July 13, 2023
Over the next couple of weeks (basically whenever there isn't other news to cover), we'll take a look at every player on the Philadelphia Eagles' roster, and how they fit with the team heading into training camp. Today we'll look at the off-ball linebackers.
Previous training camp previews
Linebacker is very clearly the most concerning positional group on the Eagles' roster, both in terms of the starters and depth. First, the depth chart:
|LB||Nakobe Dean||Shaun Bradley||Davion Taylor|
|LB||Nicholas Morrow||Christian Elliss||Ben VanSumeren|
When the Eagles' selected Dean in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, it was widely hailed as a steal. Many (self included) thought that Dean had a chance to start as a rookie in the Eagles' defense. It didn't happen that way, as he had a quiet training camp, while T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White made plays regularly in practice.
Dean is challenged by his lack of ideal size, and he isn't an elite athlete by NFL standards. He'll have to rely on his instincts and intelligence at the NFL level. At some point, if his professional career follows in the same path as his college career, he'll be one of the smartest players on the field, but he didn't have that advantage last summer while trying to learn two positions (MIKE and WILL) simultaneously in a new defensive scheme.
Edwards and White earned starting roles, and mostly stayed healthy in 2022, keeping Dean sidelined. Dean got to play 15 snaps in the regular defense in a December game against the Titans after White got hurt, and he had a promising performance.
It was revealed during OTAs that Dean will wear the "green dot" helmet this season, which means that he will relay the play calls from Sean Desai to the rest of the defense. The responsibilities associated with wearing the "green dot" helmet can be a little overstated at times, but being the "green dot" player means that the Eagles view Dean as the top guy on the Eagles linebacker totem pole, so to speak, likely to be on the field for all three downs.
The Raiders had success converting Morrow from a safety into a linebacker after signing him as an undrafted free agent in 2017, and he has since had a successful NFL career. The Eagles have a history of attempting to convert safeties into linebackers, like Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nate Gerry, and (sort of) Davion Taylor. That track record isn't exactly awesome, obviously. They did find a competent safety-turned-linebacker in Kyzir White last offseason in free agency, and are seemingly replicating that approach in 2023.
In 2020, Morrow broke out, as he allowed just 4.5 yards per target, per pro-football-reference.com. He was also a threat as a blitzer, as he collected three sacks and eight pressures on the season.
In 2021, Morrow was a free agent, but he signed back with the Raiders on a fully guaranteed one-year deal worth $4.5 million. However, he suffered an ankle injury during training camp and missed the entire season. In 2022, he signed with the Bears and had a little bit of a down year in coverage, but led the team with 116 tackles.
Morrow is the favorite to start opposite Dean, but he'll have competition from Christian Elliss in training camp, and of course, there's always the possibility of the Eagles adding an outside linebacker to the roster as well.
Right now, Elliss is the No. 3 linebacker, and was the official PhillyVoice "MVP of Media-Attended OTA Practices," making an impressive leaping INT of Marcus Mariota in the first media-attended practice, and victimizing Jalen Hurts for a pick-six in the second practice. As we showed in his player review article a month ago, Elliss looked good in very limited action in the regular defense last season, and he is off to a fast start in 2023.
In the aftermath of their win over the Green Bay Packers in December, the Eagles' special teams were criticized after Packers kick returner Keisean Nixon had kick returns of 38, 52, and 53 yards. At the time, it was merely the latest in a long string of Eagles special teams gaffes during the 2022 season. The team promised changes, and one of them was that Elliss would get an opportunity to play.
In their matchup the next week against the Tennessee Titans, the Eagles called up Elliss from the practice squad as a gameday elevation, and he actually helped make a difference on the coverage units. Elliss would eventually get activated to the 53-man roster and appear in nine games, including the playoffs.
Elliss showed pretty good athleticism at his pro day. Here's how his testing measurables at Idaho's pro day in 2021 compared with Kyzir White's pro day in 2018:
|Measurable||Christian Elliss||Kyzir White|
|Height||6'1 3/4"||6'1 7/8"|
|Arm length||31 3/4"||31 5/8"|
|Hand size||9 1/2"||10 1/8"|
|Vertical jump||35 1/2"||35 1/2"|
|20 yard shuttle||4.26||4.26|
|Bench press||22 reps||21 reps|
Those are pretty similar numbers, so it's not as if Elliss is some unathletic slug who didn't get drafted because he couldn't move. Even if the Eagles add another linebacker between now and the start of the 2023 regular season, I would still project Elliss to make the team and continue to contribute on special teams, at a minimum, with a starting role not out of the question if he crushes it in training camp and Morrow falters.
Bradley was a core special teamer once again in 2022 like he was in 2020 and 2021, but interestingly he did not play a single snap in the regular defense. Like, not even in any of the Eagles' blowout wins. He played in 15 games and had seven tackles. His season ended when he was placed on injured reserve prior to the Eagles' Week 18 game against the Giants.
Bradley is now entering his fourth season with the team, and he'll probably have to prove that he is especially valuable on special teams to make the 53.
After a rough rookie season in 2020, Taylor started six games for the Eagles in the middle of the season in 2021 against the Buccaneers, Raiders, Lions, Chargers, Broncos, and Saints. He suffered a sprained knee against the Saints, went on injured reserve, and was done for the season. Taylor had his best game as a pro in Denver Week 10 in 2021, when he forced a pair of fumbles against the Broncos, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Darius Slay.
In 2022, Taylor was having a nice camp, but he had a couple of brutal performances in the preseason games and was left off of the 53-man roster. Taylor was drafted as a raw-but-athletic prospect in the third round, and he has simply not developed awareness-wise as a professional linebacker. He is in the final year of his rookie contract, and Taylor will need to make a big leap to make the team in 2023.
The Eagles signed VanSumeren as an undrafted rookie free agent this offseason. The consensus on VanSumeren is that he is a more of an athlete than he is a football player. His athleticism is certainly appealing, as he ran a 4.45 40 and vertical jumped 42.5" at 231 pounds.
Ben VanSumeren is a LB prospect in the 2023 draft class. He scored a 9.65 #RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 93 out of 2652 LB from 1987 to 2023. QTing just to get updated numbers #Eagleshttps://t.co/DdoHP02K40 https://t.co/vnmuqFhqEO pic.twitter.com/Qec3npME9u— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 30, 2023
A scouting report from Lance Zierlein:
VanSumeren’s production and game tape won’t draw draftable grades, but he possesses extremely rare athletic attributes for his position and that might create an opportunity with a team coveting elite traits. He’s not a thumper as a run defender and his football instincts leave much to be desired, but if he can prove himself as a special teams contributor in camp, he could force a team to give him a year on the practice squad for additional development.
VanSumeren had 81 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 pass breakups for Michigan State in 2022, his only season as a starter. He's probably a developmental guy destined for the practice squad.