Oct 17, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks linebacker O

Eagles Free Agency: Splash or Save? Outside Linebackers

Oct 20, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Trent Cole (58) rushes the passer as Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Tyron Smith (77) during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. The Cowboys defeated the Eagles 17-3. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

In this latest look at the upcoming decisions awaiting the Eagles in free agency this offseason, the outside linebacker position is put under the microscope. Anyone who watched Philadelphia over the course of the season realized by year’s end that the team had a pass-rushing issue. Trent Cole, a career defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, put forth a spirited effort transitioning to the outside linebacker position, but the team’s deficiencies from arguably the most important position in the 3-4 hybrid scheme was an overlooked factor in the playoff loss to the Saints. Depending on who you ask, the outside linebacker position in such a defense is the most crucial player on that side of the ball and often garners a price tag that reinforces that sentiment.

The 2014 free agent class is not loaded with top-end talent from the position, mostly because teams recognize the importance of hanging on to skill from that spot on the field. That being said, there is enough viable options across the board to pose the Eagles with a dilemma where they can either make a splash on a player, or choose to take a more economical approach.

While there were plenty of holes to poke in the Eagles defense last season from an analytical standpoint, one of the promising aspects of the unit’s performance is the fact that they were able to put forth a winning product without a traditional talent from the position. Not to take anything away from the players filling in on the outside for the Eagles, but there were several occasions were it was clear as day that they needed an upgrade. Should the Eagles place high priority on doing so, they will be able to tap into either free agency or the draft.

2013 POSITION REVIEW

Despite there being much to be desired from the outside linebacker spot in 2013, those who filled the role for the Eagles outperformed expectations for the most part. Heading into the season, the team had a pair of players in Trent Cole and Brandon Graham who were drafted specifically to rush from the defensive end spot. Rather than trading or cutting ties with either players, the Eagles coaching staff took on the challenge of teaching both Cole and Graham some of the nuances of a new role on the field.

After a particularly slow start, Cole turned things on toward the end of the season turning in a team-high 8.0 sacks. The veteran pass-rusher also forced a few fumbles and demonstrated a restored ability to play against the run, something that had been absent in Cole’s game the past couple of seasons. In addition to providing intensity and energy on the field, Cole remains a fixture in the Eagles locker room and one has to imagine the organization values his leadership.

Connor Barwin more than defended the franchise’s decision to give him a six-year/$36 million contract. Serving as the most experienced player on the team in terms of playing in the 3-4, Barwin carried his knowledge from Houston to Philadelphia and immediately became one of the team’s most important players. The nature of Barwin’s role in the defense does not require him to rush the passer quite as much, given his ability to cover receivers in space. That said, he still tallied 5.0 sacks on the year, forced some key fumbles, and became a force in terms of knocking down passes. Barwin had to have at least met upper management’s expectations, and probably exceeded them over the course of his first season with the team.

Nov 17, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham (55) during the fourth quarter against the Washington Redskins at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles defeated the Redskins 24-16. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The only other player of note as far as the 2013 season went was Brandon Graham. Much like Trent Cole, Graham was brought along as a first round draft pick to play as a 4-3 defensive end. Rather than rid themselves of him last offseason, the Eagles decided on keeping a respectable talent in the fold and see what they could do with him.

While when he did make plays, he looked impressive doing so Graham did very little to secure himself as part of the organization’s long-term plans. Graham had just three sacks on the season and saw the field very little and was relegated to a pass-rush specialist. Considering the team’s pass rush was a major reason for their eventual demise, they could not have been ecstatic with Graham’s output.

Along with Brandon Boykin and Cedric Thornton, Graham was named to MMQB.Si.Com’s All-Emerge defensive team representing the Eagles. The Michigan product has flashed his first round talent sporadically throughout his career, but one cannot doubt his tenacity and intensity on the field. He has been jerked around as far as being thrust into different roles in vastly different schemes. It is tough to knock him for a lack of production, but it is hard to imagine Graham is the type of player who would have been in the current regime’s best interest. He is 6’1″ and 263 pounds and has yet to excel at a position at the NFL level. Trades in the NFL are different from the other leagues, but it would not be shocking if Graham was playing for a different team next year.

NOTABLE ‘SPLASH’ OPTIONS: Brian Orakpo (WAS), Jason Worilds (PIT)

NOTABLE ‘SAVE’ OPTIONS: Shaun Phillips (DEN), Mike Neal (GB), O’Brien Schofield (SEA), Rob Jackson (WAS)

Clearly distinguishing between the contract details between the ‘splash’ or ‘save’ options probably won’t have quite as much differentiation as some of the other positions on the field. This is mostly due to the fact that the outside pass-rushing linebacker in the 3-4 defense is the big money position on the defensive side of the ball and teams pining to up their sack totals will pay big money to try to do so. No matter how you look at the Eagles 2013 season, they had just 37 sacks. Nineteen other teams in the NFL had more on the season and it is an area that must be addressed.

