The draft is done, the free agents have been signed, the coaches have met their players. Now there’s not much to do but wait for training camp. While we wait, it seemed like it might be fun to evaluate and rank the NFC East position-by-position.
Last off-season, Hogs Haven published articles that focused on ranking position groups in an effort to identify what the division would look like in 2019. This year, we’re going to do it again.
Click here to see all the Ranking the NFC East articles
NFC East Positional overview
There was a time when, if you said, “New York Giants”, you thought, “Linebackers”. At the top of the list are three greats whose careers overlapped: Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson and Carl Banks.
Today’s names to know, according to Big Blue View, are Blake Martinez and last year’s 5th round draft pick, Ryan Connelly. The Giants went heavy (sorta) at this position in this year’s draft, taking two off-the-ball linebackers in the seventh round and, I guess, hoping at least one of them contributes. The rookies are Tae Crowder, and TJ Brunson, both of whom BBV lists behind Josiah Tauaefa and David Mayo on their unofficial depth chart.
In Dallas, meanwhile, the Cowboys boast what could be the best crew of linebackers in the league, with Jaylon Smith & Leighton Vander Esch leading the way and Sean Lee coming back at age 33 for another run on the field. This crew doesn’t sound as scary as it did in 2018, but that’s still pretty impressive, and probably the strongest unit on a mediocre defense.
The Eagles spent some draft capital, taking Davion Taylor in the 3rd and Shaun Bradley in the 6th in an effort to beef up a linebacking group that is headlined by Nathan Gerry, TJ Edwards and Riley Duke. Here’s what Bleeding Green Nation had to say about this non-illustrious group:
The Eagles are looking pretty thin at linebacker. Not only when it comes to starting talent but depth as well. It’s arguably their weakest position. This reality isn’t entirely by accident. The Eagles clearly just don’t value linebackers as highly as some other teams do.
The Redskins represent a bit of a cipher. There are questions all over the place about the linebacker group, driven in part by the switch from a base 3-4 to a base 4-3 defense, and partly by the lack of injury updates this off-season. On Hogs Haven, fans argue passionately in the comments section about which players are suited for the strong side, which for the weak side, and who the starters are likely to be. A few months after the discussions began, there seems to be no solid consensus aside from the likelihood that John Bostic will return as the starting MIKE linebacker, and even that is questioned by some knowledgeable commentators.
Among the biggest questions is that of Reuben Foster’s health — one that should be answered in some fashion early next month as training camp begins. If he is healthy, he should play a huge role in the team’s defensive schemes this season.
Opinions vary on where players like Shaun Dion Hamilton, Thomas Davis, Cole Holcomb, and Josh Harvey-Clemons fit in the depth chart.
Nate Orchard may be a long-shot to make the team, but he was identified as an OLB last season. He seems to be part of the off-the-ball linebacker group now. Ryan Anderson, who also played OLB last season seems to divide opinions — should he line up at DE and rush the passer or should he be on the second-level of the 4-3 alignment? Some have suggested that he can simply do both, providing flexibility to the defensive alignments and schemes, while others have recommended that Anderson be traded for draft picks.
An x-factor in this already opaque situation in DC is that both the Defensive Coordinator, Jack Del Rio, and the Head Coach, Ron Rivera, were talented linebackers in their playing days. There is ample reason to believe that they will have very clear ideas about how to deploy the linebackers on the roster to get the best out of the group, meaning that the ‘Skins linebackers may perform at a high level in 2020.
It’s hard to look at either the Giants or Eagles and feel intimidated by their linebackers; it’s hard to look at the Cowboys and not respect the group. The enigma right now is the Redskins — this group could be something special, or it could ultimately disappoint. Assuming the season goes ahead as planned, we should know a lot more about them by the end of September.
What do scouts look for in NFL linebacker prospects?
Last year, the Giants fan site, Big Blue View, published a very good series on the topic, “What do scouts look for?”
I’d like to quote heavily from that series here. What follows is the BBV discussion of what scouts look for in running back prospects.
