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January 18, 2015

Eagles offseason positional previews: OLB

Can the Birds afford to keep Trent Cole?

Eagles NFL

Continuing on once again with our offseason team needs series, we'll look at the OLB spot, where the Eagles got unexpectedly great play in 2014, but face quite a bit of uncertainty heading into this offseason.  We identified OLB as the sixth-most glaring need on the team when we began this series. Here's what we said:

"The only sure thing at OLB heading into 2015 at OLB is Connor Barwin, who is coming off an outstanding 2014 season. The starting OLB opposite Barwin was Trent Cole, who will turn 33 during the 2015 season and will count for $11,625,000 against the cap. The Eagles can save $8,425,000 if they cut him. (Graphic via overthecap.com)

Cole contract

Cole has just 17.5 sacks the last three seasons and is an imperfect fit in the Eagles' 3-4 defense. He is never going to see that money. The Eagles could ask Cole to take a pay cut, and if Cole refuses, you may see him with another team back in his old 4-3 DE role.

Beyond Barwin and Cole, Brandon Graham is an interesting case. He is a legitimately good pass rusher, which is a valuable commodity in the NFL, but he has never played more than 524 snaps in one season. What kind of production could he put up as a full-time player? I'll bet some 4-3 teams would love to know. A good case study is Everson Griffen of the Vikings. Here's a comparison of what Griffen did in his three seasons leading up to free agency a year ago, and what Graham has done his last three seasons:

Everson Griffen

The Vikings re-signed Griffen last offseason to a 5 year, $42.5 million contract, with $19.8 million guaranteed. You can bet that Graham's agent is pointing that out to the Eagles and whoever else will listen. The Eagles want to re-sign Graham, but Graham would be crazy not to test the free agent waters to see what 4-3 teams might offer.

And then there's Marcus Smith. Is he an OLB? An ILB? Is he good?

While the Eagles' personnel isn't exactly as bad off at OLB as some other spots below it on this list, it's more about the importance of the position. Successful defenses have good edge rushers. The Eagles got good play from their OLBs in 2014, but they have to continue to load up."

A look at who might make sense for the Eagles at OLB for the Eagles in free agency and the draft:

Free agents:

Jason Worilds, OLB, Steelers (6'2, 262)

During the Eagles' 2014 preseason game against the Steelers, Adam Caplan of ESPN casually threw out that Jason Worilds would have signed with the Eagles if the Steelers hadn't used the transition tag on him:

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That doesn't just indicate interest from the Eagles. Rather, it appears that the Eagles and Worilds had mutual interest.

The Steelers paid Worilds $9,754,000 on the transition tag in 2014, and would be on the hook for 120% of his 2014 salary if they tagged him again. That might be too rich for their blood.

Worilds would be a good fit in Philly. The Steelers asked Worilds to drop into coverage quite a bit, and he would form a versatile OLB tandem with Connor Barwin, which would allow the Eagles to be creative in their defensive scheme.

Draft:

(Note: Several of these players were reviewed already in our Senior Bowl preview).

Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Edge rusher, Kentucky (6'3, 252)

Dupree has experience both as a 4-3 DE and as a standup edge rusher, which will make his projection to the NFL a little easier on 3-4 teams looking to move him to OLB. 

Watch his get-off at the snap, and his Connor Barwin-esque hustle in pursuit when the play doesn't go his way against Florida last season.

Dupree is also thought of as a very high character guy, which Chip Kelly seems to value more than most. #Culture.

Hau'oli Kikaha, Edge rusher, Washington (6'3, 260)

Kikaha makes all kinds of sense for the Eagles, for the following reasons:

- To begin, he's a highly productive edge rusher who can get to the QB. In 2013, Kikaha had 13 sacks (9 in the last 5 games), 3 forced fumbles, and 15.5 tackles for loss. In 2014, he had 19 sacks and 25 tackles for loss. Here's Washington's bowl game against BYU last year. Kikaha basically ruins BYU's offense, as he beat their LT like a rented mule all day. Watch his violent hands and quickness. He reminds me a little of Aldon Smith.

- He is considered a "high character" guy with outstanding work ethic. #Culture.

- Obviously, at 6'3, 250, Kikaha doesn't have the size to play 3-4 DE regularly in the pros, but I believe he can fill in there a pinch. Look at where Washington has him lined up in a goal line situation. He holds up at the point of attack far better than his size would suggest.

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But there is one huge negative -- Kikaha has torn the ACL in the same knee twice. This is an obvious player that Eagles would check out medically before they'd ever draft him, but if he stays healthy this season and his knee checks out in evaluations, Kikaha could be an attractive option for the Eagles at the right spot in the draft.

Nate Orchard, Edge rusher, Utah (6'4, 255)

Like Kikaha, Orchard has put up eye-popping pass rush numbers this season, amassing 18.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. He has good size to play 3-4 OLB at 6'4, 255, but mostly plays with his hand on the ground at Utah, which makes his projection to a 3-4 scheme in the pros more challenging.

Dante Fowler, Edge rusher, Florida (6'3, 261)

Fowler was a highly recruited prospect out of high school. He is quick and athletic, but also plays with a mean streak, looking to punish blockers and ball carriers. I love the play at the 11:05 mark below. LSU tries to double him with a TE and a RB, which opens up a lane for another blitzing linebacker. Fowler beats the double team anyway, and is there for the sack when his teammate misses on the easy sack:

Tony Washington, OLB/ILB, Oregon (6'3, 250)

Washington is a versatile linebacker who can make plays (13.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles the last two seasons), and also naturally drop into coverage. In the Eagles' defensive scheme, he could play the "Jack" role that Connor Barwin plays so well, but also potentially be an option at ILB in a pinch. In a lot of ways, he actually reminds me a little of (brace for it) Marcus Smith.

Also... Oregon.

Follow Jimmy on Twitter: @JimmyKempski

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