There are a few developments that I expect will take place over the course of the Eagles offseason. One of these is the team prioritizing substantial resources toward both this position and the cornerback position. What is yet to be determined is to whether they will do so through free agency or the draft. While it is quite possible the team will select a wide receiver in the first round, there are also desirable options at both positions in the draft. Pair this with relative depth at both roles in free agency and the Eagles should be able to upgrade quite a bit at two important spots on the field.

Ultimately, the outside linebacker position will probably be an area the team allocates a chunk of their $20 million plus of cap room towards. The question is whether they want it to be the biggest chunk or maybe the second or third biggest.

Any of the players listed above will probably garner a favorable sum compared to most free agents. It is a money position and with teams shifting toward the 3-4 defense more and more, teams are constantly combing to find the option that suits them.

Last offseason, Baltimore’s Paul Kruger was the big winner from the position, inking a five-year/$40 million deal with the Cleveland Browns. Kruger rocketed up the free agent wish list due to his dominant run in the Ravens postseason, otherwise he had done very little of note  to warrant such a price tag. Fortunately for him, the nature of the position requires teams lacking a pass rush to overpay.

Dec 22, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (98) prepares to run onto the field prior to the Redskins

 

Former Washington first round pick Brian Orakpo and Pittsburgh Steelers potential cast-off Jason Worilds Despite both options presenting a notable uptick in the talent department, there are differing pros and cons with both players. Orakpo burst out of the gate in Washington, recording 11 sacks his rookie year and establishing himself as one of the promising pass rushers in the league after just one season. He totaled 17.5 over the next two seasons as he slid into the Redskins’ top pass-rushing role. Were Orakpo to have continued a similar trajectory to his first three seasons, Washington probably would have locked him up to a long-term extension. Instead, injuries have made the Redskins front office seriously consider letting Orakpo walk. The team could place the franchise tag on Orakpo. Even with the heavy cap number that comes with doing so with the linebacker position, Washington has newly acquired flexibility with the expiration of the penalty that has handicapped them the past two seasons. Orakpo has had an up-and-down tenure with the Redskins, but he still recorded double-digit sacks last season and one cannot let that type of production walk without putting up a fight.

Worilds is in a similar situation in the sense that he is a young linebacker that, despite making a strong case to remain with the team, could end up on the free agent market. Contrarily to Orakpo’s situation, Worilds is a bit more as a result of the cap-strapped situation of his team. The Steelers are over $10 million over the cap as it is and already must make difficult decisions regarding the future of their team. Arguably the most difficult decision they will have to make is the future of long-term pass-rushing ace Lamarr Woodley. The soon-to-be 30-year-old carries with him a large cap number, and some speculate as to whether the Steelers might provide themselves with long-term relief by cutting Woodley this offseason. If they decided against it, considering the amount of money they would have to eat by removing Woodley’s contract from the books, Worilds would undoubtedly become a free agent.

Nov 10, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds (93) rushes the passer with Buffalo Bills tackle Erik Pears (79) blocking during the third quarter of a game at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won the game 23-10. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike Orakpo, Worilds has trended upwards since entering the league. The 2nd round pick out of Virginia Tech has seen his sack total increase each of his four seasons as a pro. Even with the team tabbing Jarvis Jones in the first round last offseason, Worilds held onto the starting job and recorded a career-high eight sacks last season.

Both of these players are fine potential additions. They are young, they are each coming off strong seasons and, if both become free agents, will carry a considerable chip on their shoulder after having to uproot from their previous teams. That said, neither is a slam-dunk that undoubtedly deserves the type of contracts that are usually reserved for the best players at the position. That’s not to say they won’t get it, much like Paul Kruger did. Whether or not they actually deserve it is an entirely different story.

Both players are a bit on the short side. Orakpo is 6’3″, but does not have long arms or considerable length. Worilds is 6’2″, but possesses the lengthiness in his limbs that allow him to play bigger than his measurements. Orakpo has always felt like an underperformer. He never took the next step after such a strong rookie season and has often been in a position to do so. Should Worilds receive the big money contract that the top one or two players at this position do, he would immediately have more pressure thrust upon him than at any other point in his career. He would be going from a player outperforming a first round pick and a veteran for a disappointing Steelers team, to someone being looked upon to solidify a team’s pass-rushing duties full-time. One cannot measure this in terms of dollars and cents, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind.