Scheme matters here, but less than ever. There used to be a major distinction between 3-4 inside linebackers and 4-3 second-level players. In fact, there was a big difference between outside and middle linebackers in a 4-3 and most 3-4 teams wanted two different styles of players on the inside. Now, defenses are seldom in their “Base” alignment. Instead, there is far more nickel and dime defense being played, often with four defensive linemen and one or two linebackers on the field-or some variation of this grouping. Linebackers are more space players now than ever.
Because of this, size, strength, and power aren’t as important as athleticism and the ability to play in the open. Changing directions is extremely important, as rarely does a tackler pursue entirely in a straight line. Tackling is something linebackers must be quite good at and the rules in the NFL make it tougher now than ever to get offensive players on the ground. Great form tacklers are few and far between, but hopefully, more players come into the league going forward with this proper skill. Chopping your feet, breaking down in space and driving through a ball carrier is difficult with the speed of the NFL and there are many different styles of tackling needed depending on angles and whatnot. The ability to communicate is also important, as one of the linebackers almost always has the communication device to relay the play calls. But, only one player has this responsibility, so if a defense only has one linebacker that is strong in this department, they are generally in fine shape still. But here are the three most important aspects of evaluating linebackers in today’s NFL.
Speed can’t be taught, and it can make up for a lot of errors. There is an old football saying that if a defense doesn’t have speed on the second level, specifically at middle linebacker, it is a slow defense overall. There is a lot of truth to that, as most defensive play calls best set up the linebackers to get to the ball carriers. Speed on the second level is something every team covets. Offensive skill position players can all run. They all have burst, acceleration and long speed. Heck, the running quarterbacks entering the league are often faster than many linebackers. The defense needs to keep up.
2. Coverage ability
Stopping the run is great and it still has value without question. But taking on a fullback or guard in the running game and then dragging down a running back isn’t as important as playing the pass. Generally, you think of linebackers zone dropping and reading the quarterback and route combinations. That is very important without question and we have seen masters of this like Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner as very dangerous and effective middle of the field zone defenders. We have even seen all-time greats like Brian Urlacher handle the deep middle of a zone defense in the Tampa 2 scheme. But now more than ever, if a linebacker can play man coverage, usually against a tight end or receiving back, it makes an offense’s life much more difficult. Obviously, no great coverage linebacker is going to win snap after snap against guys like George Kittle or Alvin Kamara, but if they can travel with such great receivers all over the formation and hold their own, that goes a long way for what the rest of the defense can accomplish. Being a liability in coverage puts a huge target on the chest of that deficient linebacker. How many times have we seen Tom Brady pick on a second-level pass defender without relent?
Speed and athletic ability aren’t worth much if a linebacker doesn’t know where to go, is taking false steps or is late with his reads. When athleticism meets recognition, that is when you truly get a great second-level player. The word “Instincts” is often thrown around when describing a linebacker’s ability to read and diagnose a play. But that indicates that this is an inherent skill, like a great white shark hunting a seal. The truly great recognition linebackers work at it. This is very much a learned skill gained through experience and tape study. With all the play-action, run action, misdirection and pre-snap motion in today’s NFL, a linebacker’s recognition is more important and being challenged more than ever. In turn, these players generally also “Quarterback” the defense, so if they are not adept with their pre-snap reads it can have a negative trickle-down effect to the entire defense. But, in turn, you hear stories of guys like Kuechly and Ray Lewis calling out the play the offense is going to run before the ball is snapped. Think that might be something that is advantageous to the rest of the defense?
The film room - Andrew’s analysis
In this section, we’ll offer a look at a few of the top players in the division, with an analysis of their styles, skills and limitations written by Andrew York, who has volunteered to co-author this series with me.
Andrew is a self-taught film analyst with a pretty impressive resume. He has a PhD in Experimental Particle Physics and has spent several years doing research with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, and now does R&D work as a US government contractor. He will put that analytical brain to work this off-season helping to analyze some of the top players in the NFC East.
