In late August, during otherwise forgettable preseason practices, the Eagles experimented with a new lineup combination at linebacker in case Jordan Hicks was injured this season.
The Eagles will now need to use those contingencies for the rest of the season after Hicks ruptured his right Achilles tendon on Monday, halting the middle linebacker's third year after seven games. It's the second time in three seasons that Hicks will go on injured reserve and comes during a year when he departed three games early with injury. It's the second time that Hicks has torn his Achilles tendon; he ruptured the left tendon in college.
The injury devastated the teammates of the popular Eagle; tight end Zach Ertz, who rooms with Hicks on the road, said he almost he had tears in his eyes when he saw Hicks come off the field. The Eagles are left without their defensive signal-caller and one of the top young players on the team. But Hicks has been plagued by injuries since training camp, so the defense has prepared for the possibility.
They spend most of their time in the nickel formation, when only two linebackers are on the field. Those linebackers will be starters Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks, as long as Kendricks is healthy. That would require Bradham moving over to Hicks' spot, wearing a headset and making the calls for the defense. Bradham and Kendricks usually play the same position in nickel, but defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wanted to find a way for them to play together if Hicks was sidelined. It started during the summer and has been used this season.
"It is part of that guy's role is getting everybody on the same page, and that's something that Nigel has never really had to do before," Schwartz said last week. "He's embraced it and he's done a really good job with it."
Bradham and Kendricks are both playing at a high level this season. In Week 6 against Carolina, when Hicks exited with a calf injury, the two linebackers were key to the Eagles' defensive success. Kendricks had 15 tackles and Bradham had 10 tackles in that game.
"Both of those guys have stepped in and tackled well and been active and done a lot of things for us," Schwartz said last week.
Kendricks missed Monday's game with a hamstring injury. It was the first game Kendricks missed this season in what's been a turnaround campaign. He has not been shy about his desire for more playing time, and he'll now be an every-down linebacker again. The Eagles need Kendricks to continue his production, but also to stay healthy. He's missed time in all six of his NFL seasons.
If Kendricks is healthy, the Eagles should survive with a Bradham-Kendricks combination. But an injury to either player would test the Eagles' depth, which will already be needed when the Eagles are in their base defense that requires three linebackers on the field. That formation is especially important on run defense. The Eagles rank No. 1 in the NFL against the run.
The Eagles could use Joe Walker or Najee Goode at middle linebacker in base. Walker, a 2016 seventh-round pick who is in his first season after spending last year on injured reserve, is more of a natural middle linebacker. Goode, a veteran who has been with the Eagles since 2013, can play multiple spots. He filled in for Kendricks on Monday but could also play in Hicks' place.
"Right now, before I go out there, I always remind myself which position I'm playing and I go out there and play," said Goode, who has two career two starts. "When I go out there, there's so many things we get tipped off during the week. So when I go out there, I reset myself each play."
Coach Doug Pederson planned on meeting with Schwartz this week to go over the possibilities. The Eagles might not have one set replacement for Hicks, adjusting based on situation and matchups. There are games when the Eagles could even use a three-safety package with Corey Graham joining the starting safeties instead of using three linebackers in base. Kamu Grugier-Hill and rookie Nate Gerry are the other linebackers on the roster, although Grugier-Hill's calling card is special teams and Gerry is still learning linebacker after converting from safety.
"There's some flexibility there, too," Pederson said. "And it may take two guys to fill that spot, just like we've done at other positions."
Beyond the short-term need to replace Hicks, the Eagles always need to see how Hicks recovers from this injury. He proved last year that he can be a difference-making linebacker, entering into Pro Bowl consideration and becoming a leader on defense. But his injury history is difficult to ignore, and this is a challenging injury from which to recover. The possibility of injury made it understandable to keep Kendricks even when he requested a trade. The Eagles now need Kendricks and Bradham to keep the middle of the defense afloat.