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March 02, 2017

NFL Combine preview: Linebacker prospects who could interest the Eagles

Eagles NFL

The NFL Combine kicked off in Indianapolis this week, and we've already begun taking a look at some participants at each positional group. In case you missed our previous positional previews:

Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends
Offensive tackles | Guards | Centers | Defensive ends | Defensive tackles

Today, we'll look at linebackers.

Is linebacker a need?

In 2016, the Eagles got very good play from the two linebackers who typically never came off the field, Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham. Mychal Kendricks, on the other hand, only got on the field for 26.8 percent of the team's defensive snaps, despite staying healthy all season.

As PhillyVoice reported a month ago, Kendricks is likely to be traded this offseason. At a minimum, the Eagles have shopped him.

The Eagles were lucky to keep their top linebackers healthy in 2016. Just before the start of the season, they signed Stephen Tulloch to a one-year deal as an injury contingency plan, but they never needed him. They have to be careful (A) not to trust that their linebackers will stay healthy again in 2017, and (B) that Bradham won't face jail time and/or a suspension stemming from his two unfinished upcoming court cases.

The Eagles would be wise to add linebacker depth.

Here are five linebackers that we think make sense for the Eagles:

Reuben Foster, Alabama (6'1, 228)

Alabama has churned out their share of inside linebackers the last seven years:

 YearPlayer Team Round Overall 
 2016Reggie Ragland Bills 41 
 2014C.J. Mosley Ravens 17 
 2013Nico Johnson Chiefs 99 
 2012Mark Barron (S at Bama) Buccaneers 
 2010Rolando McClain Raiders 

Foster was the next man up, playing in the middle of Bama's defense. He's likely a WILL at the next level in a 4-3. If the Eagles had interest, they could leave Jordan Hicks right where he is at the MIKE spot, and move Bradham to a diminished role as the SAM, or just release him.

Foster is an awesome player, who is likely to be gone by the time the Eagles pick at 14/15. If he's still there when the Eagles are in the clock, there's a decent chance he'll be the "best available player," and too good to pass up. He's an intimidating thumper, but he also has speed, ability in coverage, and was a special teams standout while he waited his turn to be "the guy" in the middle of the Crimson Tide defense. He and Hicks would be an outstanding pair of linebackers.

Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt (6'4, 230)

Cunningham is a highly athletic LB who arrived at Vanderbilt looking more like a wide receiver. He put on weight, and has become the clear-cut best player on the team. 

In 2015, Cunningham filled up the stat sheet, leading the Commodores with 103 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles. In 2016, he had 125 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 2 forced fumbles.

Like Foster above, Cunningham is very good in coverage, and possesses the ability to run sideline to sideline and make plays, however, he lacks some of the pop that Foster possesses.

Again, Cunningham would fit best as a WILL linebacker in Jim Schwartz's scheme. If he's still there when the Eagles are picking in the second round, he would be great value.

Jarrad Davis, Florida (6'2, 238)

Davis is a linebacker who has good speed and plays with great intensity. He's a good blitzer, and can run sideline to sideline in the run game, like Foster and Cunningham above.

Davis' stats aren't eye-popping, and are perhaps a little misleading, as he often makes big plays that don't show up in the stat sheet. When former Alabama Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry was asked who the toughest player he ever faced was (and he saw his share at Bama), he named Davis.

There are some who believe Davis is a potential first round pick. I don't see that, however, in the second round Davis might make sense for the Eagles.

Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern (6'1, 235)

As a sophomore in 2015, Walker filled up the stat sheet, compiling 120 tackles, 20.5 of which were tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 4 pass breakups, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble, and 2 fumble recoveries, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

In 2016, he had 105 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 pass breakups, 1 INT, 4 forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.

The best thing Walker does is close on a play once he has read what the offense is doing. For example, think of the plays Jordan Hicks made against the Minnesota Vikings this season – one where he attacked a run to the outside for a six-yard loss, and one where he looked like he was shot out of a cannon to bat down a Sam Bradford pass after Bradford was flushed from the pocket. When you watch Walker's games, you see a lot of that. Once he reads a play, he becomes an aggressive attacker. I believe that will appeal to Schwartz.

Walker is not the athlete that some of the others on this list are, but the results are there.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee (6'0, 225)

Reeves-Maybin is undersized at 6'0, 225, which seems to be less of a concern to Schwartz than it was in the Chip Kelly regime. His skill set more closely resembles Mychal Kendricks, although his enthusiasm for the game mirrors Tulloch's.

In high school, Reeves-Maybin was a stud running back, and in his recruiting profile, his position was categorized as "athlete." Tennessee initially played him at safety, before moving him to linebacker.

In 2015, Reeves-Maybin led the Volunteers with 105 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and was second on the team with 6 sacks. He's a fun player to watch. He is a terrific blitzer, he does an outstanding job of recognizing and blowing up screens, and his play speed on the field is obvious.

In 2016, Reeves-Maybin suffered an assortment of injuries, including a serious shoulder injury that made him miss nearly the entirety of the season. As a result, he may be available later in the draft than he would otherwise. Obviously, he will be a player of interest during medical checks at the 2017 NFL Combine.

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