Eagles: How Howie Can Replace Hicks at Linebacker

With Jordan Hicks deciding to sign with Arizona for 4 years $36 million, linebacker has become as clear of a need as the Eagles have.

Even if the team had decided to retain Hicks, linebacker always felt like a need coming into the offseason. Hicks himself was injury-prone, Bradham is set to turn 30 years old, and neither of Kamu Grugier-Hill nor Nate Gerry inspire long-term confidence.

With Hicks now out of the fold, linebacker is an obvious need, if not an out-right hole in the middle of the defense.

The team has a variety of options to fill that need: they can look into free agency, use a high draft pick, or decide to make a trade. I could see Howie going in any of these directions, with the first two options (draft & free agency) more likely than a trade, or the team staying put.

Free agency is pretty bare in terms of top-shelf talent, but there are a few players capable of replacing Hicks who may be affordable, and plenty of low-cost fliers/stop-gaps whom are worth taking a chance on.

There wasn’t much proven production on the open market until this morning, when the Redskins released Zach Brown (and a few other players) in order to make room for Landon Collins’ new contract. The Redskins would have liked to keep Brown, but his $8 million cap number, the need to clear cap space, and the presence of Rueben Foster made him more than expendable.

Over the past three seasons, Brown has appeared in 45 games, starting in 41 of them. He’s totaled 250 solo tackles (377 total), and 33 tackles for loss over that time period. That’s impressive production, and more importantly, he proved that he can stay healthy—sometimes the best ability is availability.

And for what it’s worth, Brown was the third highest rated linebacker by Pro Football Focus.

A few other options: Brandon Marshall, Mark Barron, Josh Byrnes.

This year’s draft class, on the other hand, is a different story, with top end talent and depth throughout.

There’s no way to know for sure, but I don’t think the front office is considering using the first round pick at the linebacker position. Nonetheless, if the team was serious about finding an instant-starter to put next to Bradham, there will be a few options available in the first round—though not necessarily at pick 25; the consensus top two linebackers, Devin White & Devin Bush, will likely be off the board.

One such player who may be available at 25, or even in the second round is Mack Wilson (Alabama). There are some concerns over Wilson’s ability to step in day one, but he has plenty of traits that would be attractive to Jim Schwartz.

Following the lineage of ‘Bama linebackers, Wilson has decided to declare for the NFL a year early. At 6’2″ 240 lbs. he has the size and strength to hold up in the middle while possessing the speed and athleticism to work sideline to sideline. He’s very effective at blitzing the quarterback, and pretty fluid in coverage.

In fact, cover ability may one of his more exciting traits—something of value to an Eagles defense that spends a lot of time dropping linebackers in zone. To show for his ability, Wilson recorded six interceptions over the past two seasons. He has good speed (he didn’t run at the combine) and his loose hips and natural instincts allow him to mirror his counterpart well for a LB.

The knock here is his aggressiveness. Wilson is accused of occasionally over-shooting angles of pursuit when working sideline-to-sideline and sometimes going for the big hit instead of wrapping up the ball carrier. With that said, his aggression probably leads to more positive plays than negative. At the very least it’s something that NFL teams will monitor.

Wilson could probably use a season to put on mass and hone his fundamentals, but he would be a more than capable rookie playing in certain sub-packages, with the athleticism and physicality to play all three downs in the near future (development willing).

It’s not entirely clear what type of player that Howie would trade for, if he decided to go that route. But it likely wouldn’t be a long-term solution—instead, any trade would probably be for a cover linebacker who can fill in on the outside, and allow Bradham to handle the inside duties in the meantime.

While it’s not impossible, I have a hard time imagining the team staying put here. I just don’t have confidence in Grugier-Hill and Gerry in any more than a part-time capacity.

You know Howie has a plan here, or else he wouldn’t have allowed Hicks to walk. Regardless, the linebacker position is notably in need of young talent.

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