Leading up to the Eagles playing the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII on February 12, Sports Talk Philly and Eagledelphia will be taking a look at the underappreciated, unsung players on the Eagles roster that have made this NFC Championship and Super Bowl berth possible. Players who were often overlooked but have become key cogs in the machine despite the lack of recognition.
In this edition, we will focus on linebacker TJ Edwards.
TJ Edwards was an overlooked player even entering the college ranks. A player who was an elusive quarterback and a hard hitter at safety, Edwards was only a two-star player in the rankings. He had been set to attend Central Michigan before he landed an offer from the Wisconsin staff that reevaluated him and gave him an opportunity to play in the B1G.
The lowest rated player the Badgers signed, Edwards was moved to outside linebacker. It was there that he battled as an unheralded player in the Spring and won the starting job. He appeared in 13 games during his redshirt freshman season, playing like a seasoned player. During his first college season, he recorded 84 tackles and four defensed passes.
Edwards suffered an injury in the next offseason and was in a sling, but played in 13 games that season anyway. Over that and his final two seasons with Wisconsin, Edwards would appear in another 40 games, including a Bowl game each season.
In his senior season, he would be named a team captain. He would end that season with 112 tackles (11.5 for loss), three sacks, three interceptions, and two passes defensed.
His defensive coordinator changed in 2017 when his previous DC, Justin Wilcox, was hired to be the head coach of California. His new defensive coordinator, Jim Leonhard, was thoroughly impressed with the linebacker and told the media prior to the Badgers’ bowl game that year:
I think it’s a lot of those natural instincts and physicality and just understanding of what we try to do, being able to communicate that. He does it every single play for us. He brings a lot to the table — run game, pass game, leadership, physicality, the whole nine yards.Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin Defensive Coordinator (2017-2022)
I think it’s a lot of those natural instincts and physicality and just understanding of what we try to do, being able to communicate that. He does it every single play for us. He brings a lot to the table — run game, pass game, leadership, physicality, the whole nine yards.
Certainly, by the end of his college career, the Wisconsin football team and anyone involved with it knew that Edwards was a player who offers just about anything that an NFL team could be looking for in a linebacker.
2019 Philadelphia Eagles Campaign
Despite clear leadership on a ranked team and eye-popping productivity worthy of at least a day-two pick, Edwards found himself fighting from the bottom once again after his time at Wisconsin was up. Projected by most sites as a round 5-7 pick, Edwards did not receive an invite to the Senior Bowl and lacked many opportunities to improve his draft stock. Teams around the league saw him as a liability in coverage due to his lack of speed and recognition – even if his college production was top-of-the-line.
When Day Three of the draft came around, Edwards did not get to hear his name called. Despite his projections, no team was willing to take a chance using a pick on the linebacker. In that draft, the Eagles took Clayton Thorson in the fifth round and then were out of picks. Just one round later, the Eagles were on the phone with Edwards’ agent to let him know that Edwards had an offer if no team selected him.
Ultimately, Edwards decided the Eagles were the best opportunity for him (particularly given the team’s lack of linebacker depth at that time), and he signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent. He was a favorite to make the roster and did so, however Edwards was an afterthought on most gamedays. In a bit of a break for Edwards, Nigel Bradham suffered an injury and the Birds released Zach Brown, opening up a role for Edwards to see the field in his first season in the NFL.
In this relief play, Edwards recorded 30 tackles for the team and would head into the next season with an inside shot at keeping that roster spot.
2020-21 Philadelphia Eagles Campaigns
To no surprise, Edwards made the roster again in 2020 and, perhaps more surprising, Edwards figured into the equation as a starter. It was certainly not a banner year for the Eagles as a team and Edwards dealt with injuries, but 70 tackles, two sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles in 12 games warranted Edwards having a spot in the defense the next season.
Jim Schwartz commented on Edwards’ testing ability versus his on-the-field production, echoing what could have been said about him in college and in the draft.
There’s a difference between a guy that tests well and a guy who plays football well. T.J. is a guy that plays football well.Jim Schwartz, Eagles Defensive Coordinator (2016-2020)
There’s a difference between a guy that tests well and a guy who plays football well. T.J. is a guy that plays football well.
By the time 2021 had come around, however, there was a change in the coaching regime and Edwards found himself playing fewer than half the snaps for the new defensive coordinator, Jonathan Gannon. With Gannon having brought in his own linebacker in Eric Wilson via free agency, it was as if Edwards needed to once again prove himself in order to see the field as much as he should have.
By week eight, Wilson was no longer with the team and Edwards was back in the driver’s seat. By week 11, the Eagles had signed Edwards to a contract extension to keep him with the team in 2022, having proven himself once again.
He ended the season playing nearly every defensive snap for a playoff team. Having just proved himself to his fourth defensive coordinator since going to college, Edwards was finally in a position where he would enter the offseason as the presumed starter for the following season.
2022 Philadelphia Eagles Campaign
This season marked the first time that Edwards was the unquestioned starter from the start to the finish of an NFL season. Of course, even that was not without it’s difficulties. The Eagles got lucky in the draft and got a steal at the linebacker position in Georgia’s Nakobe Dean in the third round. This left who would actually start a bit up in the air at training camp.
The Eagles coaches challenged Edwards and he did not disappoint. Edwards took on the burden of being the play caller for the defense that was still assembling pieces like James Bradberry and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson late in camp. It left the Eagles with the clear choice to start Edwards and have him out there for nearly every defensive snap this season.
That would be a decision that would pay dividends for the Birds. Not only would Edwards be in on 159 tackles over the course of the regular season, but he’d help the defense navigate through numerous personnel changes due to injuries to Avonte Maddox and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, the additions of Linval Joseph and Ndauokong Suh in mid-season and the addition of Reed Blankenship, an undrafted rookie with no previous NFL experience, among other moving parts. Despite the defensive personnel constantly being different, the linebacker stood tall at the second level keeping things calm.
While Edwards did not get recognition among the more mainstream sources for awards this season, Edwards did find himself on the All-Pro First Team for Pro Football Focus. They cited his play this season saying that, “he finished with 51 defensive stops and seven pass breakups while allowing a 76.4 passer rating… into his coverage” (PFF.com).
In the playoffs this season, Edwards has recorded seven tackles and played 89 out of 98 defensive snaps for the Birds. Of course, both of those games became blowouts and not all of the starters were needed on the field, but the Eagles will certainly be looking to Edwards to cover the middle of the field and make the hits that will force the Chiefs players to second guess making that catch over the middle with Edwards patroling.