With Mychal Kendricks finally out of the picture, the weak side linebacker spot becomes a hole in Schwartz’s defense. Fortunately, there are a few candidates who are capable of stepping up.
While Kendricks played a lot on first and second down last season, the return of Jordan Hicks means that the weak side linebacker spot will mostly be relegated to playing on third down and obvious passing situations; which is why much of the competition will be focused on coverage, and ability to play in space.
Kamu Grugier-Hill, Corey Nelson, and Nate Gerry are the three players vying to replace Kendricks.
For those that don’t know, Nelson chose the Eagles in free agency over Denver (his previous team) despite being offered the same contracts. My guess is what drew him to Philly—outside of the obvious opportunity to compete for a Super Bowl—was the opportunity to play a larger role than the one he played for the Broncos.
Nelson was described by fans and pundits in Denver as a special teams ace who was solid on third down and serviceable depth as an every down backer. With the Broncos sustaining injuries at linebacker in 2016, Nelson was asked to fill a moderate role in their defense—which gives him experience that Gerry and Grugier-Hill noticeably lack.
The clear knock on Nelson is his poor play against the run, but that seems to be a running theme between these players. Kendricks struggled at times in that area as well, but, as I mentioned in the beginning, that isn’t necessarily a need for a weak side linebacker who will mainly contribute on passing downs.
He’s nothing to get excited about, but at just 25 years old there’s reason to believe that he has more room to grow. At the very least, the addition of Nelson will bolster a special teams unit that already ranks near the top of the league.
Gerry is a second year player from Nebraska who spent his rookie season making the transition from safety. He wasn’t expected to contribute much last season, but that doesn’t mean the coaches aren’t excited about his potential to become a “hybrid” defender who blurs the line between linebacker and safety.
Given his history, there’s little reason to doubt his ability to defend in space and cover tight ends/running backs, which is the most important attribute to consider here. Much like Nelson, it’s a matter of becoming more productive on first and second down. He was exceptional defending the run in college, and he’s reportedly beefed up from 212 to 230 lbs since then, meaning previous concerns over his lack of size should be in the past.
It’s hard to pin any one of these players as the “favorite” but that hasn’t stopped a few pundits from assigning that tag to Gerry. He got the nominal “start” in mandatory minicamp, but outside of that there’s not much reason to think he has a leg up on the other three.
I’ve been excited about Gerry from the moment he was drafted and if I had to bet on one of these players winning the job it would be him, but there’s a long way to go before opening night.
Considering he played just 85 snaps last season, 53 of which came in week 17, Grugier-Hill is fairly well known to Eagle fans because of his stint as emergency-kicker during the Dallas game. While he figures to maintain that role, he’s a legitimate contender to win the weak side linebacker spot.
Grugier-Hill is a third year player who was cut by New England in 2016 after being drafted at the end of the 6th round, and yet he finds himself in the mix to replace Kendricks. On paper he may seem like a relative longshot: his lack of actual game experience makes him difficult to evaluate for outside observers, and his status as a late-round pick already once being cut doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
With that said, it’s hard to ignore the reports coming out of minicamp of his standout play (particularly in coverage). I don’t take much stock into minicamp—or any offseason activity unless it’s in pads—but Grugier-Hill has clearly made an impression on the coaching staff, the media, and select fans. Like most major contributors on special teams, he’s chomping at the bit to prove himself on defense and this could be his best and last opportunity.
In the event of an injury to Hicks or Bradham, these players probably lack the ability to contribute on every down in the way Kendricks was able to last season, but if that’s something that truly concerns the coaching staff then they wouldn’t have let Kendricks go.
Outside of that, I actually think all three players have the potential to cover better than Kendricks, who was serviceable, but not ideal in such a role.
Like I said before, the early favorite seems to be Nate Gerry, but all three players have a real shot at winning this competition.