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It looks like Eagles' linebacker competition is just about over


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It looks like Eagles' linebacker competition is just about over

Cunningham appears to be the favorite for one of the starting LB jobs

By Reuben Frank, Eagles Insider  Published August 23, 2023


They haven’t announced anything, but they don’t need to.

Zach Cunningham, who joined the Eagles on Aug. 6 along with Myles Jack, sure seems like the likely opening-day starter.

Everything we’ve seen lately at training camp points to Cunningham as the Eagles’ starting off-ball linebacker opposite second-year pro Nakobe Dean.

Cunningham has been getting an increasingly generous portion of 1st-team reps, and during the Eagles’ joint practice Tuesday against the Colts he got every rep with the starting defense.

That doesn’t mean the battle for that starting spot is definitely over. Things can change, and around here they often do quickly. But opening day in Foxboro is 18 days away, and it’s hard to imagine the Eagles would give one guy the lion’s share of starting reps – and all the reps Tuesday – if he wasn’t going to be the starter.

Cunningham also took the first set of reps on Saturday and Sunday, although Christian Elliss worked in later on Saturday and both Elliss and Nicholas Morrow on Sunday. The last time Cunningham wasn’t the initial linebacker with the 1’s was Aug. 14, when Morrow started out with the first group.

The competition for the second off-ball linebacker spot alongside Dean began with Morrow, one-time 4th-round pick Davion Taylor, third-year undrafted pro Elliss and special teamer Shaun Bradley. 

The whole competition process began with the incontrovertible notion that Dean, the Eagles’ 3rd-round pick last year, would be one of the linebacker starters. Defensive coordinator Sean Desai identified Dean back in the spring as the guy on defense who would wear the green-dot helmet, which puts him in communication with the coaching staff. That makes him the quarterback of the defense. 

The Eagles are very high on Dean, and their confidence in him is one of the reasons they felt comfortable allowing 2022 starters T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White to leave via free agency.

But who would be the second linebacker?

Morrow, a five-year veteran who’s started 46 games for the Raiders and Bears, has had an underwhelming training camp, although he was still getting occasional 1st-team reps at practice on Sunday. But those starter reps have decreased.

The Eagles released Taylor – their 3rd-round pick in 2020 - on Aug. 6, and the same day signed Cunningham and Jack, two veterans who have each started over 75 games. Jack actually got the first crack at 1st-team reps, but he was quickly demoted to the second team and then even the third team before announcing his retirement on Sunday.

Bradley, mainly a special teamer, was never really in the mix for the starting spot and went on Injured Reserve last Monday with a season-ending Achilles injury.

All of that activity left Elliss and Cunningham as the last true candidates for that second starting spot. 

Elliss, an undrafted free agent in 2021, has had a very good camp but has only played in seven games in his career with only 29 reps on defense. Considering Dean’s lack of experience – just 34 snaps last year as a rookie – it’s possible the Eagles preferred a starting combo of Dean and Cunningham, who’s played over 4,000 snaps.

Cunningham may not be the long-term solution, but it's looking like he'll get the first crack at it.

Last year with the Titans, an elbow injury limited Cunningham to six starts and a career-low 205 snaps.

Cunningham had a Pro Football Focus overall grade of 60.3, which ranked 57th out of 100 linebackers who played at least 200 snaps. His 52.0 run defense grade ranked 79th and his 65.9 coverage grade was 31st.

For the sake of comparison, Edwards – who left to sign with the Bears – had an 84.8 grade last year, 2nd-highest in the NFL behind Bobby Wagner, and White – who’s now with the Cards – had a 65.0 grade, 44th-highest of those 100 linebackers playing 200 or more snaps.

The Titans released Cunningham after the season, and he was out of football until the Eagles signed him 2 1/2 weeks ago.

From 2017 through 2020, Cunningham started 59 of 64 games for the Texans and had 6 ½ sacks, a pick-6, 503 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 15 pass knockdowns, 11 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.


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