He will break down film from 3 NFC East linebackers:
- Leighton Vander Esch
- Nathan Gerry
- Jon Bostic
Click here to see Andrew’s 2019 film breakdowns of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch
Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
Leighton Vander Esch was a walk-on candidate at Boise State. He played as a backup his redshirt freshman (2nd college) year and started the following season, but was limited to 6 games due to a neck injury. He finally exploded in his junior season with 141 tackles (8.5 tackles for a loss), 4 sacks, 4 passes broken up, 4 forced fumbles, and 3 interceptions on the year. He decided to forego his senior (5th) year and declare for the draft after such a strong year. He blew up the Combine with impressive testing all around, garnering a 143.6 SPARQ score (97.3 percentile for LBs). He was taken 19th overall in the 2018 draft by the Dallas Cowboys.
Vander Esch had a stellar rookie year in 2018, garnering 140 combined tackles (102 solo tackles), 2 TFLs, and 2 interceptions, despite only starting 11 games (serving as a backup his first few games). He also earned Pro Bowl and 2nd Team All Pro honors. His second season wasn’t quite so productive, with half as many tackles and no interceptions in only 2 fewer games started. His season was also cut short by a neck stinger that eventually required surgery, ending his season.
Watching Vander Esch play, he’s a dynamic player with sideline-to-sideline speed and good instincts to get to the football. One of the things that stood out to me watching him is that on almost every play, he is within 5 yards of the ball by the time the play is dead, even if the play broke opposite to his initial position. I think that is due to 3 traits: he is great at reading the play and anticipating the movement of the ball, he has sideline-to-sideline speed, he never quits on a play, and doesn’t stop moving until the whistle is blown. He is very good in coverage, rarely getting beat when matched up man-to-man, but also rarely getting the ball thrown his way because QBs avoided him.
He’s also a plus in run defense, but with some caveats. His speed and anticipation make him great at defending runs sideline-to-sideline by getting to the ball, but he needs to improve the angles he takes on tackles and sometimes doesn’t wrap up well enough to stop the ball carrier. I saw far too many tackles he missed or nearly missed due to poor angles. In addition, his greatest weakness in run defense is his inability to shed blocks. Once an OL or TE gets hands on him, Vander Esch is likely to get blocked out of the play, and this is a problem that goes back to college. Part of it is technique, but part of it is power too, he still has some way to go in developing NFL upper body strength. Overall, he’s still a plus in run defense due to his ability to get to the ball carrier anywhere on the field, but needs to improve on his ability to stop the ball carrier once he’s there.
Vander Esch is also extremely versatile and lined up at all 3 off ball LB positions last year (WILL, MIKE, and SAM). My impression from watching him is that he primarily lined up at WILL, which is the position he played most in college and which takes greatest advantage of his ability in the passing game.
So why did Vander Esch’s production drop so precipitously between seasons? Watching him play, I think a lot of the drop in productivity is due to QBs avoiding him in the passing game and playcallers making sure he’s blocked up and accounted for in the running game. There’s not much he can do about QBs avoiding him, but he will need to work on his strength and technique shedding blocks as well as his tackling technique if he wants to be a bigger factor in run defense.
One last issue needs to be mentioned, which is Vander Esch’s history of neck injuries that go back to college. Apparently, 5 teams flagged him at the Combine due to his medicals, and his most recent surgery was to repair “spinal stenosis with a concomitant disc herniation” in his neck. There’s more about what he has here, but my short summary is that “spinal stenosis” in this case means an underlying predisposition to nerves being pinched in his neck due to narrow bone channels for those nerves, and may possibly result in a greater future likelihood of nerve injuries in his neck. I’m not a medical doctor though, so MDs feel free to weigh in.
Overall, I think Vander Esch is a very good LB who is great at defending the pass and good at defending the run, but with a few issues to improve upon in the latter category. He also has some possibly serious medical issues that will require future monitoring.
