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Eagles surveying outside linebackers to improve pass rush

MOBILE, Ala. -- A year after they passed on drafting a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker, the Eagles appear primed to fill a need after they spent a transitional season with converted defensive ends at those spots.

Ideally, the Eagles want outside linebackers who can rush the passer, set the edge and drop into coverage on both sides. That versatility increases the options that offensive play-callers and quarterbacks must consider when running plays.

The Eagles had one good option in free agent Connor Barwin last season. Trent Cole, who started on the other side, had a good year even though he was asked to move from end to linebacker. But he rushed on 78.2 percent of pass plays while Barwin rushed on 59.3 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis, who has said that he wants to move to a two-gap 3-4 scheme up front, would prefer to have more rush-cover balance. But there aren't many outside linebackers who can excel at both disciplines.

"You'd love to double up on those guys," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said Tuesday during Senior Bowl workouts. "That's the ideal scenario. You'd like to have guys that are really versatile and really good at everything they do. Hard-to-find guys that have all three of those skill sets."

The Senior Bowl has several prospects who could conceivably handle all of the above, although the top two outside linebackers declined an invitation here even though both are seniors.

Anthony Barr of UCLA and Khalil Mack of Buffalo have been projected by many draft analysts to go in the top 15 picks, which is why they opted not to attend the Senior Bowl. The Eagles have the No. 22 overall pick and won't likely be in play for either player unless they trade up.

But Brigham Young's Kyle Van Noy, Auburn's Dee Ford, Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu, Alabama's Adrian Hubbard and Missouri's Michael Sam are here and could be alternatives for the Eagles after the first round.

"It's hard to find explosive guys who can win with power, with speed, with length, with athleticism," Roseman said. "And they go very quickly on draft day. They go very quickly in free agency. It's not an easy thing to find."

Van Noy (6-foot-3, 244 pounds) did it all for the Cougars. As a junior, he said he rushed 70 percent of the time and recorded 13 sacks and forced six fumbles. But Van Noy's role changed as a senior and he instead dropped back on 70 percent of pass plays.

"I may not be phenomenal in every single role, but I feel like I can do everything at a high level," said Van Noy, who has received a second- or third-round draft grade from several draft analysts. "I think that teams like the versatility because it also shows on special teams."

Ford (6-2, 243) had an excellent senior season for Auburn, notching 101/2 sacks for the national championship runner-up. He played defensive end in college and could stay there in the NFL, but some teams may envision him more at outside linebacker because of his size.

He's an explosive edge rusher, but he has rushed mostly from a three-point stance and the Eagles would prefer a guy who can explode from a standing position.

Attaochu (6-3, 252) played 4-3 defensive end during his senior year after three seasons as a jack-of-all-trades outside linebacker. But he only rushed standing up even if he never dropped back in coverage.

"It was a blessing in disguise for me to tune up my pass-rushing skills and work on my hands and the (finer) aspects of the game," said Attaochu, who has a similar grade to Van Noy. "And I felt like I did a great job of doing that this season. It kind of made me a complete player."

He said he met with the Eagles on Monday night and mentioned the conversation he had with outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern.

"He just wanted to know a little bit about me," said Attaochu, who practiced Tuesday with a bandaged hand after he injured it on Monday. "He told me about the process and just told me how he's going to keep in touch with me and try to get and know me better between now and the combine."

Hubbard (6-6, 255) has great size. Eagles coach Chip Kelly has stressed having rangy defenders. Many considered Hubbard's career at Alabama to be an underachieving one, though. Sometimes players don't fully develop until the pros.

Hubbard said he dropped back more than he rushed in the Crimson Tide's 3-4 defense. Alabama coach Nick Saban attended practice and had a brief chat with his former players after Tuesday's session.

The Eagles aren't going to draft players just because they fit a certain scheme. They want talented prospects, first and foremost. That's one reason why former defensive ends Cole and Brandon Graham stayed.

Cole's transition was easier than Graham's, but he still didn't drop back very much. He's 31, but all of his $5 million salary is guaranteed next season. He still could be difficult to trade, although Kelly lauded his effort all season long.

Graham, the Eagles' 2010 first-round pick, is in the last year of his rookie contract. He has said he wants to start. Even if both Cole and Graham were to return, the Eagles may want to add versatile young players at outside linebacker.

But that is easier said than done.

"There's no tree outside the NovaCare that has ... outside linebackers that we can just pick off," Roseman said. "Sometimes you've got to utilize the players that you have and utilize their strengths."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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