Inside LB mix creates questions about Kendricks' future – Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia
We already know how Chip Kelly feels about DeMeco Ryans.
He’s called Ryans the “Mufasa” of the Eagles‘ defense. He’s pledged his allegiance to the veteran middle linebacker even while Ryans is attempting his second comeback from a torn Achilles.
“We need him,” Kelly said shortly after the season. On Monday, the Eagles announced a one-year extension to Ryans’ contract.
We know how Kelly feels about Kiko Alonso.
He traded the franchise’s all-time leading rusher and three-time Pro Bowl running back, LeSean McCoy, to Buffalo straight up for the former Oregon inside linebacker.
“One hundred and 59 tackles in 16 games [in 2013],” Kelly said last week in Phoenix at the NFL owners meetings when asked what he liked about the linebacker he coached in college. “Four interceptions. Played every defensive snap. Just turn the tape on and you know what type of player you’re getting.”
What we don’t know is how Kelly truly feels about inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks and how (or if) the fourth-year pro fits into Kelly’s vision for the defense going forward.
During his hour-long breakfast chat with the media, Kelly said Kendricks “played really well” last season. He also mentioned the perils of the calf injury that sidelined Kendricks for four games and limited him in some others.
“The health aspect was a difficult thing,” Kelly said. “We were a different team without him on the field. But when he played, he played really well for us.”
Right now, Kendricks is the team’s lone starting-caliber inside linebacker who could play a game today. Alonso is coming back from a torn knee ligament that cost him all of his sophomore season in Buffalo. Ryans tore his Achilles against the Texans on Nov. 2.
Neither of the two injured linebackers is expected to participate in the spring camps, but if both are 100 percent by training camp and still on the roster, it’s reasonable to assume both will occupy the two inside linebacker spots.
Where does that leave Kendricks?
Kendricks could team with Alonso in the much-used nickel package that’s become almost a base defense the way the game is now played.
Ryans isn’t much of a three-down linebacker anymore, especially coming off his Achilles rupture, so a tandem of Kendricks and Alonso would probably be the team’s best counter against pass defenses.
Kendricks would be an even better trade chip. He’s entering the last year of his deal, there haven’t been any rumblings about a contract extension and his trade value probably won’t be any higher than it is right now. Couple that with Kelly’s desire to add picks in this year’s draft and his current rebuild of the team’s roster to fit his scheme.
The Eagles already have two solid backups in Najee Goode, who’s coming off a season-ending pectoral injury he suffered in the opener, and recent free-agent addition Brad Jones. They’ll also give another look at swing linebacker Travis Long, who would have made the team last year as the fifth inside-outside linebacker if he hadn’t torn up his knee in the preseason.
The Eagles don’t need to keep Kendricks for the top backup/nickel role unless they’re not sold that Ryans will be ready for the season or come back in the same form as pre-injury. By the time training camp rolls around, they’ll have obviously missed their opportunity to trade Kendricks for a pick that could help the upgrade the roster this season.
Kendricks played his best ball last year, but Kelly, who seized all personnel control this offseason, is remaking the entire roster. Plenty of guys who played well last year — McCoy, Trent Cole, Todd Herremans, Nick Foles — have been shown the door. Others, such as Evan Mathis, could follow.
Last week, chairman Jeffrey Lurie mentioned in Phoenix that the Eagles weren’t “organized and designed” in the manner that best fits Kelly’s preferences for a power spread offense and 3-4 defense. He mentioned that the old regime, presided over by coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman, built the roster around fast, finesse types.
Kelly prefers a different kind of athlete than his predecessor. Remember his mantra: “Big people beat up little people.” Speed and quickness are two of Kendricks’ strengths, but size — he’s listed at 6 feet but is closer to 5-11 — has limited him in coverage, especially against tight ends.
The Eagles converted cornerback Nolan Carroll into a linebacker last year for specific dime packages that enabled the defense to capitalize on Kendricks’ pass-rushing strength by matching Carroll against the tight end.
Kelly would be taking a leap of faith by dealing Kendricks and relying on Ryans to fill one of the starting spots, but we’ve seen so far that he’s not afraid to gamble on players coming back from injuries.
In fact, he seems to have more confidence than most head coaches that injured players can come back and make an impact on his roster. Jeremy Maclin proved him right last season.
Kelly was asked last week where Ryans fit into his plans.
“You have no idea,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen four weeks from now, five weeks from now, four months from now. They all may be hurt and maybe [it’s] Brad Jones and [Emmanuel] Acho [as the starters].”
We’ll have a better idea of his plans after the draft.
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