Leighton Vander Esch
Cowboys vs Giants, Week 1 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube
[6:38] Vander Esch (55) lines up top of screen as the MIKE. He keeps his eyes on the QB the whole time, reading the play as it unfolds and mirroring Eli Manning as he attempts to run to the vacated edge. Vander Esch is able to use his sideline-to-sideline speed to quickly fill the gap left by his teammates in coverage, although he splits the sack with Demarcus Lawrence due to Vander Esch doing a poor job wrapping up.
This play highlights Vander Esch’s ability to read the play and his sideline-to-sideline speed, as well as a bit of an issue he has with inconsistency taking good angles and wrapping up.
Leighton Vander Esch
Cowboys vs Vikings, Week 10 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube
[6:00] Vander Esch again lines up top of screen as the WILL. He again reads the play well and sees where the ball is going right away, running up to get a tackle on the TE to limit this play to a short gain for no 1st down. This tackle limits the Vikings to a field goal where they could have scored a TD with another set of downs. This again highlights Vander Esch’s read and react ability and speed getting to the ball and to, this time, make a clean tackle, as well as his overall utility in pass defense.
[8:47] Vander Esch lines up middle of screen as the SAM. He reads the run play well and manages to avoid his blocks and catch the RB from behind for a big tackle just short of the goal line. This again shows his ability to read the play and speed in running to the opposite side of the field to get a tackle from behind to prevent a TD. Not many LBs could have run from the opposite side of the field to catch up to the RB and tackle from behind like this.
[11:20] Vander Esch lines up middle of the screen. He diagnoses the play quickly and runs to the correct side, but gets blown up on a second level block and knocked to the ground. This play highlights what I think was one of Vander Esch’s few weaknesses, that he gets blocked out of plays and knocked to the ground too easily for a player of his caliber, resulting in Vander Esch being a liability in run defense if he is accounted for by the blocking scheme.
Nathan Gerry, Philadelphia Eagles
Nathan Gerry (pronounced “GARY”) started all four years of his college career with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Though he started out as a linebacker, he was moved to strong safety his sophomore year and played there for the rest of his time in college. He had a pretty good Combine, though at 6’2”, 218 lbs, and running the 40 in 4.58 seconds, he was a bit light to play linebacker. The Eagles drafted Gerry in the 5th round of the 2017 draft.
The Eagles moved Gerry back to linebacker. He served in primarily a backup role his first two seasons, spending some of his time on the practice squad and only starting in 3 games over those two years. He was finally given a starting role in 2019, starting in 12 games. He played mostly at the SAM linebacker spot in the games I watched, but his usage seemed to vary quite a bit week to week, and he lined up at the MIKE and WILL positions a fair amount as well.
Watching Gerry play, he’s more or less what I would expect a 5th round pick to look like in year 3. He shows good effort and attention to his responsibilities, but his athleticism, instincts, ability to read the play, and ability in coverage are below average. He is downright terrible at beating blocks and tackling. Although he has gained some weight and is now listed at 230 lbs, he is still undersized for a LB and looks like it as he gets pushed around on the field.
Gerry seems to have decent play recognition given that last year was his first as a starter, but is still a bit slow to recognize the play and bites way too hard on fakes, which often results in him getting pulled out of position. Although not terribly slow, Gerry doesn’t have the makeup speed of a player like Vander Esch to recover from mistakes. All of this makes Gerry below average in pass defense, but with room to grow as he gains experience and gets better/faster at reading plays. I doubt he has the athletic upside or instincts to be great in pass defense, but he could certainly grow to be NFL average.
His problems getting off blocks and tackling are more concerning. After starting 4 years in college and serving as a backup for 2 years in the NFL, he should have better technique than he does. His angles could be improved, but the bigger problem seems to be his ability to wrap up and stay on his feet (I saw him go to the ground too many times while tackling and blocking). I think his problems with tackling and getting off blocks is due to lack of functional play strength and mass. It remains a question if he can not only gain the needed mass and strength to play LB, but also do so without losing speed. All of this makes him a liability in run defense and a question mark to get better.
