Linebacker linebacker T.J. Edwards is in many ways the poster child for the Eagles’ youth movement this offseason.
Just 23-years old, Edwards is listed as starting just four games last season. A closer looks shows that Edwards didn’t play in more than 36% of the snaps in any of those games. In fact, overall, Edwards played in only 11% of the defensive snaps during the 2020 season.
Yet with the offseason nearly over, and both free agency and the NFL Draft in the rear view mirror, it is clear the Eagles couldn’t be more excited about penciling him in as their starting middle linebacker.
Edwards seems ready to prove them correct for doing so.
“It is definitely exciting to have an opportunity in front of me to show what I can do,” Edwards said. “It is encouraging to have guys around me that are all kind of in that same boat.”
The team’s belief that Edwards, 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, is ready for an increased role next season has been clear in how they have handled the offseason. They moved on from Nigel Bradham, a solid veteran who was one of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s favorite players. They passed on taking a linebacker in the first-round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and didn’t make any significant additions in free agency.
All of their moves, or lack-thereof, have set the stage for Edwards to step into the starting role, and the linebacker has been working hard this offseason in Chicago to go out and earn the job when training camp starts later this month.
“Nothing has really been said to me personally, I am really just going in trying to earn that spot. But for me I have never been a person who says I wanna do all this, do all that. I have always been a person that wants to go out there and prove to them that I can do it,” Edwards said. “In my book it is on my shoulders on what I do this year, what my role is. I am really excited to get there and show I can handle those things.”
The Eagles got their first look at what Edwards could do in a game when Bradham went down for four games in the middle of the season last year. Edwards got 52 snaps on defense during the Eagles’ four-game stretch against Dallas, Buffalo, Chicago and New England, totaling 11 tackles in the process. While Edwards wasn’t the main reason for the defense’s success, the unit didn’t miss a beat with Edwards in for Bradham, as they allowed 17-points or less in three of the four games with Edwards in the middle.
The stretch of games proved to be big for not only the team’s confidence in Edwards, but for the linebackers confidence that he could play at the next level.
“I think it was really big. We had a bunch of veteran guys who were playing really good football, so in practice, those guys were the ones-and-the-twos. So we were getting maybe one-or-two reps a practice, but that is just how it goes in the NFL. You aren’t gonna get those opportunities to show what you can do, so you have to be ready at all times, to make a play or to prove that you know what you are doing and you can play at this level,” Edwards said. “I think just getting in there, it was one of those things where someone went down and I had to go in, and at first it was definitely different being out there on defense and lining up, because I hadn’t done it in a while. But getting out there with contact, striking linemen, really helped my confidence and just in terms of remembering it just football. Just got to keep grinding at that and keep getting better and things will happen.”
Edwards knows to take that next step and become an every-down linebacker for the Eagles, he has some areas of his game he wants to improve. Considered a two-down linebacker out of Wisconsin that was excellent against the run, Edwards is setting out this season to prove he can hold his own in coverage, allowing him to stay on the field for every snap.
“I definitely want people to know going into this year, and I’m not just going to talk about it, I want to go out and prove that I can be that three-down linebacker, and I can cover in space and tackle in space,” Edwards said. “I think that is one thing you can say all that, but until you go out and do it, it is hard for most people to believe. So that is really what my main focus has been on. I just want to go out there and show what I really can do.”
The youth movement at linebacker starts with Edwards, but overall, the Eagles head into 2020 with a very young, inexperienced group of linebackers, including Nate Gerry, Davion Tayor, Jatavis Brown, Shaun Bradley and Duke Riley. Of the group, only Gerry and Brown have started double-digit games in a season, and Brown isn’t even a lock to make the roster.
“I think TJ is a really good player. The past three years I’ve been there, I think he for a rookie he was ahead of schedule. He has natural instincts playing linebacker and was coached well at Wisconsin. He is instinctive and also intelligent,” Gerry said. “For him, especially going into year two, being able to figure out the defense more in-depth, that is going to help him quite a bit and he is going to make a lot more plays. I think TJ is a hell of player.”
There are certainly questions about the group, but there is also no denying that with Edwards and Gerry, the upside is there.
Proving the Eagles correct, and justifying the youth movement, however, starts in the middle with Edwards.
“I think it is a great opportunity for all the young guys. Me personally, I am super excited for what is in front of me, what I can do, and what I can show to these guys,” Edwards said. “It is going to be a good time.”