Philadelphia Eagles: T.J. Edwards’ path from UDFA to training camp star

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

When the Philadelphia Eagles signed T.J. Edwards as a UDFA coming out of Wisconsin, few expected him to ever garner headlines like this.

Granted, fans were generally excited to see Edwards end up in South Philly, as he was dubbed a fifth-round-caliber player by Lance Zierlein at, but how many times did the Birds bring in a “promising” linebacker only for them to crash and burn? Heck, how many times did fans read up on some player like L.J. Fort, Zach Brown, or Jatavis Brown and go to bat for their efforts, only for them to get released midway through the season or retire before it could even begin?

To call Philly fans gun-shy about the linebacking position would actually be an understatement.

And yet, despite a heavy investment in the position, including the addition of Nakobe Dean, who was arguably the best linebacker in the 2022 draft class and was once considered a consensus top-20 pick, T.J. Edwards not only remains on the Philadelphia Eagles but looks like a favorite to actually keep his starting spot in the middle of Jonathan Gannon’s defense moving forward. Here’s how he got there.

T.J. Edwards has made himself essential to the Philadelphia Eagles.

As a rookie, T.J. Edwards didn’t play much. Mind you, Edwards was considered a very good linebacker at Wisconsin and was widely heralded as the leader of the Badgers’ defense by 2016, his second year with the team, but he was knocked for his lack of elite athletic traits coming out of college, with his 4.87 40 time recorded at his Pro Day particularly worrisome form teams who need their ‘backers to cover some ground after the snap, and ultimately fell into undrafted free agency as a result.

And yet, Edwards embraced the challenge of finding a role with the Philadelphia Eagles and initially did so on special teams, where he became a fixture of then-coordinator Dave Fipp’s unit.

Over 16 games of action, Edwards played 334 special teams snaps, good for 74 percent of the Birds’ overall output and the second-highest mark on the team behind Nathan Gerry. While Edwards did get on the field at his given position too, logging defensive snaps in 12 games, including four starts, he only played 112 defensive snaps for the Eagles in 2019, good for 11 percent fo their total snaps, and was largely an after thought in Jim Schwartz’s defense.

From there, Edwards entered the 2020 season in a similar situation; though his spot on the roster was much more secure than the season prior, he still was expected to fill a subpackage role behind Nathan Gerry, the linebacker folks believed might just be the Birds’ middle linebacker of the future. That, obviously, didn’t happen; Gerry crashed, burned, and is now fighting to just make the Washington Commanders’ roster – read more about that here – but one Big 10 product’s loss is another’s gain, and it was Edwards, and Alex Singleton, who filed in as the team’s new linebacking tandem. After returning from IR at the end of Week 7, Edwards played at least 70 percent of the Eagles’ defense in six of the eight games he appeared in and earned rave reviews for his calming presence, especially on base downs.

Despite swapping out defensive coordinators from 2020 to 2021, which can be the death knell of a marginal player’s career who isn’t signed to a massive contract, Edwards’ role on defense actually expanded, going from 490 defensive snaps in 2020 – albeit in just 12 games – to 685 in 2021, with a career-high 14 starts versus 16 appearances. After a slow-ish start to the year, where Gannon was still feeling out his personnel, Edwards became a 90-plus percentage player over the final eight games of the regular season as he fully embraced a leadership role in the middle of the defense. Edwards showed out well against the run, put his players in the proper position before the snap, and even showed out on passing downs, where his advanced knowledge of the game made him an effective zone defender.

While some theorized that the addition of Dean could finally be the thing that kicks Edwards out of the starting lineup once and for all, so far, that hasn’t been the case; all reports indicate that Edwards has been among the Eagles’ best players regardless of position and he’s now a favorite to continue to start at middle linebacker for the foreseeable future.

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With his contract set to expire at the end of the 2022 NFL season, T.J. Edwards finds himself in a very good position heading into his fourth season with the Philadelphia Eagles. If he shows up and shows out, he will all but certainly sign a new, long-term deal with some team, the Eagles or otherwise, that will set him up for years to come. And if he just plays up to his 2021 level, he’ll likely still come away from next spring with a new, slightly lower-priced deal, as Edwards is a pro’s pro who can play some role in any scheme, put in the work for any team, and continue to make plays, even if it’s just on special teams, well into the future. Not too shabby for a UDFA some considered too slow for the NFL.