Eagles Offseason Preview: Linebackers

With free agency coming up, we'll be doubling up on this column this week in order to fit everything in by the time the NFL calendar flips to 2016.

Last Thursday we took a look at the state of the Eagles defensive line. Today, we'll be covering another group that could be in flux due to the impending scheme change, the linebacking corps. 

Who's Here

Active Roster: Kiko Alonso, Connor Barwin, Bryan Braman, Najee Goode, Mychal Kendricks, Steven Means, Marcus Smith

Injured Reserve: Jordan Hicks, Travis Long

Practice Squad: Brandon Hepburn, Deontae Skinner

Who Stays

Alonso struggled for most of 2015 and drew the ire of many fans. The former Defensive Rookie of the Year seemed to always be a step slow after suffering a knee injury, so the Eagles better hope that he can return to form after an offseason of conditioning. It will be interesting to see if Alonso can adjust to the 4-3, he's admitted to the media he's never played in the scheme, but he's still on his rookie contract, so he isn't going anywhere.

Hicks and Kendricks are penciled in as two starters in the equation right now. Kendricks struggled last year after suffering a hamstring injury and never seemed to look like the guy who felt snubbed for a Pro Bowl bid in 2014. After signing a big extension last offseason, he's here for the long-haul. 

Hicks was the Eagles best player when he was healthy, but a torn pectoral muscle ended his season prematurely. He should enter training camp as the team's middle linebacker and if all goes well with his recovery, he could be the leader of this defense for the next decade.

Barwin is an interesting case, considering how well he fits into the 3-4. For what it's worth, he recently called himself a defensive end in a promotional video, but he could very well fit into a role as the strong side linebacker. Personally, I would like to see him in a hybrid role like the one Bruce Irvin fit into in Seattle where Barwin could play linebacker in base defense then slide down to defensive end in nickel and dime situations.

Smith is in a situation like Barwin's, but doesn't have the same credentials. He played more of a 4-3 defensive end role in college and reverting back to that could be his best shot at contributing. 

Braman still has value as a core special teamer and could be a decent back up strong side linebacker if given the opportunity.

Goode is serviceable back up and can perform admirably when needed.  

Who Goes

DeMeco Ryans has already been handed his walking papers and I'm not sure if he will be able to catch on with another team. He was the anchor of the defense his entire time in Philadelphia and it is a shame his exit was so unceremonious. 

The rest of these guys are fringe NFL players who fit the mold for a 3-4. Means played defensive end in college and for most of his NFL career before coming to the Eagles, so he could transition back to that position. 

Long has suffered an ACL tear in back-to-back seasons and despite his good play, his health is too much of a question mark to make him dependable. Expect him, Hepburn and Skinner to contend for a roster spot in camp, but fall short to someone younger or someone who is a better fit.

Who's Available

Free Agency: With just $17 million left in cap space and 11 linebackers on the roster, don't expect the Eagles to sign any linebackers, or at least anyone you've ever heard of before. 

NFL Draft: Despite the Eagles not investing heavily in the linebacker position — more on that in a little bit — I can't see them drafting a linebacker in the early rounds. With much bigger holes to fill, the team could take a flier on someone in the late rounds.

One possible exception may be Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith. The 2015 All-American suffered a serious knee injury during the Fighting Irish's bowl game and is expected to miss all of 2016. He still is graded as the top linebacker in the class, but depending on how teams feel about his knee, his stock could fall. If he is somehow available in the second or third round and the Eagles are within striking distance, they could end up with a steal if they pull the trigger.

Did You Know?

In the last 10 drafts, the Eagles have picked just 14 linebackers. Of those 14, just one was a first-round pick, and nine were Day 3 selections. 

The lacking of resources the team has invested in linebackers isn't surprising, but it shows what an odd crossroads this group is at. They aren't the biggest hole on the team, but the unit is very close to a complete implosion. 

With Jim Schwartz running the wide-9, there will be more emphasis on the linebackers in the run game. If Alonso and Hicks are unable to return from injury and Kendricks can't find his footing, the Eagles could be looking for bodies to plug up the middle of their defense next year.

On paper, the linebackers look alright, but be aware of how close they are to being the worst unit on the roster.

Tucker Bagley is a columnist for Eagledelphia. Follow him on Twitter @tbagley515.

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