Good morning, Eagles fans. I'm writing this before the Eagles host the San Francisco 49ers Sunday as nearly two-touchdown favorites. That illustrates where the 6-1 Eagles stand at this point of the season — and where the 0-7 49ers stand, too. This is the Friday edition of Early Birds, which now comes to you five days a week. The Friday pre-game version will look similar to how it's looked since we launched in September. It's free to sign up here to receive it in your inbox every weekday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
You've read much about the linebackers this week, and for good reason. With Jordan Hicks out for the season, the Eagles must find a way to continue thriving without their middle linebacker. The group will be in focus on Sunday when the Eagles host the 49ers because the biggest threat posed by the 49ers' offense is their running backs – whether it's on the ground or in the air.
The Eagles will turn to Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks as every-down linebackers. They will play in base defense and also stay on the field in nickel. Bradham, who's the Eagles' leading tackler, has been one of the team's best players this year. He'll wear the defensive headset and take Hicks' responsibilities in the nickel. He's finally earning recognition he believes is long deserved. Kendricks' whirlwind Eagles career will take on another chapter; he's wanted a bigger role, and he'll get it. The Eagles should feel comfortable with those two on the field – as long as Kendricks remains healthy and plays as he did the first two months of the season.
When they're in base defense, there's less reason for optimism with Najee Goode and Joe Walker, who could both see time at that spot. Those two must prove they will not be a liability on a defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL against the run. The Eagles could also play a three-safety package and use Malcolm Jenkins in the box, where he's excelled this season.
San Francisco's starting quarterback is rookie C.J. Beathard, and it's unrealistic for coach Kyle Shanahan to expect Beathard to come into Philadelphia on the road and outplay Carson Wentz. A big part of the offense will be the running backs. Carlos Hyde averages 4.3 yards per carry, but he's also dangerous through the air. He has 27 pass targets this year, which is the second most on the 49ers roster. Since Beathard became the quarterback two weeks ago, Hyde has nine catches. Backup running back Matt Breida will also be involved. Whether it's with a screen pass or a wheel route or by flexing the running backs out wide, the 49ers will likely try to isolate a linebacker against a running back and win the matchup. The Eagles' new-look linebacker combinations must be up for the task.
Zach Berman: How have you spent the past seven weeks?
Taylor Hart: "I've been working out and I've been working with O-line coach Jackie Slater. I've been working with him back in California and me and him have been working, just waiting for a phone call. …Tackle, guard, we kind of worked on everything. I wanted to become a better football player, and he's helped me with it."
Zach Berman: Did you consider going back to the defensive line, or were you committed to staying on the offensive line?
Taylor Hart: "When I went home, I only worked on offensive line. That was what we were going for and I want to be the best I can. …I'm fully invested in it. It's tough being at home for awhile. But I'm going to stick with it and try to prove myself with it here."
Zach Berman: It's hard enough to make the NFL at one position. You've now made it now at two positions. Have you taken a step back to consider your accomplishment?
Taylor Hart: "Not yet. I'm just going through a roller coaster right now. I'm just happy to be back here, looking forward to helping these guys anyway I can."
Knowing Howie Roseman, my guess is he's exploring the trade market. But if I had to guess, they don't reach a deal — even though if I was in his shoes, I'd be aggressive. Midseason trades are difficult in the NFL because it's hard to acclimate a contributing player at midseason and rentals are not often appealing. Plus, the Eagles already lack draft capital after dealing their second- and third-round picks. They'll want to hold their draft picks closely. That said, it would be wise for them to see if they can move a late Day-3 pick for a veteran who can help. The Eagles have a legitimate chance this year. They need to strike. Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.
As for Jordan Hicks, he'll go on injured reserve. The Eagles are seeing what to do with that roster spot. They must be smart about signing a player from another team's practice squad because he would be required to stay on the Eagles' 53-man roster for three weeks. They could also wait until next week to see if there is a need at a position if there are further injuries.
Interesting question. No one will confuse me with Bill Belichick, but the skill player I'd look to stop is tight end Zach Ertz. I'd keep a safety over top him to try to avoid mismatches. That's a big part of the Eagles' third-down success. I'd also try to keep Carson Wentz in the pocket and get him to throw quickly. Wentz is so dangerous with off-schedule plays. You can't stop everything, but I'd want the Eagles to try to beat me on the ground.