Overall, I think Gerry is below average in pass defense and bad in run defense. Although he might be able to improve several of his issues in pass defense with experience, it’s more of a question if he can improve much in run defense, as I think those problems stem from lack of functional play strength. He may benefit from losing weight and moving to more of a hybrid safety role.
Eagles @ Cowboys, Week 7 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube
[3:03] Gerry (number 47) lines up as the SAM top of screen. He reads the play after some hesitation and eventually breaks outside in the direction of the ball, but is blocked by the pulling LG (Connor Williams, 52) and unable to shed the block for several yards. When he finally does get free of the block, he whiffs on the tackle attempt and allows the RB to get a 1st down. This play highlights Gerry’s weakness in getting past blocks (which I saw numerous times) as well as his poor tackling ability.
[3:55] Gerry again lines up as the SAM at the top of the screen. He misreads the play action, biting hard on the run fake and abandoning his zone, which allows the TE to run free into the endzone to receive the TD. I noticed Gerry frequently had trouble reading plays well, usually taking a couple of seconds too long to react and sometimes biting on a fake and getting out of position.
Eagles vs Patriots, Week 11 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube
[3:04] Gerry lines up as the MIKE this time. He initially bites on Brady’s eye movement and opens up the middle of the field, but recovers quickly as Brady instead passes to TE Ben Watson near the spot Gerry just vacated. Gerry recovers quickly enough to chase Watson, but doesn’t have the speed to gain on the 38 year old TE. Still, Gerry doesn’t give up on the play.
I think this is a play where a better LB like Vander Esch would have been quicker to read the play and keep his zone guarded, and would have had the speed to chase Watson down from behind if he did give up the pass.
[5:35] Gerry lines up top of screen as the WILL. He actually seems to do a decent job reading the play this time, initially dropping back into coverage once he diagnoses the pass, but rushing up when he realizes it will be a screen pass to RB Rex Burkhead.
Gerry runs up and does a good job evading the pulling center to get into the backfield, but does a poor job taking his angle and wrapping up on the tackle attempt, allowing Burkhead to run through the tackle and around the edge for a big first down. This is about as good as it gets for Gerry in terms of play recognition and avoiding blocks, but he was still unable to seal the edge due to his poor tackling.
Jon Bostic, Washington Redskins
Jon Bostic was a top national ILB prospect coming out of high school. He started his sophomore year in college on a talented Florida Gators defense, playing primarily MIKE LB and becoming known for his ability to run sideline-to-sideline and deliver big hits. He could have declared for the draft in his junior year, but elected to return his senior year and tallied 62 total tackles, including 6.5 for loss and three sacks in 13 games. He had a tremendous Combine, measuring in at 6’1” and 245 lbs and running the 40 in 4.61 seconds. Bostic was taken by the Chicago Bears in the 2nd round, 50th overall, in the 2013 NFL draft.
Watching him play, Bostic seems like an all-around competent MLB with no glaring weaknesses, but no exceptional strengths either, though I think he does have plus athleticism and is pretty good in coverage. I don’t know if he lost weight last year, but he really seemed to fly all over the field and was much faster than I have seen our previous ILBs play. He seemed to have pretty good sideline-to-sideline speed (though not as good as Vander Esch), and could contain either edge if he started in the middle. He was also better than I was expecting in coverage, possessing the athleticism to run with any TE or RB man-to-man and not allowing much separation. Bostic also shows good instincts and awareness in coverage; he knows his responsibility in a zone defense and can read the play well to get where the ball is going, though he is competent rather than elite in that regard. He is also competent at directing the players around him to get them in place based on what he sees in the offensive formation.
Although Bostic doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses, I’d say he’s a bit better guarding against the pass than the run based on last year’s tape. He struggles a bit shedding blocks (though not nearly as much as Gerry) and takes just a tick longer than ideal identifying where the play is going to go. Still, his speed makes Bostic a threat to defend any run outside, and he’s no slouch defending runs up the middles so long as he can get off blocks. Bostic is a good tackler and rarely lets a ball carrier slip by him if he’s able to wrap up.
