The Eagles have not prioritized the linebacker position for some time now. After signing Nigel Bradham to a five-year, $40 million extension during the 2018 offseason (only to release him two years later), the team has done very little to add talent to the position group.
And as you’d probably suspect, the Eagles starting linebackers are among some of the worst in the league. T.J. Edwards proved to be a respectable player in 2021, posting an overall grade of 73.6, 12th-best among 89 qualifying linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus. As for Alex Singleton and Genard Avery, they both ranked in the bottom half of their positions. Davion Taylor showed some promise in his sophomore campaign, but his constant injuries and inconsistent play still raises question marks.
While there are a handful of off-ball linebackers that would make sense for the team in the first-round of the upcoming NFL Draft, Howie Roseman hasn’t shown that he’s willing to spend such a valuable pick on the position. But, Howie has routinely signed linebackers through free agency. The aforementioned Bradham is the most successful example, and arguably the only free agent linebacker that worked out in Philly in recent memory. But hey, at least Howie’s shown a willingness to do it.
There are several linebackers set to hit free agency this offseason. Here are the five that should be on Howie’s wishlist.
De’Vondre Campbell, Green Bay Packers
De’Vondre Campbell had an amazing season in 2021, finishing the year as the second-best linebacker in football according to PFF. He was the second-highest graded player on Green Bay’s defense in 2021, earning first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his career.
The 28-year-old linebacker was a stat sheet stuffer this season. Campbell finished the year with 146 combined tackles, six tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two sacks. For all intents and purposes, this was Campbell’s breakout season, but he’s been a serviceable to good linebacker for his entire career. He’s been a stout tackler ever since he entered the league back in 2016. Campbell has posted a tackling grade over 75.0 for five straight years, per PFF.
The scheme change would present a bit of a learning curve for Campbell if he joined Jonathan Gannon’s crew, but as a standup linebacker, he’d essentially be asked to do the same thing. Find ball, get ball.
Coming off an All-Pro campaign, it’s fair to assume Campbell will demand a high price tag on the open market. PFF projects his contract to be two-years at $6.5 million per year. That’s doable for the Eagles, who are expected to have a lot of cap room to work with this offseason.
Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots
Despite being on the wrong side of 30, Dont’a Hightower has proven to be one of the most dependable linebackers in football over the past decade. After opting out of the 2020 season, he returned in 2021 to remind everyone that he’s still one of the better backers in the game.
Bill Belichick has used Hightower in a variety of ways over the years. HIghtower finished with 16 quarterback pressures in 2021, tied for third-most among off-ball linebackers. He’s become a bit of a liability in pass coverage in recent years, but if the Eagles are just looking for a proven talent who can help guide the young backers for the next 2-3 years, Hightower makes a lot of sense.
He’s not a long-term option, but he would be a great stop-gap and mentor to Davion Taylor and T.J. Edwards.
Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
After bursting on the scene as a rookie in 2018, Leighton Vander Esch has been trying to reach that peak ever since, but the talent he showcased during that season still flashes from time to time.
The 25-year-old backer can play on every down and has shown productivity at every level of playing linebacker. He’s a stout run defender, can get after the passer on blitzes, and has proven to be one of the better coverage linebackers in football. Vander Esch was targeted 38 times in coverage this season and didn’t allow a single touchdown — quarterbacks had a pedestrian 86.3 passer rating when throwing his way.
Of all the linebackers set to hit free agency, Vander Esch is the best long-term option. He played in all 17 games this year and posted his best stat line since his rookie year. If the Eagles are truly looking to build for the future, while also competing for the playoffs every year, Vander Esch is the perfect option to fill their hole at LB.
Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota’s Anthony Barr was a perennial Pro Bowler early on in his career, but with injuries piling up over the past three years, his production has taken a bit of a dip. Nevertheless, Barr is still one of the most versatile linebackers in the NFL when healthy and he would be an intriguing addition to Gannon’s defense.
In Mike Zimmer’s defense, Barr was deployed as the SAM backer in their 4-3 scheme, similar to how Genard Avery was utilized this year in Philly. He’s always been stout against the run and getting after the passer, but Barr took a big step in his coverage abilities this past year, finishing the season with three interceptions, a career high.
Given Gannon’s connections to Zimmer, Barr could see the Eagles as a natural fit for his next home. He’ll be 30 next season, but he looks to have at least a few more years left in the tank.
Kyzir White, Los Angeles Chargers
If you’re weary about Vander Esch’s injury history or lack of production since his rookie season, Kyzir White would be a great long-term solution to the Eagles linebacker woes. He started every game for the Chargers this year, posting career highs in combined tackles (144), interceptions (two), sacks (one), and tackles for loss (seven).
White has posted a coverage grade over 60.0 in each of his four NFL seasons, which is a tough feat in today’s NFL. The only drawback is White’s size. Standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing just 218 pounds, he’s severely undersized for the position and won’t fit into every defensive scheme. His size would indicate White is just a third down linebacker, yet, LA used him on 84 percent of their defensive snaps this season.
Regardless of his size, White would still add a talented young piece to this Eagles defense. If Gannon is able to figure out the most effective way to deploy White, he could be a dangerous weapon for his defense.