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Position Battle: SAM LB

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Some call it the SAM LB, others the strong side linebacker, or Madden players call it the LOLB... Whatever you call it, Dhani Jones has occupied the position for the past 2 years after Carlos Emmons left. The job of the SAM LB is to support the run, bring pressure on the pass rush, and cover the tight end who he usually lines directly up against.

In 2004, Dhani's shortcomings were masked a bit by the fact that the front four were deep and effective. The team as a whole got 47 sacks and the secondary was full of pro bowlers. In 2005 however, when the secondary was on it's heels due to the lack of pass rush and the defensive line was riddled with injury and losses to free agency (turns out Burgess was a big loss...) Dhani struggled mightily. He had trouble shedding blocks to support the run and rush the passer, hence less guitar strums... He got absolutely abused in coverage as Shockey, Witten, & Cooley(the 3 TEs in our division) all had big games against the Birds. Witten in game one had 7 rec for 80 yds, Cooley had 7 for 87, Shockey had a TD in one game and 10 rec for 107 yds in another. In the NFC East, to be successful these TEs can not be allowed to dominate like they did last year. Now, few if any SAMs in the NFL can consistently cover TEs of that caliber and they'll eventually all need help. Michael Lewis in particular certainly needs to do a better job helping the SAM in coverage, however the TE was primarily Dhani's responsibility and he did a poor job.

Even Andy Reid, who never calls out players in the media, criticizes Dhani in the offseason saying he needs to play better. There were options in Free agency such as Julian Peterson that could have helped to solve the SAM spot, but the Eagles passed on them and chose to look to the draft to fill the hole. In the 3rd round the Eagles traded up to get Chris Gocong, a defensive end from Cal Poly. You can check out the scouting report on him from school here. It's not all uncommon for smaller, fast defensive ends from college to be drafted to play SAM in the NFL. Carlos Emmons was a college DE, rookie standouts from last year Demarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman were both DEs converted to SAMs (both excelled as pass rushers and not in coverage). Terrell Suggs in Baltimore is among the best converted DE to SAMs in the league. Gocong seems to have the speed to play the position, he has rushed the passer from the standup position like he'll have to in the NFL, and he has shown an uncanny ability at the college level to get to the passer and blow up run plays in the backfield. What he has no experience in is pass coverage, which will likely be the biggest learning curve he has in his transition to a new position.

The good news on Gocong is that he's a very smart kid, certainly with the physical attributes & the nonstop motor to play the position. The learning curve is going to be tough, and with the fact that he played against lesser college competition at the 1-AA level and was only a 3rd round pick and it's not at all unlikely that he's going to take a year to learn the position. Merriman excelled in his first year making the transition, but he had played some LB in college and was a top pick.

So while this will be a closely watched battle in camp, don't look for Gocong to beat out Dhani in year one. However, Gocong shouldn't be expected to sit the bench the whole year. A guy with his skills and pedigree as a pass rusher should be able to get on the field in situations where Jim Johnson needs to bring some extra pressure off the edge. In their first year DE-SAM converts has success, Ware had 8 sacks, Merriman had 10 sacks, and Suggs had 12 sacks. Like I said before though, these guys were 1st round picks... Regardless the potential is there for Gocong to share the SAM spot with Dhani for the first year as he learns the position.

Also, there's an undrafted free agent from last year named Greg Richmond who was hurt during the entire 05 campaign. He's another college DE turned SAM who piled up a good amount of sacks at Oklahoma state. It appears that early on in minicamp he's 2nd on the depth chart at SAM, but I'd be surprised to see him there by the time training camp rolls around. He should stick around long enough to work hard and push Jones and Gocong before he gets cut or makes the practice squad.

Coming up later this week, one the most competitive and wide open spots on the roster. Wide Receiver...

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