Overall, I think Bostic is about NFL average in run defense and slightly above average in pass defense due to his speed and ability to stick with a pass catcher man-to-man. He is a competent player best suited to the MIKE LB position, though I think he’d make a capable WILL and his speed could even make him useful blitzing from a SAM spot as well.
Redskins vs Patriots, Week 5 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube
[6:29] Bostic (53) lines up as the left ILB at the bottom of the screen, with both the OLBs lined up forward at the line. Before the snap, you can see he notices the motion of the RB coming down and anticipates a pass to the RB, so Bostic motions Ryan Anderson to go into coverage. After the snap, Bostic matches up with Patriots TE Ryan Izzo on a crossing route and allows very little separation. Bostic’s instincts about the RB motion prove correct, Bolden runs outside on a fade route and easily gets separation from Anderson, catching the deep pass to get a TD.
Although Anderson got beat, Bostic did a great job here recognizing the play, directing the defense, and staying in coverage on his man, allowing very little separation.
[5:55] Bostic lines up in the middle near the endzone. He initially scans his left and seems to lock in on Patriots slot WR Jakobi Meyers (16) as a likely target, but sees that he is covered and shifts his attention to the other side of the field. As the play progresses and starts to break down, Bostic scans back to find Meyers becoming uncovered behind him in the endzone. Even as Meyers cuts back to get open, Bostic matches up with him and keeps him covered to deny the TD. In the end, Brady has to throw the ball away with all of his targets covered.
Bostic did a very good job here staying aware of receiving threats in the defensive backfield and moving up to fill a hole in coverage where it looked like Meyers may have otherwise been able to get open due to improvisation. This play shows Bostic’s field awareness and ability to improvise in coverage.
Redskins vs Vikings, Week 8 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube
[1:04] Bostic lines up as the left ILB. He sees an open path to Cousins and runs for him, getting pressure and forcing Cousins to throw for a checkdown for minimal gain. Bostic’s speed makes him a good blitzer and could make him capable in a SAM role going forward.
[3:53] Bostic lines up as the MIKE. He covers TE Kyle Rudolph as he runs up to the middle, but keeps his eyes on Cousins and reads the pass to WR Olabisi Johnson, who is left open after Landon Collins whiffs on a tackle attempt. Bostic puts on a burst of speed and tackles Johnson from behind before he can gain too many yards.
This play again shows Bostic’s field awareness, but also highlights his sideline-to-sideline speed and tackling ability, which make him a plus in run defense as well.
A look at the top of the depth chart for each team
Of course, no position group consists of just one star player. In a sport that is as physically demanding as football, one in which player injuries are common, the unit depth is as important a factor as the skill of the star players.
Here, we’ll take a look at the top of the depth chart for each team — the pool of players from which the ones on the final 53 seem likely to be chosen. Not all the players listed will make the team, and I might easily miss — especially for the Redskins’ division rivals — players who will make the Week 1 roster, but this list should give some idea of the relative depth of the four positional groups.
- Leighton Vander Esch
- Jaylon Smith
- Sean Lee
- Joe Thomas
- Luke Gifford
- Justin March
- Nathan Gerry
- TJ Edwards
- Duke Riley
- Jatavis Brown
- Davion Taylor
- Shaun Bradley
- Alex Singleton
- Blake Martinez
- Ryan Connelly
- Josiah Tauaefa
- David Mayo
- Tae Crowder
- T.J. Brunson
- Devante Downs
- John Bostic
- Reuben Foster
- Shaun Dion Hamilton
- Thomas Davis
- Cole Holcomb
- Josh Harvey-Clemons
Who is the best off-the-ball linebacker in the NFC East?
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Leighton Vander Esch
Shaun Dion Hamilton
Which NFC East team has the BEST off-the-ball LB group (taking backups into account) in the division?
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Which NFC East team has the WEAKEST off-the-ball LB group (taking backups into account) in the division?
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Will Reuben Foster ever play a regular season down in a burgundy & gold NFL uniform?
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