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May 25, 2018

Relax, the Eagles' defense won't implode because Mychal Kendricks is gone

Eagles NFL
052518MychalKendricks Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

Mychal Kendricks

On Tuesday this week, as you all know, the Philadelphia Eagles released linebacker Mychal Kendricks. To my surprise, many have expressed disgust at the move, and think of Kendricks as an irreplaceable player. To me, that is a bizarre viewpoint, which we'll lay out here.

Kendricks plays the 15th most important position on the defense

As the third linebacker in the Eagles' defense in 2016, Kendricks played just under 27 percent of the Eagles' snaps. 

Certainly, all 10 other starting spots in the Eagles' defense are more important, and then you have slot corner, defensive ends No. 3 and 4, plus (arguably) the third defensive tackle. Those are all more important positions than linebacker No. 3 in the Eagles' defense, in my view.

Keeping that in mind, Kendricks was set to count for $7.6 million this season, or 4.3 percent of the Eagles' total salary cap.

Kendricks is far from irreplaceable 

Is the team better with Mychal Kendricks, or without him? Answer the question! ANSWER IT!!!

They're marginally better, I suppose. The Eagles tried to trade Kendricks last offseason, and almost did. There's certainly an argument to be made that the Eagles were fortunate to have him after Jordan Hicks got hurt. But let's not overstate it.

At one time in his career, Kendricks looked like he was going to be a playmaking linebacker. That did not materialize. Over the last four seasons, Kendricks has zero interceptions. Over the last two seasons, he has zero forced fumbles. On a defense that lived off of takeaways a season ago (they had 31 of them during the regular season), Kendricks was responsible for none. The following is a cutup of all the Eagles' sacks, interceptions, and fumble recoveries from a year ago.


As you can see, Kendricks barely appears in the above video, despite playing 612 defensive snaps.

But what about tackles for loss? Didn't he have a bunch of those?

He had 3, which tied him with Najee Goode and Patrick Robinson, and was one better than Jaylen Watkins.

But what about the plays that don't show up in the stat sheet?

Ever since his release on Tuesday, I've heard claims (mainly on Twitter, some on the radio) that Kendricks make a lot of big plays that went unrecognized. Certainly, stats don't always tell the whole story. For example, Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are far better players than their stats would indicate. But that simply doesn't hold water in Kendricks' case.

When I asked for examples of these plays that don't show up in the stat sheet, the same three continued to resurface.

  1. A deflection of an Eli Manning pass led to an interception by Patrick Robinson.
  2. Kendricks stayed with his man on the Falcons' final play in the divisional round of the playoffs.
  3. Some weird breakdown of a play against the Carolina Panthers by NFL Network's Brian Baldinger.

Let's address them one at a time.

1) Eli tip: On the deflection that led to an interception against the Giants, refer to the 1:28 mark of the sack-INT-fumble video above. Eli Manning threw the ball right at Kendricks. The ball hit him in the hands, popped up in the air, and was picked by Robinson. Kudos to Kendricks for being in the right spot, but, come on.

2) Falcons game-sealer: Kendricks' involvement on the final play against the Falcons has somehow morphed from a well-deserved golf clap into "Mychal Kendricks saved the Super Bowl." Here's the play folks are referring to. If you'll note, the Eagles are in man coverage, and Kendricks' man is running back Tevin Coleman (26).


We did a detailed film breakdown of the above play during the week following that game that is worth a look. Jim Schwartz did an incredible job breaking down film of the Falcons and teaching tells to his players. From that piece: 

Safety Rodney McLeod (23) read the play all the way. Pre-snap, when Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo (80) motioned from the left side of the formation to the right, where the Falcons had dual wide receivers, you see can McLeod recognize the play immediately, at which point he communicated it with Malcolm Jenkins in the slot and Jalen Mills on the outside. McLeod then barked instructions to Nigel Bradham to rush the quarterback, knowing that his assignment, Toilolo, was likely just blocking on the play, and not a threat to head out into the pattern. Bradham would force the desperation throw from Ryan on the play.

Not noted in the breakdown was Kendricks' involvement. The Eagles were in man defense on the play, and Kendricks' man was running back Tevin Coleman (26), whose responsibility on the play was to cut block the weak side defensive end, Vinny Curry, which he does successfully, getting Curry on the ground momentarily.

When the Eagles bottled up Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the two primary options on the route, Matt Ryan looked back to the opposite side of the field, where Coleman was still on the ground and in no hurry to get up. Seeing that, Ryan quickly went back to his primary options and heaved a desperation throw to Jones.

Kendricks certainly deserves a golf clap for staying with his assignment on the play. Of course, had he just freelanced and did whatever the hell else he might have done on the play and Coleman somehow received a pass from Ryan that resulted in a touchdown, it would have been the most unforgivable play in Eagles history.

So, sure, give Kendricks a golf clap, but anything more is ridiculous hyperbole.

3) And finally, my favorite:

My head just exploded. The Panthers' tight end is extremely wide open because Kendricks blew the coverage and the only reason this didn't go for a touchdown was because Cam Newton made a horrendous throw that the tight end had to come back for. Good God.

If there are any other significant unrecognized big plays that we missed, please do point them out.

The Eagles still have decent depth at linebacker

The Eagles' depth at linebacker now looks like this: 

OLB Nigel Bradham Nate Gerry Asante Brown (R)
 MLB Jordan HicksJoe Walker LaRoy Reynolds 
 OLB Corey NelsonKamu Grugier-HillKyle Wilson (R) 


Corey Nelson will take over for Kendricks in that third linebacker role. While Kendricks' best attribute was blitzing the quarterback, Nelson's is in coverage. Jim Schwartz prioritizes the latter, and there's a strong argument to be made that he underutilized Kendricks' blitzing ability. Perhaps Kendricks' new team will put him in a role where he can flourish. Still, what Nelson brings to the table is a better fit in the Eagles' scheme.

Beyond the top three guys, the Eagles have players like Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill that they will continue to try to develop, and I would imagine that they will look to add another veteran linebacker after Paul Worrilow suffered an ACL tear.

The Eagles depth chart on June 1, 2017 looked like this:

OLB Nigel Bradham Najee GoodeNate Gerry (R)
 MLB Jordan HicksJoe Walker Don Cherry 
 OLB Mychal KendricksKamu Grugier-HillSteven Daniels 


As you can see, it's not really all that different.

Conclusion

By releasing Kendricks, the Eagles saved $4.4 million overall ($6 million savings this year, with $1.6 million in dead money going on the 2019 cap). To put that in perspective, Patrick Robinson, a far more important and effective player a year ago, signed a $5 million per year deal with the Saints and nobody batted an eye, but the savings of $4.4 million of Kendricks is viewed by some as peanuts.

When Kendricks became a more important player after Hicks' injury, he played well enough to keep the Eagles' defense from self-destructing, and for that his contributions to a Super Bowl winning team should appreciated. By the same token, I'll quickly note here that Corey Nelson played 545 snaps in 2016 on a Denver defense that led the NFL in yards allowed per play, and was fourth both in yards allowed per game and points allowed.

Ultimately, I figured the Eagles would find a team that would view Kendricks as a better fit in their scheme, and be able to get a late round draft pick in return for him. Instead, the entire rest of the league agreed with the Eagles that he was not worth what he was making, or else someone would have offered at least a conditional seventh round pick.


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