The Eagles have never valued the linebacker position. It’s a weird systemic philosophy.
That being said, the team is in dire need of a few playmakers in the middle of their defense. They tried to integrate former Redskins linebacker Zach Brown last year as a free agent but he couldn’t keep his mouth shut — or that’s how it was spun.
Meanwhile, the Eagles parted ways with starter Nigel Bradham and appear content to move on from starter Kamu Grugier-Hill after he lied to the coaching staff. That leaves Nathan Gerry, T.J. Edwards, Duke Riley — and maybe Alex Singleton.
Philadelphia is in a tough spot with so many glaring holes to fill on their roster, yet linebacker should be a concern for them. Luckily, there are starting-caliber players out there on the street. In fact, two pretty good ones just became available this week in free agency. Let’s take a quick look.
Christian Kirksey, Browns
There are injury concerns. The 27-year-old has only started nine games since 2018 while dealing with pectoral and hamstring injuries, including season-ending surgery in 2019. Kirksey would be a health risk. Looking at the Eagles’ roster, he might be worth it. The Browns cut him because he refused to take a pay cut, per Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and he already has suitors lining up.
Kirksey was due $7.75 in 2020 and $8.25 million in 2021 in base salary, figures that should come down in free agency. He would provide a strong voice and veteran leadership to an Eagles’ linebacking corps devoid of it. Kirksey has racked up 484 total tackles and 30 tackles for loss in six seasons. He’s also a willing and underrated pass-rusher with 11.5 sacks.
Tahir Whitehead, Raiders
Another guy who fell victim to the chopping block as the Raiders try to free up money to make a splash in free agency. Whitehead, an eight-year veteran, started all 32 games for the Raiders over the past two seasons and accumulated 234 total tackles and 38 tackles for loss during that span. He is considered one of the better run-stuffing linebackers in the league.
Unfortunately, Whitehead struggles mightily in pass coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, he allowed a 150.5 passer rating when targeted in 2019, the highest figure of any off-ball linebacker with at least 30 targets. The Raiders saved $6.25 million by cutting the 29-year-old.
Cory Littleton, Rams
Littleton has been one of the best inside linebackers in football over the past two years and earned second-team All-Pro in 2018. The Rams don’t want him to leave. The 26-year-old led them in tackles with 134 last year, including 259 tackles and 15 tackles for loss since 2018. But Los Angeles is strapped for cash after doling out big money to Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley — and need to lock up Jalen Ramsey to an extension. Littleton is the odd man out.
Littleton feels (and rightfully so) that he has outperformed his contract and wants to be compensated. He earned a measly $3.1 million in 2019 and could command as much as $12 million per year on the open market. The Eagles probably won’t shell out that kind of money for a linebacker but they should think about it. Littleton is the complete package, in stuffing the run and dropping back in coverage, and graded out at 78.9 overall on Pro Football Focus.
Blake Martinez, Packers
What is the market rate for Martinez? The 26-year-old led the entire NFL in tackles in 2017 with 144 and has recorded a whopping 512 total tackles in four seasons in the league, including three straight seasons of 144 or more. Martinez is a certified bully versus the run and tied for 15th in the valuable “run-stop percentage” category, via Pro Football Focus.
But the jury is still out on Martinez’s coverage skills. For starters, he played in a defensive system that didn’t ask their linebackers to drop back too much. They wanted speed at the point of attack, something Martinez has in bulk. He has only one interception and five passes defensed over the last two seasons. The Eagles need to decide how much they value a player who could be a one-dimensional linebacker. Is he worth $10 million per year?
Kyle Van Noy, Patriots
Van Noy was the second-leading sack artist on the Patriots with 6.5 on the year. In fact, the defensive end-linebacker hybrid had a breakout 2019 season and finished with 6.5 sacks, 56 combined tackles and three forced fumbles. According to Pro Football Focus, Van Noy was used almost exclusively as a pass-rusher, and he picked up 60 pressures (eight sacks, nine QB hits, 43 hurries) on 464 rushes. He will turn 29 years old on March 26.
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