Monday, August 3, 2009

Stewart Bradley Grounded on Flight Night

When the Eagles filled seemingly all the gaps the team had this offseason, the words Eagles and Super Bowl were beginning to get thrown around again. Jason Peters, Stacy Andrews, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Cornelius Ingram, Sean Jones, Leonard Weaver, Ellis Hobbs, Rashad Baker helped load a team that went to the NFC Championship game with even more talent. But with the loss of Brian Dawkins, the death of Jim Johnson and, now, the torn ACL of Stewart Bradley, can this team, specifically this defense, be expected to repeat its success of 2008?

While the loss of Dawk hurt the fans, the Eagles at least made moves to fill the void on the field: Quintin Demps has talent all over the place and Sean Jones, by all accounts, can play some damn fine football. Jim Johnson's battle with cancer forced him to step down as the defensive coordinator, and ultimately, took his life. No one knows how missing one of the greatest minds to ever grace the sidelines would truly affect the defense, but the Eagles' brass seemed confident that not all that much would change under Sean McDermott, who, after all, learned everything he knew from the man himself.

But now, with Bradley seemingly lost for the year, is the cumulative effect of these three things too much for the Eagles to overcome? The middle linebacker is an immensely important position, not just for his play but for getting the team lined up correctly and for making the play calls on the defense. Without Dawk, the most experienced playmaker on the defense, Johnson, the brains behind the madness, and Bradley, the quarterback in the linebacking corps — how are the Eagles going to adjust, communicate and play on defense this year?

This is not to say the Eagles can't have another great defense. As we've all seen over the years, the Birds don't value linebackers as much as other franchises in their defensive scheme, so the loss of Bradley may be one this team can handle rather easily. But that doesn't make this news any easier to take. Bradley is coming off a fantastic 2008 season, leading the team in tackles and tackles for loss, and he seemed to grow into a leadership role as the season wore on.

His loss will hurt. The question now becomes, who will take his spot? On the team's unofficial depth chart, Joe Mays is listed as the second-string middle linebacker. We've heard about the great camp Mays had last season, and his spot behind Bradley seems to confirm this guy can play a little bit. But Mays have very limited experience, so you have to wonder whether a team that considers itself serious contenders this year will feel comfortable starting what equates to a rookie at middle linebacker.

The other obvious choice would be Omar Gaither. Last year, Gaither had a disappointing season at weakside linebacker, losing his job to Akeem Jordan. However, two seasons ago, Gaither filled in admirably at middle linebacker, looking more comfortable in the middle then than he did on the outside last season. Perhaps he can move back inside and become the player the Eagles thought he could be.

It should be an interesting battle to see what shakes out, but this without question is a big blow to the defense that raises more questions than the team would have liked heading into training camp.

With no Dawkins, no Jim Johnson and now no Stewart Bradley, just what can we expect out of the defense in 2009?

BallHype: hype it up!

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