wide receiver. Our starting offensive line is set. Quarterback, running back, cornerback, defensive end and tight end are all set with the starters. It is highly unlikely they will take a safety after spending high second-rounds picks there in the past two drafts.
That just leaves DT and LB as the two best values to take at 15 when considering team needs and players available at slot No. 15. Fletcher Cox, Michael Brockers, Dontari Poe, or Devon Still could all be a strong consideration at that slot and DT is a position the Eagles have no problem drafting high.
However, there is a decent chance that Brockers, Poe, and maybe even Cox will all be off the board at pick 15. If so, there is no question the next best pick that would still be tremendous value would be Kuechly.
The only other option would be to trade down, and in a do-or-die season for Andy Reid, I would strongly advise against trading down. Stay put and take an impact player at a position of relative weakness that can improve the team in 2012.
The only wrench in this plan is the fact that Andy Reid has never drafted a linebacker in the first round. Hell, the Eagles as an organization haven’t drafted a first round linebacker since the price of gas was 86 cents per gallon and the Sony Walkman was the new hot item (Jerry Robinson in 1979).
Therefore, if we go based on past history, chances are slim the Eagles will actually take Kuechly in round one. Based on that same history, we could have said the same thing before they traded for DeMeco Ryans too.
However, with Howie Roseman on-board, things have been done much differently than they have in the past under Andy Reid. The free agent bonanza last year and the multiple contract extensions recently are actions that can be deemed as “different” from the previous years.
Therefore, you never know. Eagles linebacker coach Mike Caldwell ran the linebacker drills for Kuechly at his pro day and they’ve been keeping tabs on him.
The Eagles are always good for a shocker and now that everyone thinks they won’t take a linebacker, maybe they will.