The more ‘economical’ options in this year’s class are intriguing for different reasons. If the Eagles had plans on selecting a rush linebacker early in the draft and wanted to bring in a veteran who could produce and help bring around a younger player, Shaun Phillips (an area native) would be a fine short-term option. Rob Jackson is a player that could probably be had for a considerable discount, given the fact that he carries with him the baggage of a potential drug-related suspension in the future with a violation. Jackson has performed well at times in Washington and made some major plays when the Redskins won the division in 2012. He could be a under-the-radar pick-up that could pay dividends, despite some risk. Neal and Schofield are players that are more suited to what the Eagles brass have talked about when it comes to their defensive players. Schofield is a versatile option that can play both linebacker and defensive end in a 3-4 defense. The Seahawks might bring a valuable player like Schofield back into the fold, but a slightly above market offer could pry him away from the champs. Mike Neal is a name to look out for if the Eagles want to bring in a high-ceiling player that could turn out to be the best player in the class. The converted defensive end filled in at linebacker for the injury-riddled Packers last season and performed quite well. He collected six sacks in his first season at the position and possesses the same versatility mentioned above.

VERDICT: SAVE (sort of)

This decision is more an indictment on the players at the top of the free agent class than how I feel about allocating resources toward the position. I suppose I would not be devastated if the team brought in Worilds, as I do not expect his contract to exceed Kruger’s deal from last season. Maybe its the fact that Orakpo plays in the NFC East, a division he has just seven career sacks despite 23 games against, but he just doesn’t seem to be the type of player I want to make the crown jewel of my free agent class.

The Eagles don’t necessarily have to construct their defense around one pass-rusher, the way the Cowboys did for a while with DeMarcus Ware. The Seahawks, among other teams, have proven that multiple player with pass-rush ability is sufficient in generating enough pressure to affect opposing quarterbacks. They do need to upgrade the talent at the position a substantial amount, whether it is with pass-rushing specialists or all-around players.

The Eagles may bring in multiple players at this position, given the fact that special teams units will need considerable replacements. I am choosing for the Eagles to take the ‘save’ route for this position in the sense that I do not want them to make it the position they spend the most of their salary cap flexibility on. Were the options different, I might reconsider my position. However, ever since hearing the way the team talked about Dion Jordan last offseason, it really seems like they prefer to bring in an elite specimen at that position if they want to direct such resources toward it. Neither Orakpo nor Worilds is in that realm and some of the other options might even cater themselves towards the Eagles team philosophies more than the other two.

The Eagles are in a fortunate position this offseason where, with a bit of creativity, they can bring in an elite prospect at various positions of need. In the upcoming draft, one could argue that there will be franchise options at: OLB, CB, S, and WR all outside of the top-ten picks. Obviously they will be unable to fill each position of need, even with the cap flexibility and draft picks. Given the fact that they seem relatively close to contention, this offseason will be one where they decide what area of their defense they want to supplement with an elite talent. If the Eagles wanted to do this at the outside linebacker position, one would have to imagine jumping up in the draft and selecting one of the top talents in the class of 2014 would be a preferred route. Depending on how things shake out at the combine and pre-draft process, this year’s class boasts multiple prospects that appear to have the framework of a franchise player at the outside linebacker position. While both have some areas in need of refinement, Buffalo’s Khalil Mack and UCLA’s Anthony Barr both fit the mold of what the Eagles appear to be looking for based off their interest in Dion Jordan. Judging off early projections, the team would have to trade up in the draft to acquire either player. Given the importance of the position, I would have no issue with them doing so if that’s how they wanted to gear the strength of their defense toward.

If the Eagles could have done this through free agency this offseason, I would say that would be a better option. It’s just very difficult to throw top-market money at players like Worilds or Orakpo knowing neither player is exactly what the team wants. I would rather the team do their best to find ways to acquire the ‘perfect fit’ players at a few positions across the depth chart and supplement with solid free agents and draft picks rather than making successions trying to address an area of need. The Eagles are in a position where they will probably be able to acquire an elite talent for this position, and doing so would be an approach one would have to be happy with. That said, that is not a possibility with this year’s free agent class and a giant contract won’t change that. Maybe the Eagles will choose to prioritize the secondary when it comes to tabbing elite players, maybe they’ll try to trade up in the draft to select one of the aforementioned players, only time will tell. One just has to realize this is not the offseason to pay ‘splash’ money for players whose ceiling is not where the organization wants in their outside linebacker. Hopefully the front office realizes this and opts for a more economical route, or as economical as a team can be with the position.

Tags: Brian Orakpo Football Jason Worilds Mike Neal NFL O'Brien Schofield Philadelphia Eagles Rob Jackson Shaun Phillips

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